Community Radio Volunteer Engagement in a Pandemic

This piece appeared in NFCB’s monthly newsletter. You can subscribe here:


Community radio stations, community media outlets and many other nonprofits are experiencing difficulties in engaging volunteers. In some cases, volunteers have withdrawn entirely, abandoning radio slots or otherwise unplugging from beloved institutions. In others, volunteers have decreased their involvement in online meetings and other activities. How can nonprofit media respond?
 
First, it is important to note that disengagement is not isolated to nonprofits. The pandemic and isolation are creating anxiety, depression and stress for employees at businesses nationwide. Vaccine distribution has given cause to be hopeful for a return to some normal activities, but researchers say eroded organizational culture and trust will take time to repair. In some instances, employers are bracing for a turnover tsunami of staff quitting to go elsewhere.
 
In addition, COVID-19 has ushered in a national mental health crisis, as well as reflection. Acute loneliness and other issues have been brought on by the pandemic, with substance abuse on the rise as a result. In other cases, people are deciding it’s time to change their routines, moving to new locations or making new practices a part of their everyday lives. In short, a lot is happening for volunteers in our community.
 
Parallel to these matters is a wider conversation about recognition and equity in organizations. Leaders are being asked to see and appreciate those who do the work in new ways, in the interests of belonging and retention. This moment calls for a fresh approach to helping community media volunteers to do their best.

How can a nonprofit media outlet like a community radio station re-engage its volunteers? Here are a few recommendations:

  • Mental health is a real concern that all organizations must talk about with volunteers. The CDC is among many organizations offering tools to help your staff and volunteers address potential issues they might be coping with. Make sure to acknowledge these topics to undercut shame and self-consciousness. Provide links and numbers to local resources as you can.
  • Distance between stations and volunteers can contribute to more tension. In some cases, the pandemic and political moment has changed our own beliefs, or the beliefs of others around us, or exacerbated old tensions, or transformed how we engage each other when conflicts arise. NFCB allies at the Solutions Journalism Network have recently put forth a new model called Complicating the Narratives, which could be a resource to you. It is aimed at helping people listen more to each other, and may be most successful given it is your internal community.
  • VolunteerHub’s volunteer retention rules could easily apply to an organization’s strategy during the pandemic. Are your volunteer expectations still appropriate? Are you checking in on volunteers with calls or personal interactions? Are you recognizing individual contributions (rather than a generic ‘thanks to our volunteers’) and thanking them directly as well as celebrating them to the group? Especially now, volunteers need your organization’s attention and praise. A few extra minutes make a difference to their personal lives and in their engagement in your shared mission.
  • As COVID-19 drags on, it’s valuable to remember why volunteers disengage and depart even in the best of times. Sometimes they feel underutilized; they feel their volunteer efforts are not supported; they feel they made a suggestion that was not acted on or responded to; and cliquishness are among the reasons volunteers quit. Now pile on job uncertainty, health worries and a post-covid pause to reconsider personal priorities and you’ll see how critical our work is in ensuring volunteer satisfaction. These findings may guide you in correcting issues before volunteers vanish.
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