Volunteers are an incredibly valuable resource for any organization. For those of us who have managed volunteers, we know the effort required to attract, train, and retain them. It’s one thing to get someone to do something for a salary, but it is an entirely different experience to inspire people to do something on their own steam.
Beyond the skills and dedication volunteers bring, it is often overlooked that your volunteer program can validate your organization’s mission. Someone who is prepared to give up their time to help shows clearly there is something about your cause that inspires, motivates, and captivates. That is a valuable accolade to inspire donors and non-donors alike!
Setting up or revising your volunteer program
Role design and recruitment
Building a sustainable and scalable volunteer program starts with role design and recruitment. When you have a clear description of your requirements and expectations, finding the right volunteers becomes much easier.
Important things to include in your volunteer opportunity descriptions include the following:
- Who: Describe your ideal volunteer, including any specific skills, characteristics, or physical requirements necessary.
- What: Let volunteers know what is expected of them.
- When: Is this an ongoing opportunity that will be offered regularly, or is it a one-time event? Be clear about the time commitment required, especially for open-ended roles such as board members or tutors.
- Where: In person or virtual?
- Why: Here is where you build the connection to the mission. Describe why this volunteer opportunity matters in the context of your mission.
Recruiting and retaining senior volunteers, such as board members, ought to be treated no differently than when recruiting and retaining other volunteer roles. However, many organizations shy away from setting clear expectations when offered time by a senior individual. This is a mistake.
It will be much harder to raise involvement if they joined without clear expectations from the start. So from the outset, clearly communicate expectations. Clarity will also ensure they enjoy their experience more!
Training and support are key
Investing in volunteer training from the outset saves time and resources down the line. Dedicated training for your volunteers as they begin their roles will demonstrate that you value their time, as well as empower them to dive into their new roles.
Providing resources such as toolkits and guides, as well as a named contact for any questions, will help them feel supported and confident to carry out their volunteer role.
All volunteer programs should provide these training resources, at a minimum:
- Onboarding call: This can be with a group or one-on-one, but establishing a personal connection with your volunteers is essential to get them connected to your mission.
- Training manual or guide: Provide leave-behind resources volunteers can reference after onboarding.
- Regular communication and support: Don’t leave your volunteers to go it alone. Build regular check-ins into your program, and shout-out examples of volunteers who go above and beyond.
Together, training and support show your volunteers how they can contribute and give them the confidence they need to be successful in their roles.
Tracking the volunteer journey
Once you launch your volunteer program, you need to know if it is working.
That means you need to capture how many volunteer roles are offered, the number of applications and “good fits,” what training was administered, and in how many roles a volunteer has engaged.
Managing a volunteer program requires an investment of both time and money. To scale your program, you’ll need to be able to measure its impact.
Volunteer metrics to track include:
- Number of hours volunteered
- Number of projects with volunteers
- Number of volunteers that donate
- Retention rate
- Social media shares
- Dollars raised by volunteers
By measuring impact, you will be able to clearly communicate the value of volunteering to volunteers, your organization, and the community alike.
You should also track qualitative aspects of your volunteer program. Asking people why they volunteered or how the experience made them feel can help you improve the program’s design and delivery.
You should survey volunteers at the end of any major project or campaign. For volunteers with more open-ended commitments, consider annual or semi-annual “check-in” surveys.
Be specific about what you are hoping to learn and phrase your questions accordingly. For example, is your goal to learn why someone volunteered? Or is your goal to learn how a volunteer experience went? Two shorter surveys, sent at the appropriate times, will lead to better data and more actionable insights.
A note about survey length: Shorter surveys = more responses. Keep your survey short and only ask essential questions for improving your program, especially if you are just starting out. Some responses are better than no responses.
Steward volunteers like donors
As with donors, proper stewardship is the only way to keep your volunteers long-term. Therefore, setting up a tracking system for volunteers also allows you to know how long each one has been involved and the history of their service. This will allow you to create a personalized stewardship plan to thank each volunteer in a timely and meaningful way.
Ways to steward your volunteers include:
- A personal thank-you note: Handwritten and mailed.
- Exclusive experiences or access: Provide opportunities to meet with leadership.
- Awards: Show your appreciation by nominating your best volunteers for awards within your organization or community. Can’t find an award that fits? Create one.
- Volunteer-only swag: Branded merchandise or apparel just for volunteers can help build buzz for your program and convey a sense of status. Just don’t overdo it, or else your program will appear transactional.
Whether you are just launching a volunteer program or refreshing an existing one, being intentional at each stage will lead to better outcomes for your organization and your volunteers.