A strong volunteer program can help your nonprofit grow faster and change more lives.
Imagine if you had a team of passionate, results driven, and energetic repeat volunteers. What would be possible? What more could you accomplish?
Talk about being on cloud nine!
Think about it: when you surround your nonprofit with a lot of people who care about your work, you have a ready-made army of supporters. They’ll happily help carry out your mission because they want to see your nonprofit shine and they want to be part of making it happen.
Now imagine having a few things taken off your plate so that you can better focus on things only you can do – things like fundraising, developing relationships, and raising awareness about how your nonprofit serves the community.
Volunteers can help by
- Providing direct service to your clients.
- Offering expertise or experience that your nonprofit needs.
- Serving on your Board and committees.
- Supporting events and fundraising efforts.
- And so much more.
So, why don’t more new, young, and small nonprofits have strong volunteer programs?
What seems to get in the way of finding and using volunteers in a variety of administrative, fundraising, and programming activities?
Let’s take a look at the 5 steps that every nonprofit should follow to creating a strong volunteer program.
What is a volunteer program?
A volunteer program is a systematized way of preparing for, recruiting, training, supervising, and thanking volunteers, so that it’s easy for people to volunteer for your nonprofit and you get the help you need.
It can take a little time to create a volunteer program, but once you have it up and running, it will provide consistent, ongoing help to get things done.
With a strong volunteer program your volunteers will get what THEY want from their volunteer experience which will result in happier volunteers and positive word-of-mouth in the community.
Creating your volunteer program is similar to creating HR systems for employees in that you want to recruit the best people for the job, retain them, and help them shine. When they’re happy, they’re more productive which means more goodness for your nonprofit.
Volunteers are not just free labor for your nonprofit. Treat them and the entire volunteer program with respect and you’ll get more than just a helping hand – you’ll get increased awareness as they tell their friends about your nonprofit and you’ll probably get new donors as they invest their money where they invest their time.
5 Steps to a Successful Volunteer Program
To start a successful volunteer program, think through what you want and need from volunteers and what it will take to engage volunteers in a meaningful way. To do that, you’ll need a few things in place
Roles – Begin by identifying what jobs volunteers can do to help. Do you need people to help work in your programs? Do you need help in the office answering phones or making updates to the website? Brainstorm a list of all the different roles that volunteers can fill to help you.
Position descriptions – Think of these like job descriptions for an employee. Would you ever consider taking a job if you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into? Probably not. Creating a position description will help you find the right individual for the role. Include the types of activities the volunteer will be expected to perform, time commitment, skills and experience needed, and any requirements (age, ability to lift so many pounds, driver’s license, etc.). So be sure to create a written position description for every volunteer spot you want to fill.
Intake forms and processes
– This is the human resources component of your volunteer program. Start with an application for your volunteers to complete when they’re interested in applying for a position (don’t automatically say “yes” to every volunteer prospect – treat them like job applicants so you can get the right people). Create documented procedures for recruitment, onboarding, training, supervision, and collecting and tracking data like the number of volunteer hours donated this month.
- Create a volunteer handbook and give a copy to all volunteers. Your volunteer handbook should provide all the information the volunteer needs to do the job including policies, useful organizational information (mission, history, goals, etc.), and any legal information or disclaimers.
- Use a volunteer database to make managing your volunteer program easier and more efficient. The right database can automate processes, capture information, offer reporting, and much more. Check out these free volunteer software options.
Management – Someone will need to oversee your volunteer program, including posting volunteer openings and managing your volunteer processes. This person can be a volunteer coordinator that you hire, or it can even be a volunteer position! It might be YOU for the first year or two of your volunteer program and that’s ok because it will give you a chance to create the program the way you want it.
Preparation – Making your volunteers feel at home from the get-go is a thoughtful way to express your appreciation for them from the very start. Do you have the tools and resources in place that they need to perform their duties? Who is their point of contact on the job site? Do they know what’s expected of them? Be ready for their first day with everything they might need. It makes orientation so much easier!
Liability – Please don’t make the mistake of assuming your nonprofit will be exempt from liability because its purposes are charitable or because the person responsible for the harm is a volunteer. Understand this: nonprofits can be held liable for incidents involving volunteers. To help avoid these situations, partner with your insurance company to ensure you have the proper tools in place. This might include signed volunteer waivers, sufficient liability insurance, and safety and training procedures.
Once you have all your plans in place for your volunteer program, it’s time to find volunteers.
Finding great volunteers – people who will happily show up and do the work without causing problems – can be a little tricky at first, but it can be done.
The smartest thing you can do is to simply ASK.
While this may seem obvious, sometimes we get so wrapped up in the day-to-day that we forget to let people know we need help. So here are six places you can look for prospective volunteers.
Your Website – Post available volunteer positions on your website, just like you would a paid job opportunity. If people hear you’re looking for volunteers, your website will likely be the first place they look for information. Be sure they can find it easily! Have a page dedicated to “Volunteer Openings” with a short description of each job to be done and next steps for those interested.
Service-Based Sources– Apps like VolunteerMatch and local volunteer resource agencies like HandsOn Network affiliates allow nonprofits to post volunteer positions on their platforms. These technologies also provide mobile and accessible options for individuals to search for and browse volunteer opportunities in their area.
Social Media– Use social media to advertise your need for volunteers, especially if you have a large following and lots of connections. Because people who are following you are already your fans, finding passionate people to help out at your nonprofit may be easier than you think! Plus, asking your followers to share these posts opens you up to an entirely new set of prospective volunteers – their friends and family.
