In the world of nonprofits, there's a universal truth that spans every industry, mission, and size — volunteers are your best untapped resource. Seriously. Did you know that volunteerism has a value of over $167 billion?
But here's another truth — after recruiting volunteers, many nonprofits often struggle to manage them. According to a 2017 report from Verified Volunteers, volunteer management is the top issue nonprofits face. As a result, organizations aren't getting the most out of their volunteers' valuable time, which, in turn, could lead to low retention rates, added chaos, and even more busywork.
Fortunately, that's where strategic volunteer management practices can help. Volunteer management is everything your nonprofit does to engage, train, and keep your volunteers actively contributing to your organization.
Successful volunteer management goes far beyond simply scheduling shifts and telling people what to do; it encapsulates the complete volunteer experience. This includes communicating expectations, building a communication plan, rewarding volunteers for their work, and so much more. When done correctly, all of these things can lead to long-term volunteerism and result in real, measurable progress towards your nonprofit's mission.
But for nonprofit leaders who are already stretched thin, managing your volunteers successfully can feel like a pretty tall order. Yes, it means more phone calls, more spreadsheets, more emails, and more events. However, along with these things comes the freedom to refocus your efforts on productivity and mission-critical tasks. This puts you on track to reach your goals even faster.
If you're looking to build a nonprofit that people are excited to be a part of, here are a few strategies that'll help you set your volunteers, and your organization, up for success.
1. Define What Volunteer Success Looks Like
Volunteer success, volunteer engagement, and volunteer management — what do these things actually mean, anyway? And how do you even know you're doing it right? Without knowing these answers, you're putting your nonprofit volunteers on an aimless mission.
So how do you answer those questions? Short answer: there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It depends on how you define your success when it comes to volunteers.
Before you bring your first volunteer on board, here are a few key areas you can focus on to ensure you're getting the most out of their time.
Are you looking to keep volunteers on board for a long time? Is loyalty a priority for you?
Having higher retention rates is a strong indicator that you're managing your volunteers the right way. It shows they're satisfied with the work. This, in turn, leads to more productivity and better outcomes. To make this a tangible goal, define how much of an increase you want to see in your retention rates over a certain period of time.
It's not enough to just bring a volunteer into your organization and expect the work to get done the way you want it to. To make sure your volunteers contribute their very best, their overall happiness with your nonprofit is absolutely critical. That's why you should make volunteer satisfaction one of your key indicators of success.
So how do you do it? Just ask. Consider sending out anonymous surveys to gauge how everyone is doing, or spend one-on-one time with each volunteer to solicit honest feedback on areas in need of improvement.
Is your goal to extend volunteer involvement and responsibilities beyond what you brought them on board to do? If so, consider introducing new and more permanent opportunities. For example, you could create an auxiliary board to plan and oversee major fundraising events. This gives your volunteers more responsibility while also making them feel like they're a part of your nonprofit family.
2. Make Sure You Have the Right Tools
There might be some order to your chaotic filing system and Excel spreadsheets, but when it comes to managing volunteers, it's time to up your organizational toolset. Fortunately, there's an endless library of software, apps, and other resources designed specifically to help you manage and engage your growing team.
Here are a few ways the right management software can amplify your volunteer program:
More efficient time-tracking
New volunteers mean more schedules to manage (on top of everything else you have going on). Without the right tool, tracking everyone's hours can get pretty messy and confusing. With the right software, you'll be able to more accurately capture and track each volunteer's calendar and activity (and view it in one centralized location).
Detailed and easy-to-update volunteer profiles
To help your volunteers thrive, it's essential to understand each of their personalities and needs. With the right software, you can build and store profiles for each of your volunteers. This can include everything from their contact information and communication preferences to their relevant skills or even favorite Starbucks order. All of these things help you give each of your volunteers individualized attention.
