The key to a successful volunteer program is follow through.
Maybe you’ve been there:
- Someone contacts your organization eager to volunteer.
- They enthusiastically sign up for several upcoming events and offer their professional assistance in creating a marketing plan.
- You’re thrilled! You can’t believe this amazing volunteer just dropped out of the sky…
- …Until you never hear from that volunteer again.
It’s a frustrating scenario and all too common in the nonprofit sector.
And it doesn’t have to be this way.
Yes, there are people out there who have commitment issues.
But if you set up your systems right, you can minimize the number of people who show up wanting to volunteer then flake out.
In short, you need a successful volunteer program where volunteers follow through on what they say they are going to do. They’re productive and having them is a joy.
So, how do you create that?
Setting Up Your Successful Volunteer Program
One of the most important parts of having volunteers is accountability.
You want volunteers to take their commitment seriously and show up at the times they say they’ll be there.
Volunteers are not that different from paid staff in many ways. And in other ways they’ve very different.
Paid employees are held accountable by a paycheck. But volunteers can be distracted by their jobs, families, pets, friends, hobbies, and full lives outside of their volunteer commitment.
Volunteers are seeking something more elusive than a paycheck. They want a rewarding experience and that amazing feeling of contributing to something that positively impacts the community and makes people’s lives better.
That rewarding experience is what gets them emotionally invested. Delivering that rewarding experience takes planning and effort, but it’s worth it.
Volunteers have something worth harnessing: passion. They are so passionate about the work your organization does that they signed up to help even though the work does not pay.
Passion is the fuel that powers nonprofits toward their goal of changing lives.
It’s up to you to capture that passion and create a successful volunteer program so rewarding that volunteers can’t imagine not following through and coming back.
Start By Recruiting the Right Volunteers
To create the volunteer program of your dreams, start by recruiting people with a high likelihood of follow through.
By focusing on follow through from the very beginning, you’ll be marketing your organization’s volunteer program to the right folks – the ones who value commitment.
That means you don’t want just anyone – you’re looking for Ideal Volunteers.
These people are critical, especially if your nonprofit is new and you’re looking for those first key volunteers.
To find them, ask yourself these questions:
- Who is your Ideal Volunteer? Get clear about exactly who you need in your volunteer roles. Brainstorm the skills, talents, and abilities you need so your marketing is clear.
Is your Ideal Volunteer a college student with a lot of enthusiasm for staffing pet adoption events or tutoring middle-schoolers? Or is your Ideal Volunteer retired from the workforce and able to bring maturity and life experience to sensitive work of supporting families experiencing food insecurity?
- Write down all the different types of roles that Ideal Volunteers will fill. You may need occasional volunteers to staff events as well as more committed volunteers to serve on a weekly basis. Maybe you might need a volunteer committee to plan and execute a fundraising event. Oh, and your Board will need a treasurer when your current treasurer’s term expires next year. These are all Ideal Volunteer roles!
- Think about where you can find the volunteers you need. For high school and college students, where are the nearby schools? For young professionals, what types of networking groups are active in your community. For families with school-age children, where do parents get their news about community opportunities? For empty-nesters, what organizations and clubs do they belong to?
Your Ideal Volunteers are out there, you just need to think about where to find them. If you look in the places where they already are, you won’t have to work as hard to recruit those who have a passion for your organization’s work. You’ll be able to find them, even if you’re recruiting volunteers for a new nonprofit.
- Write job descriptions. Write descriptions for each volunteer job you need to fill. Be specific about what the volunteer will do, what skills are required, and how much of a time commitment you expect.
Emphasize what the volunteer will gain from the opportunity, such as the chance to serve the community and gain a deeper understanding of the struggle some residents experience with food insecurity. Use the job description in your recruitment activities so potential volunteers are clear about what they’re saying “yes” to.
- Create a digital flier for each job. Start with the volunteer job title, noting that it is a volunteer position, so there is no confusion. Then, describe what the volunteer will do. Next, what are the required skills for the job? Stick to the skills that the job really requires, and don’t go overboard. This is not a paid position. You want your recruitment ad to convince prospective volunteers to apply, not
to make everyone feel like they aren’t qualified.
Then, spell out next steps for anyone who is interested. Tell them where to send their resume or where to go on your website to sign up. Make it clear whether this is an application process to find someone who is the right fit, or if you’re taking anyone who is interested. There’s a difference and being clear sets the tone for the volunteer’s experience.
- Post your digital flier everywhere you think the right prospective volunteer might see it. If you are seeking college students, schools have places to post volunteer opportunities. Contact the chair of specific departments that might have students with the career goals most likely to align with the opportunity. For example, contact the school of education about elementary school tutoring opportunities.
For young professionals, push the opportunity out through Instagram, sharing with people in your network with Instagram accounts followed by young professionals. See if you can speak to networking groups about the benefits of volunteering and make a pitch for your organization. Ask the administrator of the group’s social channels to push out your digital flier.
For families, mid-career professionals, empty-nesters, and retired people, Facebook is likely your best opportunity. Ask people already involved with your work to share your post with their networks. Speaking engagements at garden clubs, rotary clubs, and other community groups will also yield quality prospective volunteers. Hand out information on your organization and how to get involved as a volunteer.
By marketing your volunteer opportunities to people likely to be interested in such opportunities, and making sure they’re clear about your expectations, you will generate a pool of prospective volunteers with a high likelihood of following through.
Set the Stage by Modelling Good Follow Through
Take the next steps thoughtfully so you capture the early momentum of people who respond to your call for volunteers.
- Respond to inquiries promptly. If you tell people you need volunteers, you cannot let emails from people who want to help languish in your inbox.Get back to prospective volunteers with enthusiasm. Invite them in for an interview, if the opportunity requires a significant time commitment and particular skills. If the position requires a more minimal commitment, just let them know how to sign up.
