Put your nonprofit volunteer program to work for youIt's a simple fact: Volunteers make the nonprofit world go round. For organizations of all shapes and sizes, a volunteer workforce can be invaluable. Not only do volunteers provide labor and resources that would normally break the budget, they also tie your organization to the community and help raise the profile of your cause. Volunteer engagement, retention and satisfaction can be a huge vote of confidence for your mission — and life-changing for your clients.
That said, many nonprofits recruit volunteers too soon, assuming that it should be all-hands-on-deck right from the beginning. Before you actually ask for help, think about the specific ways you might deploy volunteers. Below are three things you can do to prepare a volunteer program that will support your organization and stand the test of time. The more thought you put into the program before launching it, the more the program will work for you (and not the other way around).
1. Assess your needs
Just as you would for staff, carefully forecast the number of volunteer positions you'll need in the next fiscal year.
Start by mapping out events, fundraising goals, and critical gaps in both manpower and brainpower. Also keep in mind the key areas where volunteers commonly prove most helpful to an organization:
- Governance. Among many things, a volunteer board of directors or trustees provides ethical, legal and financial oversight, sets policies, and hires and manages the executive director or chief executive. Its various committees and advisory boards may tackle initiatives such as development, event coordination and budget planning.
- Programming. Trained volunteers can provide much-needed services to clients, such as health screenings, career counseling and mentoring. You might also create unique fundraising events around a particular volunteer's area of expertise. Imagine a speaker series or even a cooking class!
- Fundraising. This is the area where volunteers are worth their weight in gold. Each person brings with them a network of relationships that may be hugely beneficial to your organization. Everyone from a longtime board member to a new volunteer is capable of bringing donations to the table.
Then ask yourself the following questions:
- What specialized skills could take your nonprofit to the next level?
- Which available full-time positions could be broken into tasks to be tackled by several volunteers?
- What freelance contracts or other budgeted services could be provided by volunteers?
Armed with these considerations, make a conservative estimate of the number of volunteers you'll need. And conservative is the operative word. Too many volunteers can overwhelm a staff and get the program off on the wrong foot.
2. Learn from past mistakes
Before embarking on a new endeavor, it's always a good idea to take stock of the past. If your nonprofit has been around for a while and you feel the need to give the volunteer program more structure, ask board members and staff these important questions:
- What was the feedback from volunteers who left?
- What aspects of the program have worked and what has been a disaster?
- What can we do better?
And if your nonprofit is a new organization:
- Based on our combined experience, what are the most critical elements of a volunteer program?
- What have we seen from other nonprofits that we want to avoid?
3. Focus on the mission
The strength of a group of volunteers is often the range of personalities, professional backgrounds and cultural experiences. However, so much diversity may also lead to disagreements that distract from the mission at hand.
To help your volunteers stay on track, set reasonable goals (both large and small) and openly share milestones. These can be anything from fundraising totals to membership campaigns, sponsorships or target number of Facebook followers. The more specific you get, the easier it'll be for volunteers to stay motivated.
Volunteers want to be part of something positive, something bigger than themselves — and they want to see their efforts making a difference. Creating a volunteer experience that meets their expectations and recognizes their contributions is the first step in helping them help you.
Idealist: Developing your volunteer program
Custom Development Solutions, Inc.: Volunteers: What can they do for you today? by D.C. Dreger
VolunteerMaine: Need to know basics of managing volunteers (2008)
RGK Center for Philanthropy & Community Service: Strategic volunteer engagement: A guide for nonprofit and public sector leaders by Sarah Jane Rehnborg (2009)