According to a study conducted by the Corporation for National & Community Service, Americans volunteered approximately 7.9 billion hours in 2011. That is a HUGE number and a valuable resource that many nonprofits are successfully leveraging. Volunteers have traditionally performed any number of tasks at an organization, but there are a few critical things to keep in mind when working with volunteers to maximize your relationship and work with volunteers.
First, volunteers should not be viewed merely as free labor. Every volunteer has a variety of talents and resources they offer to your organization. While they can and do help with many tasks, they should also be viewed and treated as both an extension of the staff and as prospective donors.
We know that personal contact and stewardship with donors is vital. People like to know that their donations mean something and are helping the organization. If a development staff member is spending time on data entry or on preparing mailings, he or she isn’t able to call and thank a donor. When a group of volunteers can come in and help with folding and stuffing letters, which can free up hours which can be better spent on more one-on-one time with donors. However, when utilizing volunteers do not forget they are a donor too. Whether they are giving you a financial donation or a gift of their time, they are a donor. Everything you do for your financial donors, you should minimally do for your volunteers.
Many times there is a smaller group of volunteers that does a lot of work or is relied on heavily to perform most of the work. Keep them in mind. Just like you would not ask a major donor for a major gift every week, do not overuse or abuse your volunteer’s generosity, you need them – so don’t burn out your top volunteers.
Understanding your volunteers and working within their preferences is also key. This means that you need to take time to understand your volunteers. Get to know how they like to be thanked, how frequently are they available and willing to help out, what are they passionate about, and what does their schedule allow for. Within this, it is also very important to set expectations with your volunteers. Letting them know what they can expect, how your volunteer program works and when they can expect to hear from you. So frequently we ask for as much time as someone can give, and are truly thankful for any amount of time a volunteer can commit, but that sometimes comes at the cost of the task due to mis-set or unspoken expectations. Managing resources without expectations or an understanding of the timeline of the task or level of commitment from volunteers becomes very challenging. I frequently hear organizations speak on the challenge of getting a follow through from a volunteer, but not wanting to express the frustration or urgency since it is “free/donated” time. Much of this can be offset with upfront conversations and communication of the expectations of roles/tasks. Practically, this means if a volunteer says they are only available for one hour per week, do not assign them a task that would take more, or be upfront with them about the task. This will make for a much smoother process and happier volunteers!
With that, it is also key to remember volunteers extend your staff, they do not replace it. Volunteers are not paid for their work or time and therefore you have to be flexible with their needs and requests. Keep in mind the relationship you have built with these volunteers and be aware of their personal/family needs when asking them to help out.
Lastly, it is critical to show your volunteers appreciation. Again, like donors, let them know how their investment in your organization has made an impact. Thank them and then thank them again. It is often times these unsung heroes that keep the grease on the wheels of your organization – let them know this. Host a volunteer appreciation event and show them off to your organization. Make them feel special and appreciated, after all, they are helping your organization further its mission. Often times if a volunteer is not already a financial donor, they will become one with a smooth well run volunteer program where you build a relationship with them, empower them to help within their availability, and let them know what their investment has done for your organization.
So what do you say? If you had to give yourself an honest assessment for how you leverage your volunteers, where would you fall? What would you change? What is working well? Do you feel so short staffed that your volunteers are treated as staff with no real oversight?
We’d love to hear your greatest successes for running a volunteer program and leveraging volunteers!