- Meet prospective volunteers with an open mind. Get to know prospective volunteers and their goals. Think about where they might fit in best and have the greatest chance of success. After putting so much work into recruiting volunteers who match your ideal image, be open to volunteers who might not line up exactly with your image but still could be wonderful assets to your organization.For example, you might not think a parent with school age kids would have the time to contribute significantly to your organization, especially if you don’t have opportunities for kids to volunteer. But all people are different, and all families have their own groove. A parent might be just the organized, energetic, and reliable volunteer you need.
- Get each prospective volunteer on a pathway to success. Think about their goals and passion, and where you can offer them the greatest opportunity to have the rewarding experience they are seeking.
- Act fast. Once you determine that a prospective volunteer is the right person for the task, get them involved right away. If you don’t, you’ll lose them.
The next stage of building a successful volunteer program, where volunteers follow through on their commitments, is delivering on that rewarding experience.
Create a Memorable Beginning
Make the new volunteer’s introduction to your organization memorable so they are excited about helping and want to follow through.
Think about the volunteer experience from beginning to end, and do everything you can to make that experience the best it can be.
- Think about your volunteers’ needs and expectations. Depending on whether the volunteer is there for a 1-day event or an ongoing shift, carefully plan how you’ll welcome and support them so they feel comfortable in their new environment.
- Send a reminder a few days prior to their first volunteer experience with a personal greeting and a general idea of what the volunteer can expect. Let them know you are counting on them, and share an email address and phone number they should use if they need to cancel.
- What can you offer your volunteers? Can you give them a t-shirt or offer them the opportunity to buy a t-shirt? Can you get special t-shirts made that say volunteer? Can you make lanyard name tags that identify them as volunteers? Both can be valuable in helping create a positive experience.
- Provide orientation and training. No one likes to stand around feeling like they don’t know what to do or where to go, so be ready for them before they arrive. This is a subtle message to the volunteer that you’ve spent time preparing for them and it puts pressure on them to reciprocate.
- Provide first-time volunteers with a volunteer handbook. A volunteer handbook should have the organization’s mission, policies, and procedures spelled out so everyone is on the same page. When you distribute the handbook, encourage volunteers to come to you with any questions or concerns they may have.
- After their first experience, thank them. Share how much you appreciate your new volunteers and their time, telling them how they’re making a difference.
- Within a couple of days of the event, send a thank-you email with links to future volunteer opportunities, your donation page, and email mailing list sign-up. Consider including a link to a brief survey about their volunteer experience.
Once They’re Moving, Keep ‘Em Grooving!
A memorable start is the first part of the equation. A positive volunteer experience also depends on what you do once they’re onboarded.
Here are some tips to keep the good vibes rolling for volunteers.
Remind volunteers that you are counting on them. This is not something you can say once and expect them to remember it. Periodically remind volunteers how much their efforts help move your mission forward. Connect the dots for them between the work they do and how lives are changed. People love knowing that their work matters and the occasional reminder will keep them smiling.
Make sure your expectations are clear. Volunteers might not follow through if they are confused about what they are supposed to do. Encourage them to ask questions if they are unclear about anything.
Don’t micromanage. If you ask a volunteer to design a social media graphic for National Siblings Day, don’t pick their work apart and request more than one revision. Balance criticism with praise. If volunteers feel micromanaged, they are likely to disappear.
Don’t assign volunteers busy work. People often do not follow through on assignments that do not appear to have a purpose. For tedious but necessary tasks like stuffing envelopes, spread the work around rather than putting it all on one volunteer. Make it a fun, social gathering, and again, tell them how this task supports the mission.
Let volunteers know they can come to you with questions and concerns. You don’t want a volunteer quitting because they are conflict-averse. Let them know your proverbial office door is always open, and that they should come to you with any situation that is making them uncomfortable or confused.
Thank your regular volunteers regularly. You can never say thank you too much. Thank them upon their arrival and again when they depart. Let them know that you are grateful for the passion they bring to the work and for their commitment to changing lives. Do something special during National Volunteer Week to thank them for their service.
Think of small gestures to make regular volunteers feel special. Send regular volunteers birthday cards. Create a special sticker or magnet for regular volunteers who have been with you 6 months. Create a special t-shirt for regular volunteers who reach 1 year or 100 hours of service. These are obviously just suggestions – get creative to see what might work in your situation.
When a regular volunteer drifts away, follow up and find out why. Maybe they are going through a hard time and could use support. Maybe they grew bored with the opportunities available to them and are ready for a new challenge. Knowing why they left can help you prevent it from happening to someone else.
When a regular volunteer needs a break, encourage them to take all the time they need. We all go through seasons when we are busy and seasons when we have more time. Give volunteers the flexibility they need to continue being engaged through all the seasons in their lives.
Encourage volunteer-life balance. It might be tempting for a new volunteer to want to make a difference so badly that they sign up for everything. Emphasize the importance of maintaining balance and self care. Let the volunteer know you do not want them to burn out.
Create pathways to leadership roles for regular volunteers. Some of your regular volunteers will want to remain in their same role, but others might be interested in and suited to leadership roles. Create pathways for volunteers who might want to lead a committee, manage an event, or serve on the board.
The Bottom Line
Finding such a volunteer isn’t a happy accident. It’s all about how you structure your volunteer program to attract and retain reliable volunteers. The process starts with planning and marketing and continues with constant expressions of support and appreciation.
By taking time to develop a successful volunteer program, you will cultivate a force of volunteers with passion for your organization’s work and a commitment to following through on tasks they say they are going to do.