Newsletters – Issue a call-to-action in your newsletter asking for volunteers and listing the volunteer positions you need to fill. Be super clear about how they need to apply – maybe drive them to your website to fill out an application. Otherwise, you might have random people showing up on your doorstep ready to volunteer without you being ready for them!
Local News Media – Pitch stories to local newspapers and news channels about the impact volunteers make at your nonprofit and include that you’re looking for new volunteers. Some recognizable days of service are National Volunteer Week, Global Youth Service Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, and September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance. Your community may also celebrate its own volunteer days, so check those out too.
Word-of-Mouth– Sometimes it’s more productive to step away from technology and get face-to-face with folks. Chat with your current volunteers and encourage them to invite their friends to volunteer. Speak to civic groups, service clubs, and faith organizations about volunteering. And don’t forget volunteer fairs and other community events! These can be great opportunities to meet new people who are searching for volunteer positions that are a perfect match for their interests.
For additional tips on finding great volunteers, check out this article about giving them an easy, hassle-free registration experience and helping them see what they’re going to get out of their volunteer experience with you and what they will gain by it.
3. ORIENTATION & TRAINING
It’s easier for people to succeed at a job if they have clear instructions, understand what’s expected of them, and have the tools to perform.
Well-planned and executed orientation and training sets the stage for volunteers to have positive, productive experiences. Whether they’re offering their services one time (i.e. helping your nonprofit with a race it’s hosting) or serving in repeat roles (i.e. nurses volunteering at a free health care clinic), being welcomed to the team and having the resources they need to perform successfully will go a long way to keeping them happy. So be prepared to spend some time on this – don’t hastily go over the job once and expect them to get it all. Spend as much time as you need to really set them up for success.
Orientation – During orientation, provide volunteers with basic information about your nonprofit and answer any questions they may have. If you’re able to provide them with a volunteer handbook and forms to be completed/signed prior to orientation, that could speed up the process. If you can’t, just make sure you take time during orientation to review the volunteer handbook and get from them any forms needing completed/signed.
All of this can be conducted either by the volunteer coordinator or the volunteer’s supervisor. And yes, it’s perfectly acceptable for volunteers to have supervisors. We’ll talk more about that in the next section.
To make the volunteers feel welcome, you can also introduce them around to employees and other volunteers, point out the restrooms, and make sure they know when break times are.
Training – Training ensures volunteers have the basic knowledge to perform their “job” satisfactorily. Two of the most common parts of training are safety and job-specific.
Safety training covers things like keeping an eye out for hazards and what to do if an accident or emergency occurs.
Job-specific training refers to what a volunteer needs to learn or know to do the task properly. For instance, Habitat for Humanity volunteers helping cut lumber will be taught how to properly use a saw. If it’s a complex job, you may need to work with them several times to make sure they get it. The more complicated the role the volunteer will fill, the more training they may need.
Sometimes, orientation and training sessions may take place at separate times. If Ms. Volunteer is coming into your nonprofit to do data entry, for example, she may be asked to attend a group orientation. But then Ms. Volunteer will be instructed to participate in training conducted by her supervisor to learn more about what’s expected and for the opportunity to ask any questions.
At other times, orientation and training may take place at the same time. Let’s say you’ve filled 50 volunteer spots for a marathon race. Prior to the day of the event, they received their volunteer handbooks and already returned to you the required forms. On the day of the event, you choose to hold a quick 5-minute group orientation and then release the volunteers to their stations where employees or trained volunteer leaders are ready to engage the volunteers in safety and job-specific training.
The point is you can customize your orientation and training to the needs of your volunteer program. But whatever you do, don’t skip these. If you do, you’ll be missing out on opportunities to connect with your volunteers, building relationships and ensuring a positive experience for them and you both.
4. SUPERVISION & SUPPORT
Verified Volunteers says, “A key point to remember for any volunteer program is that supervision has a direct impact on volunteer effectiveness and retention which ultimately affects the success of the volunteer program.”
And it’s true.
Volunteer supervisors are an important link between volunteers and the goals of the organization, and good supervisors support volunteers in their work by doing things like providing clear instruction, checking in regularly to monitor progress and help resolve issues, and providing constructive feedback.
“They have the attitude that well-placed volunteers are truly partners. Volunteer supervisors ensure the creation of meaningful, impactful work for volunteers while creating an environment of mutual accountability in their team. Supervisors realize that delegation is not the giving out of tasks or ‘jobs to be done.’ It involves explaining the outcomes and results they are expected to achieve.”
Volunteers feel more engaged when they feel they’re being trusted with important responsibilities.
So, be prepared to check in with volunteers regularly to see how they’re doing and what they might need help with.
One of the most powerful motivators to keep people coming back and volunteering for an organization is meaningful service. If they feel like they’re making a difference and they enjoy the volunteer experience, they will come back time and time again.
When things go well and the volunteer is doing a great job, celebrate it.
When a project is completed, celebrate that, too.
Acknowledge volunteers and share with them details about the impact their work makes.
Thank your volunteers and let them know how much you appreciate them. Don’t skimp on this part – it’s important. When people feel needed and appreciated, they’ll give their best work and they’ll become more committed to you and your organization.
A simple “thank you” is powerful as is a hand-written note card. Acknowledgement and recognition don’t have to be expensive to be meaningful. If you’re looking for more ideas, be sure to check out this article describing 15 clever, practical, and affordable ideas for thanking volunteers.
The Bottom Line
Many hands make light work. You need volunteers to get more done, grow your nonprofit, and change more lives.
Put a little time in to get organized and you’ll have more volunteers and happier volunteers.
And you’ll be happier, too.