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.