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GUIDE: Growing and Sustaining your Volunteer Program

Michelle Stockwell

If you work at a nonprofit, you know what it feels like to have too much on your plate. You are eager to be as effective as possible, but you can’t do it all by yourself. A thriving volunteer program can help maximize your organization’s impact. By evaluating your existing volunteer program and renewing your focus on recruitment and retention, you can build a thriving and sustainable volunteer program that will propel your work forward. 

 

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Evaluating Your Existing Volunteer Program

Before you attempt to create a program from scratch, evaluate what you have already in place. Your co-workers and current volunteers can help you identify all of the ways that you can grow and upgrade your operation.


1. Create Job Descriptions

Touch base with every department to identify what your organization needs more help with. Then design the jobs that you want volunteers to do. Write descriptions for each volunteer role. Within one type of work, consider what different tiers of responsibility look like. These job descriptions will be great tools during recruitment and training, helping your team set clear expectations with volunteers.


2. Consider Your Staffing

Do you have a staff member dedicated to cultivating and engaging volunteers? If not, who is responsible for it? This should be written into the job description of each staffer that will help recruit, schedule, and manage volunteers.

Provide your volunteers with a sense of stability by making sure that they have a point of contact at your organization. Make sure they know that they can reach out to one person to ask questions and share success stories with. Volunteers will be more likely to come in and work a shift when they’re asked to by someone that they know.

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3. Survey your Existing Volunteers

The folks who are most qualified to tell you what your volunteer program excels at (and what it is missing) are your existing volunteers. Consider sending out a survey that asks why they got involved, why they come back, and what they find frustrating.


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If you think that your volunteers will be more candid in person, offer to take a few of your volunteers out to coffee and ask their advice. Be sure to talk to both your super volunteers and the folks that occasionally flake. Find out what they want out of the experience and what you can do to make the program work better for everyone involved.


Recruiting More Volunteers

You have a clear vision of how your work will help strengthen and empower your community. That same vision gets you up in the morning. Now that you need more volunteers, it is time to share your vision and let it be contagious.

Talk to prospective volunteers about what you want for your community and how they can help you achieve that future. By working your network and projecting your values, you can get people excited about your campaign and grow the volunteer base that you need.

4. Engage Your Ambassadors

Your existing volunteers are your best recruitment resource. Ask your volunteers to invite a friend to get involved. You can also engage community leaders as ambassadors for your organization. This can include activists, religious leaders, artists, and philanthropists — anyone with a network and a vested interest in your community.

You can definitely recruit these folks to volunteer, but consider other needs that they can help you deliver on. These leaders will be able to connect you with their networks and amplify your nonprofits’ messaging online. If they have any star-power, considering asking them to speak at a kickoff event. People will come to hear from them and stay to help once they’re fired up about your mission.


5. Have One-on-One Meetings

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Once you’ve identified a few prospective volunteers, invite them to coffee for a one-on-one. These are short, in-person meetings where you learn about their values. 

Start by introducing yourself and briefly sharing your backstory. Let the prospective volunteer know what drew you to your organization and why you are passionate about it. Then, get ready to listen. Ask the person about their life, their needs, and their values. Be genuinely curious about what drives them and acknowledge their current involvement in the community.

Once they’ve shared their story, educate them about your organization and what its work could mean for their community. Talk openly about the barriers your nonprofit faces and how their volunteer help could help propel your mission forward.

Finally, be ready with a call-to-action or ask. Ask them to take on an easy, social shift. Be prepared to hear no. If they aren’t ready to dive in immediately, ask if you can follow up about other opportunities to get involved. Always ask ‘Who else do you think I should meet with?’ Most people will be excited to connect you with a good fit.


6. Digital Outreach

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Social media is a great tool to widen your reach. Use social networks like Facebook and Twitter to reach out to a broader base of potential volunteers. Post the stories of your current volunteers on social media. When people see their friends make time for your organization, they’ll be more likely to pick up a shift, too.


7. Screening Your Volunteers

Many organizations work with sensitive issues and vulnerable clients. If this applies to you, it’s important for your nonprofit to have a volunteer screening process. Step back to ask yourself what could go wrong with an incompetent or malicious volunteer. Then find a way to incorporate those concerns into your screening process.

You can do a background check, research their online presence, and even require volunteers to take an intensive workshop or class before coming into contact with your clients.


Cultivating and Retaining Your Volunteers

Everyone at your nonprofit is responsible for helping cultivate your volunteers. To keep volunteers coming back, make sure that your volunteers have a good experience during every shift. That means that staffers should treat the volunteer, and their time, with respect and gratitude.

8. Respect their Time

Volunteers will feel discouraged if they feel that their time isn’t paying off. Did they have to wait for you to prepare tasks for them? Is the training session longer than the time they spend volunteering?

A good training will boost volunteers’ confidence, prepare them for the task that they will be doing, and leave them excited about working with your organization. A boring, redundant training will make volunteers feel frustrated. When possible, keep training short, simple, and upbeat. If you need to host a longer training, consider making it a separate workshop that volunteers can take together. 


9. Express your Appreciation

hanny-naibaho-308083-unsplashMake volunteer appreciation a priority for your organization. There are so many ways to make folks feel valued. Consider profiling them on your social media pages, hosting an appreciation event, or writing regular thank you notes. Each volunteer is unique, so make sure that you express your gratitude in a multitude of ways. 

10. Automate your Cultivation

Even if you’re able to have a full-time staffer focused on managing your volunteer program, it can still be overwhelming to handle every aspect of cultivating and scheduling your volunteers.


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Luckily, you can automate almost everything. With volunteer management tools, like EveryAction, you easily track your volunteer’s actions and availability. You can also use our Targeted Email tools to send a welcome series to your volunteers and keep them updated about your work. They’ll appreciate feeling looped in.

Automating your communication with volunteers actually makes them feel more connected to the organization, not less. They’ll hear from you more regularly and your frequent communication will keep you top-of-mind.

11. Solicit Advice

Ask volunteers for their input often, not just when attendance is low. Keep them informed about the organization's’ strategy and focus. Their input can help ground your work and keep you tied to parts of your community that you might not normally encounter. Asking for their advice is one signal that you value them and all of the contributions they may be able to offer.

12. Ask for More

Giving volunteers increasing levels of responsibility demonstrates that their contributions to your organization are appreciated, and increases their sense of ownership and commitment to the work.

When your volunteers have proven themselves to be capable and trustworthy, ask them to take on more responsibility. Volunteers who know that they are trusted will continue to show up when you need them.

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Topics: nonprofit campaigns