Effective Volunteer Programs

volunteer hands raised

For many nonprofits, volunteer “labor” is central to the way they serve audiences or constituents and fulfill their mission. Effective volunteers are akin to effective staff: they are highly motivated, they come with valuable skills and then work to develop others, they take on and uphold weighty responsibilities, and they represent the organization or institution at its best. Like staff, they should also be responsive to leadership they respect, and feel appreciated for their good work.
Today, more than ever, successful volunteer programs are run like human resources departments – recruiting, developing, retaining, recognizing, and rewarding volunteers’ work to benefit the nonprofit and the people or cause that it serves. The volunteer “experience” is central to a program’s success.
This primer on effective approaches to volunteer management offers tips, pointers, and structures for building a strong volunteer program at your nonprofit.

 

Volunteer Strategy

Be strategic. A volunteer program without a clear strategy around impact becomes a burden rather than an asset, hindering more than helping. Volunteers should help support your mission and fuel your vision. Answer these key questions when you design your volunteer program:
How can volunteers support your mission and vision? At its core, what is your nonprofit here to do? And what impact do you intend to have on the population you serve, the audiences you reach, and the causes you champion? With or without a formal strategic plan in place, your answers can help you imagine how volunteers can aid in achieving your mission and support your ambitions. Imagine what gaps in service or operations volunteers might fill, or the ways their contributions might expand your ability to impact so you can answer the “why” before you start to recruit volunteers.
How will you manage volunteers? Who will supervise, develop, evaluate, and recognize your volunteers? Volunteers require the time and attention of supervisory staff – just as employees do. Have a plan in place to ensure that volunteers have what they need to be successful at your nonprofit. Have honest conversations with your employees about their capacity to manage volunteers. Provide training and coaching for staff in volunteer management, just as you provide training in effective employee supervision. Without supervisor direction, support, and encouragement, the volunteer experience is diminished, and retention can be challenging.
How will you onboard and train volunteers? Treat new volunteers like you treat new staff. Provide an orientation to your nonprofit and to the role, reviewing your mission, vision, values, and programs to reinforce organizational alignment among volunteers. Make space for volunteers to connect with one another and relevant staff through icebreaker activities. For training, consider creating a volunteer handbook and pairing experienced volunteers with newcomers on assignments to help them learn the ropes.

 

Recruiting Volunteers

Recruit with purpose.Volunteers are more likely to find their work fulfilling if they’re putting skills and abilities they’re proud of to work in meaningful ways – just like employees. Recruit for specific roles in order to put a volunteer’s prior experience to work in ways that benefit your nonprofit and that make it easy for a volunteer to feel gratified as they succeed.
Create position descriptions. Provide a detailed description of responsibilities for specific, titled positions, so prospective volunteers can find a role that matches their talents, skills, and strengths. A volunteer position description should include:

  • Job Title
  • Objective: What’s the purpose of this role?
  • Location: Is the role onsite, remote, or hybrid?
  • Responsibilities: What kinds of tasks can a volunteer expect to do in this role?
  • Minimum Qualifications: What knowledge, skills, and abilities are required for the role? Is there a background check required?
  • Time Commitment: How many hours per week should volunteers expect to work?
  • Contact: Who can volunteers reach out to for more information and questions?
Include staff in the process of creating volunteer position descriptions; they’ll know best how volunteers can be of the greatest value to their own areas of responsibility. Ensure that position descriptions are accurate, so volunteers have realistic job expectations and don’t feel exploited. Think about volunteer roles that may appeal to current and prospective donors; what experiences might interest them and what resources might they bring to your nonprofit?
Use multiple sources. Nonprofits have many avenues for recruiting effective volunteers. Here are some examples:

