Managing Volunteers: Making the Most of Their Experience—And Yours
In 2014, more than a quarter of Americans (25.3 percent) volunteered some amount of time at a nonprofit organization. That’s 62 million volunteers—a big-time boost for nonprofits looking to increase organizational efficiency and reduce personnel costs.
Volunteers are likely to make donations during or after their time at your organization. And they’re likely to encourage friends and family to do the same. They’ll remember the meaningful experiences they had with your nonprofit, upholding your reputation and making them more likely to spread the word.
But it’s not automatic. Skillful volunteer management is a necessity. And ensuring a positive, rewarding volunteer experience is critical. Here’s how you can find, screen and train volunteers, and how you can make the most of their experience—and yours.
Step one is obvious: Find the best volunteers you can. “The first place to look is among the organization’s constituents—the people benefitting from its mission,” explained Randi Corey, who has worked at March of Dimes, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and now serves
as national director of special events at Hydrocephalus Association.
“At the nonprofit health organizations [where] I worked, it was parents of babies born prematurely, or parents of children with diabetes or cystic fibrosis,” she said. “They are the most passionate about the
Anyone with a close connection to your cause, and who expresses interest in becoming more involved, is more likely to bring enthusiasm and dedication to a volunteer position. Seek out those supporters.
Safety, reputation, adherence to rules and regulations, and service quality are all factors to consider when screening volunteers. For organizations choosing to do background checks, the process can be time-consuming—probably why 69 percent of nonprofits use a third-party provider for screening.
But not all organizations heavily screen volunteers. Corey shared experience from her years working at national health nonprofits.
“For most nonprofit health organizations, the screening process is usually a telephone call ascertaining the prospective volunteer’s connection to the mission—why do they want to help?—and evaluating their capability or capacity to determine the best fit,” she said. “Are they likely to be the most help on the gala committee or the golf tournament committee? Could they serve as the logistics chair for the walk?”
Krystn Kuckelman, vice president of development for National Kidney Foundation, said she prefers to arrange a face-to-face conversation. “Meet with them in person to share about the organizational goals and educate them on what you are looking for,” she said. “Listen to them and ask questions about their experience.”
Once you’ve found volunteers who are the right fit, it’s time to prepare them for their work.
Every nonprofit is unique, as is every volunteer, so training should be given to every new volunteer, regardless of position or prior experience.
Corey described a successful training technique—volunteer mentors. “We pair them up with an experienced, successful volunteer who has been in this role for several years,” she said. The volunteer acting as a mentor can then provide information and instruction, as well as advice based on their own personal experience.
In an article for NonProfit PRO titled “How to Train Your Volunteers to be More Productive,” writer Holly Whitman advised holding training sessions in smaller groups if possible. “It’s unlikely that schedules will allow for everyone to get together for one big training session, but training in various groups with fewer volunteers per instructor is beneficial anyway,” Whitman writes. “This results in an atmosphere that’s conducive to asking questions and seeking improvement without feeling judged.”
Corey added that it’s also beneficial to provide trainees with a “how-to” manual. Give the basics, such as background on nonprofit organizations, fundraising and your organization’s official mission. Then add specific information tailored to the volunteer’s role.
Ensuring a Great Experience
Many organizations wonder if their volunteers are “satisfied” with the work they do, but there is more to the experience of volunteering than just being satisfied. Organizations should go above and beyond to make volunteers feel welcomed, needed and celebrated.
Volunteers get involved with an organization for many reasons. They may be directly or indirectly affected by the cause, or simply trying to learn more about it. Others may just be looking for a way to give back to the community. These sources of motivation are powerful, and volunteers want to feel that they’re making a difference in some way. Ensure that volunteers understand how the specific work they do plays into the greater good the organization does.
In “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” author Daniel Pink states that the three main motivational factors are autonomy, mastery and being part of something bigger.
Autonomy is freedom from micromanagement in one’s actions. Mastery is gaining competence at a meaningful task. Being a part of something bigger is the idea of contributing to a greater good.
Put these ideas in action. Avoid hovering over volunteers—once they understand a task, trust them to carry it out on their own. Give them time and encouragement, and emphasize the effect their accomplishments will have on the organization as a whole.
Fundraising through Volunteer Networks
A positive experience will get volunteers talking. And if their friends and family are hearing about the great work your organization is doing, they’re more likely to make a donation.
Kuckelman reiterated the value of volunteers fundraising and encouraging others in their
networks to do so, as well. “Make sure [all volunteers] have everything they need, from online fundraising pages to sponsorship templates,” she advised. Volunteers will have many opportunities to mention your organization in their daily lives, so make it easy for them to mention fundraising, too.
Concluding the Experience
Often, organizations will ask exiting volunteers to complete a survey about their experience. If you choose to distribute a survey, keep in mind that satisfaction isn’t the only measure of a successful volunteer experience. Did they feel like their work was significant? Do they think they’ve made a difference? If not, what can be done to improve the position? Finding out if, and why, the experience had deeper meaning
for each volunteer can help you tailor future volunteer experiences to be more meaningful.
When it’s time to say goodbye to a volunteer, make sure to send them off with plenty of appreciation, good memories and a sense of community. Past volunteers are likely to continue donating and spreading the word about your organization, especially if they feel their work was appreciated. Send follow-up thank-you mail or email, and (if they’re interested) keep them updated with your organization’s newsletter. Let them know their contributions to your organization will not be forgotten, and they won’t forget their experience there, either.