Nonprofit volunteer recruitment and management — what you need to know
We all know that most volunteers are responsible, committed and passionate people. At the same time, we also know that ever-changing organizational priorities and frequent turnover can make managing volunteers feel a bit like herding cats.
Whether you're developing a new volunteer program or revamping an existing one, use the following elements as your guiding principles.
Goals, mission and vision
It's important for volunteers and the people who manage them to understand exactly what they're working toward. Setting specific goals for the volunteer program (and sharing regular progress) does two big things:
- It keeps the team accountable and motivated. Everyone should be in agreement about what success will look like — whether you want to raise a certain amount of money or stock a food pantry for a specific number of months.
- It tracks the growth and effectiveness of the program. This can be invaluable when it's time to apply for a grant or court a new donor.
Additionally, your nonprofit's larger mission and vision should be integrated into the daily experience of your volunteers. Every volunteer should know your mission statement by heart. It should be everywhere they look, from their orientation materials to the backs of their T-shirts. It's a constant reminder of what brought them together in the first place.
Selecting the right volunteers the first time can make a crucial difference in a number of ways. You'll help avoid the dreaded revolving door, and your volunteers will be more fulfilled in their work — which can lead to a much bigger impact for clients.
To ensure a good fit for the organization and the volunteer, write position descriptions for each area of the program. This way volunteers will know exactly what they're signing up for.
Similarly, finding the most qualified and suitable candidate to support and supervise your volunteers is essential. This job often falls to the volunteer coordinator, manager or administrator, but the role goes by many different titles. The position description for this staff member should outline the nitty-gritty demands and responsibilities. Ideally you're looking for someone who's great with people, details and curveballs.
Orientation and training
Bring new volunteers up to speed quickly so that the services and support your organization offers the community are consistent. A review of your organization's code of ethics, especially as it relates to working with clients, is invaluable. Time spent on orientation and training activities is an upfront investment that pays dividends.
If volunteers feel prepared and confident, they'll work with a certain amount of autonomy — leaving managers to focus on the bigger picture, rather than putting out little fires all over the place.
Once you've created the orientation program and the training materials, make sure the new volunteers are welcomed and briefed in a consistent manner. If the training process is followed only some of the time, the whole enterprise may fall by the wayside.
Procedures, policies and protocols
The nature of charitable work often leads leads to sensitive situations. As issues arise, volunteers and staff must be familiar with proper procedures — including how to handle it themselves and when to ask for help.
Sensible policies can proactively answer common questions about things such as attendance, conflicts of interest and financial reimbursement. These policies should always be up-to-date, crystal clear and easy to reference.
And just as for staff, there should be supervision protocols in place to track and evaluate volunteer performance. The time may come when you must part ways with a volunteer who's not a good match for the organization. If you've communicated the expectations up front and kept track of the volunteer's performance along the way, you'll have ample evidence to support your decision.
All work comes with certain risks, and volunteers and their managers should be acutely aware of the hazards they may face. An ongoing and thorough assessment of risk factors should be done by key leaders.
This assessment will inform the appropriate level of liability insurance coverage as well as the type of training and education that all volunteers must receive. Additionally, the assessment will help you determine how many managers the program needs and what sort of safety measures are critical to protect both the volunteers and the organization.
In addition to the personal gratification that comes from helping the community, volunteers may be looking for ways to meet new people, broaden their horizons or get practical work experience. Infusing the volunteer experience with teamwork and positivity should be something that's stressed to staff at all levels. Consider opening staff enrichment opportunities to volunteers as well — things such as professional development, staff parties, social outings and team building activities.
If you're wondering whether your organization does enough to recognize your volunteers, the answer is probably no. Regularly celebrating the achievements and contributions of your volunteers is paramount. Everyone, no matter how humble or selfless, deserves to feel appreciated in big ways and small. This appreciation should never go unsaid.
Consider implementing regular ways to thank volunteers, such as having staff members write a personal thank you note to a volunteer each week, giving star volunteers a regular spotlight on social media, and honoring volunteers with awards.
Perhaps the best form of encouragement, however, is to give volunteers more responsibility. If you have veteran volunteers who've been with the organization for years, you might ask them to speak at orientation sessions and help improve training materials. They'll feel needed and validated.
With these must-haves in place, your volunteer program can pass the tests of time and turnover with flying colors.
MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.
Knowhow Nonprofit: Writing volunteer role descriptions
Knowhow Nonprofit: The volunteer coordinator
Knowhow Nonprofit: Volunteer induction
Idealist: Developing your volunteer program
Idealist: Risk management
Idealist: What is volunteer management?
Volunteer Maine: Need to know basics of managing volunteers (2008)
National Council of Nonprofits: Volunteers
CharityLawyer: Nonprofit volunteers: Minimizing the risk by Ellis Carter (2013)
Wales Council for Voluntary Action: Model policies (2014)