  • Current volunteers, visitors, clients, donors.When someone has had a wonderful volunteer experience ask them to refer others they know to your nonprofit. Consider sharing volunteer opportunities with others you serve, whether visitors to your museum, parents of your students, or current clients. Active donors are already invested in your nonprofit; ask them to do more.
  • Volunteer recruitment services.Check out programs that connect volunteers with nonprofit organizations and advertise your position there. Examples specific to the New York area include Volunteer New York! and New York Cares. Nationally, check out VolunteerMatch, Taproot Foundation, Idealist, and Catchafire.
  • Community partners. Share open volunteer positions with local organizations including colleges and universities, community boards, churches, mosques and synagogues; and with corporations that have programs for employee volunteer engagement.
  • Social media. Announce open volunteer positions across your social media platforms. Use social media to celebrate volunteers as well as to underscore the rewards of engagement.
Reduce barriers to engagement. The desire to volunteer may be strong, but some prospects may imagine they don’t have the time given pressing work/life demands. Consider offering volunteer hours outside the typical workday, such as evenings and weekends, and work-from-home volunteer positions too. Make sure economic and other barriers to volunteer work are diminished by offering transportation reimbursement to make it easy for anyone to say “yes” – particularly where it’s important that volunteers reflect the communities your nonprofit serves.

 

Engaging Volunteers

Keep them coming. Employees have an incentive to work that volunteers don’t have. Nonprofits with thriving volunteer programs engage their volunteers in ways that keep them coming back with incentives other than a paycheck.
Match their interests. Offer a variety of experiences, both front-facing and back-office, so there are options to choose from that fit the skills and abilities of each prospective volunteer. Interview recruits so you can place them in volunteer roles that align with their interests – which in turn, will strengthen their commitment. Then schedule 1:1 conversations with volunteers once they’ve begun, or ask them to complete a satisfaction survey, to ensure the roles you are offering are a good fit.
Foster collaboration. Make it possible for volunteers to work together – especially when they enjoy each other’s company – to build bonds amongst volunteers. Working together instead of in isolation can make the volunteer experience more meaningful, reinforce a shared commitment to your mission, and can lead to longer-term engagement as relationships are formed.
Celebrate wins. Take time to acknowledge how volunteers’ short-term actions and contributions make possible the organization’s long-term success. Setting clear goals and benchmarks for volunteers can help track their contributions to the organization’s larger mission. Reminding volunteers of the impact of their efforts can help sustain volunteer excitement and engagement. Celebrate individual contributions and the collective number of hours contributed. Host a volunteer appreciation event and send personalized thank you notes.
Provide support. Plan periodic workshops of general interest to anyone volunteering – including those relevant to your nonprofit’s general work, and those that are helpful to life in general. These sessions can be facilitated by your own staff, fellow volunteers, or experts. Training to help volunteers build useful technology skills, or life skills like effective public speaking, can enhance their work with your nonprofit too. So can sessions on handling difficult conversations, navigating challenging relationships, or surviving the winter blues.
Give and collect feedback. Give feedback to volunteers on what they’re doing well to motivate them to keep going. Gently offer recommendations for areas of improvement. Also, ask volunteers to weigh in on their experiences to improve your volunteer program.

 

Safety and Recordkeeping

Make it safe. Provide as safe an environment for your volunteers as you do for your employees:

  • Safety training. Review safety procedures with volunteers and make sure they are aware of what to do in case of an emergency or accident.
  • Communication plan. Determine the point person to contact volunteers in case of emergency and what the messaging should be to volunteers. Likewise, make sure volunteers know who they should contact should a problem arise.
  • Best practices guide. Think about what situations volunteers may encounter while working, such as dealing with a disgruntled client, and provide a list of best practices to navigate them.
  • Check your insurance policy. Speak with your insurance providers to ensure your policy extends to volunteers. Depending on the nature of your volunteer work, it may make sense to adjust your policy.
Ensure you are safe. Prospective volunteers can be screened readily with a background check through services like NYCGoPass, especially if their position involves working with children or with financial or other sensitive information. It’s entirely appropriate to check references, too, before placing a volunteer in your nonprofit; the diligence with which you manage recruitment and placement will convey the seriousness of responsibility to your prospective volunteer.
Keep track. Use volunteer management or customer relationship management (CRM) software to track volunteer data, including contact information, demographics, attendance, and hours worked. The data you track helps tell the story of the impact of your volunteer programs, which is valuable to your leadership team, funders, and other stakeholders, like public officials. You can also use volunteer data to evaluate your volunteer program and identify areas of improvement. Your accountant may need to account for volunteer hours on your balance sheet if hours are materially significant.
Examples of CRM platforms include EveryAction and Salesforce. For smaller organizations with smaller budgets, create a spreadsheet to track information. Know that tracking volunteer data in a database requires constant upkeep so designate a team member to oversee volunteer data management and to ensure data is input in a consistent manner.