Streamlined volunteer engagement
Make it easy to stay connected with your team. By building a database of volunteers and collecting their contact information, management software can help you automate and send individual or batch emails to keep everyone in the loop and engaged.
Easy-to-access volunteer portal
Make it easy for your volunteers to self-serve by creating a hub for organization announcements, documents, news, upcoming events, and more. A lot of volunteer management software lets you create a one-stop-shop portal that your volunteers can quickly access, helping them stay connected and informed.
3. Keep Your Volunteers Happy and Engaged
From the moment your volunteer walks through the door, your level of engagement has an impact. Just like a full-time employee, volunteers want a reason to come to work every day — they want to feel valued and inspired. Most importantly, they want to feel like they're making an impact. All of these things can mean the difference between a lackluster volunteer program and one that consistently overperforms.
Without an engagement strategy in place, your volunteers will end up feeling bored and undervalued. In turn, this could result in underperformance or the volunteer leaving your nonprofit altogether for a better opportunity.
Here are some ways you can create a volunteer engagement strategy, boost your retention, and foster an army of volunteers that want to keep coming back.
Commit to getting to know your volunteers
People are coming to your nonprofit because they want to do something good for the world. It also means that they chose your nonprofit because they believe in your mission. But that doesn't mean every volunteer has the same motives.
Some may want new experiences and to be pushed outside of their comfort zones. Some might be eager to use their specific skill sets for the greater good. Others may have personal reasons or motivations that tie them to your cause. Whatever brought them to your nonprofit, make sure you take the time to ask them about it. Have a one-on-one conversation to understand what motivates them. This information can help you match them to the right opportunity.
Welcome your volunteers with an orientation
Even the most experienced volunteers need some up-front training to understand the lay of the land. Every time you bring a new person on board, take some time out of your day to show them the ropes. Consider building a volunteer handbook that details your mission, campaigns, policies, and procedures. This is also an opportunity to introduce your volunteers to the rest of your staff. If you have more experienced volunteers, pair them up with your newbies to help them get acclimated.
Make sure your volunteers have access to the resources they need
Some volunteers donate their time in hopes of getting something in return, like job experience for their resume or a college recommendation letter. Be aware of these needs and give your people the resources and opportunities to build up the skills that'll carry them into the future.
4. Highlight and Reward Their Good Work
Volunteers want to know that they're valued, just like everybody else. If they don't feel like their work is making a positive impact, they're usually less likely to deepen their relationship with your nonprofit — and they probably won't stick around.
To foster empowering relationships with your volunteers, here are a few ways you can thank them for their work that go far beyond a thank-you note.
Take it online
You know that instant dopamine hit you get when someone mentions you in their Facebook post or tags you in an Instagram photo? Carry that same mentality to your nonprofit.
Snap photos of your volunteers working at community events, fundraisers, or in the office. Then, use that content to post shoutouts to your volunteers on your social media pages. Even better, share a short story on how their involvement has impacted the world around them, or consider a weekly volunteer spotlight. It's a small gesture that'll make your volunteers feel seen and appreciated.
Host appreciation events
Sometimes, the best way to thank your volunteers is by hosting team bonding events, like group dinners, an evening at the bowling alley, or bleacher seats at a baseball game. Coordinating special team events once every few months can go a long way in promoting volunteer community while also showing your appreciation for your loyal volunteers.
Start Building Your Volunteer Management Process Right Now
It's never too early to start thinking about your volunteer management style. Successful volunteer management isn't something that just happens. Investing time and resources upfront can make all the difference between an aimless volunteer program and one that builds tomorrow's leaders.
By establishing a clear mission, workflow, management process, and sense of community, you're arming your volunteers with the resources they need to make a real and lasting impact on your nonprofit and the world.
Your nonprofit can make a much bigger impact on the world when you're backed by happy volunteers. If you want to learn how to recruit a small army of awesome nonprofit volunteers, check out our article "Simple Steps to Recruiting Volunteers For Your Nonprofit."