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Volunteer policies for nonprofits

To engage volunteers and get the most benefit from their time, create a set of policies to guide them. Your volunteers need policies as much as your staff members. It makes sense to manage both groups of people in a systematic way.

Creating volunteer policies takes time and effort. It's worth it. Policies offer practical guidelines for making decisions, solving problems and resolving conflict. When policies are clear, carefully crafted and routinely followed, you gain:

  • Fair and consistent treatment of volunteers (which is key to increasing their diversity)
  • Clear distinctions between the roles of volunteers and staff members (which promotes trust and cooperation)
  • Protection in the event of a lawsuit, investigation or arbitration

Nonprofit volunteer policies — How to get started

There are no formulas for volunteer policies. They vary greatly depending on an organization's mission, programs, services and size. If you're not sure how to begin creating volunteer policies, draft answers to questions such as these:

  • Why do we want to involve volunteers with our organization?
  • How will we recruit and screen volunteers?
  • How will we train and develop volunteers?
  • How will we supervise volunteers?
  • How will we protect client confidentiality when assigning tasks to volunteers?
  • How will we protect the health and safety of volunteers?
  • How will we reimburse volunteers for expenses?
  • How will we respond to complaints about volunteers?
  • How will we respond to complaints about our organization from volunteers?

Guidelines for crafting policies

As you begin to write your volunteer policies, keep the following tips in mind:

Designate a point of contact

You might designate one person, such as a full-time volunteer manager, to write your volunteer policies. If you assign the task to several people, then ask one person to combine their work and revise as needed for style and consistency.

Write in plain language

Revise your policies until they're clear and precise. Avoid "legalese," however. Policies are meant to be understood and used by people with a variety of educational backgrounds and work experiences.

Edit for tone

Some policies will be directive, sounding like commands. For example: "In order to act as a spokesperson for our organization to the media, a volunteer must have prior written permission from the board of directors."

Other policies can empower, inspire and affirm. For example: "We are committed to making a positive, long-term difference in the lives of all our constituents. Volunteers' time and talents are valuable, and we will design assignments to best make use of these resources. If we cannot place volunteers in jobs that match their talents or skills, we will refer them to other organizations that may be more appropriate."

Get plenty of input

While creating policies, involve people at all levels of your organization. Get permission to start the process from your management team. Also ask staff members and experienced volunteers to review policy drafts. Send the final versions to your board of directors for approval.

Create volunteer procedures separately

Policies differ from procedures in several ways:

Policies Procedures
Principles for choosing what to do in specific situations Explanations of how to do specific tasks when implementing policies
High-level statements that allow for flexible application Concrete, step-by-step instructions that are meant to be followed exactly
Usually remain stable over time Tend to change frequently

To accommodate these differences, include volunteer policies as one section in your overall policy document. Place volunteer procedures in a separate document, such as a volunteer handbook.

Implementing volunteer policies

The most beautifully written policies will become useless if they're tucked into a filing cabinet and forgotten. To ensure that policies are followed, keep them visible and talk about them often. You might:

  • Meet with staff and volunteers to introduce your volunteer policies
  • Refer directly to your policies when orienting and training volunteers
  • Advertise your policies by posting them on bulletin boards and creating posters with slogans based on policies
  • Include relevant policy statements in other documents, such as annual reports and grant applications
  • Make sure that all staff members and volunteers receive revised copies of the policies

In addition, review volunteer policies on a regular basis — at least once a year. Turn these into living documents that stay current as your organization develops and matures.

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Disclaimer

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

Disclaimer

References

Free Management Library: Developing and managing volunteer programs by Carter McNamara

VolunteerHub: 7 tips for reviewing your volunteers and volunteer programs

VolunteerHub: Volunteers, part I: What makes them stay? by Christine Litch (2007)

VolunteerHub: Volunteers, part II: What makes them leave? by Christine Litch (2007)

Community Tool Box: Section 1. Developing a plan for involving volunteers

References

Author

Writer and editor fascinated by knowledge management, behavior change and technology for nonprofits