A sense of community, value and accomplishment keeps them coming back
By Sara Celi
Larry Stulz is what some people might call a “super volunteer.” Last year, the Madeira-based retiree donated 1,500 hours – the equivalent of about 37.5 weeks of full-time work.
He divides his time among seven organizations: the Cincinnati Museum Center, Ohio River Paddlefest, Madeira Neighborhood Watch, the U.S. Air Force Museum, Carillon Park, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Cincinnati Aviation Historical Society.
Stulz is that dream volunteer many organizations would love to find, a man who returns year after year.
“Volunteers will come back as long as they have a sense of purpose,” he said. “And if a volunteer isn’t passionate about something, it’s not going to work.”
That’s a sentiment echoed through Greater Cincinnati’s broad range of nonprofits and philanthropic causes.
Volunteers must feel a sense of accomplishment if they are to come back again and again, or even increase their commitment, several local nonprofits have discovered.
“We want them to have a good experience and be prepared,” said Melissa Newman, executive director of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Spring and summer are busy times for this nonprofit, with a calendar packed full of walks, a gala, golf outings, car shows and other fundraisers. “For starters, when it comes to short-term events, we find that we have to be extremely organized for our volunteers,” JDRF’s Newman said.
Andrew Palmara, assistant director of docent learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum, said he works to create a rewarding experience for the 120 docents. Many give two to five hours a week volunteering at the museum. And many commit to two years or more of service.
“It’s important to me to validate what they do because they give so much of their time,” Palmara said. “I take every chance I get to acknowledge the important service they provide to the museum.”
Organizers say two types of volunteers are needed: those who commit for a one-time event, such as a 5K, and those who give time year-round, such as through committee work or weekly staffing. While the two main types often overlap, many organizations handle the two a little differently.
Take the Western & Southern Open. “The backbone of this tournament is volunteerism,” said Mary Conner, who took some time out from ball boy/ball girl auditions to discuss best practices for short-term volunteers. “We really try to send the message of appreciation and that they are the face of the tournament.”
Conner began her own involvement as a volunteer, then moved to a paid position about nine years ago.
She oversees about 1,400 people during the tournament. A typical volunteer works five shifts over the nine-day event.
“Many of our volunteers earn small benefits and rewards throughout tournament week. You wouldn’t think it would make a big deal, but it does. A few goodies go a long way,” she said.
That sentiment is heard frequently among those who work with volunteers.
“We could not function without volunteers. They are the heart of our mission,” said Elise Hyder, manager of donor and volunteer relations at the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. She said that, over the years, CYC staffers have learned there are nuances to working with that organization’s myriad volunteers. “We have also learned that it is crucial to . . . always follow up with a heartfelt thank you.”
Staffers at CYC are working on ways to create a rewarding experience at the Dreammakers Celebration on Oct. 15, as well as several other programs the group offers during the summer. Indeed, a reward system is one way the website TopNonProfits.com says organizers can make short-term volunteers feel appreciated. The site also suggests cultivating repeat or engaged volunteers for bigger roles, honoring them in small ways, creating a strong community of volunteers focused around an event and not forgetting the power of the phrase “thank you.”
Conner goes further. She suggests organizers engage in a weekly call with volunteers, stay on top of things with strict organization and provide a clear timetable for events and deadlines.
“This is like any other business, and you’ve got to have a plan,” Conner said. “But most of all, you need to create a fun atmosphere. As long as they are having fun, the volunteers will keep coming back.”
“The worst thing you can do for a volunteer is to have nothing for them to do,” said Hyder. “We want them to feel that their time is well spent.”
For Stulz, the “super volunteer,” that rings true. He said he cannot imagine a more rewarding way to spend his retirement years than in causes that are close to his heart and personality.
“I want to be the docent or the guide that wasn’t there when I was a kid,” he said.
Stulz is particularly looking forward to a highlight of his summer, the Ohio River Paddlefest, on Aug. 6. He serves as safety manager for the one-day celebration of canoeing and kayaking on the river. Each year, he said, is more rewarding than the last – just the way those responsible for recruiting and keeping volunteers would want it to be.
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