How to Start a Successful Volunteer Program

Building a successful volunteer program will offer numerous benefits to your nonprofit organization. Many nonprofits can be intimidated by the legwork involved in setting up a volunteer program. However, if planned properly, a volunteer program will pay itself back for the initial investment of time. 

In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about building and sustaining a successful volunteer program.

Why is a Volunteer Program Important For Your Nonprofit

A successful volunteer program will help your nonprofit accomplish more. One of the biggest challenges nonprofits face when it comes to volunteers is not having the support they need to get the program off the ground. Being strapped for time, the initial investment of building a program can be a big burden for nonprofits. The following benefits of volunteers can help you make your case and gain the support you need to set up a program. 

Volunteers free up staff time

One of the ultimate goals of a volunteer program is to free up staff time. Nonprofits are notorious for having too much work and too little staff. It is worthwhile for you to take the time to recruit the right volunteers.  From there figure out what work is best for them, and then continue to support them. This way, your volunteers will help alleviate your staff from their abundance of work.

Volunteers offer additional insight

Any organization can benefit from a fresh pair of eyes. Often volunteers can offer insight from an outside perspective. This can help your nonprofit gain clarity on certain things you do that could use improvement. Working on a small team can be great, but you can sometimes get stuck in similar ways of thinking. A great volunteer can help bring in a fresh perspective.

Volunteers can offer unique skills

Another great thing about volunteers is that they come with their own unique set of skills. If someone with a law or accounting background volunteers for your nonprofit, they may offer the guidance you previously did not have access to. 

Volunteers are the best supporters of your organization

Volunteers are often passionate about what they do. The longer someone volunteers for you the more invested they will be in your cause. Not only will they be more likely to spread the word about your cause, but volunteers are 66% more likely to donate financially to the organization they support than those who do not volunteer their time.

Benefits of Volunteer Program for the Volunteer

In order for your volunteer program to sustain itself, you will want your volunteers to stick around. Your volunteers should gain just as much value from volunteering with you as you get from their help. Some benefits of volunteering for your organization should include:

Networking and Building Community

Your volunteers should have networking opportunities when volunteering for you. This could be both on a personal or professional level. Connecting with other like-minded people at your nonprofit will help build their personal relationships and keep them coming back.  If your volunteers tend to work on a solo basis, offer opportunities for them to meet one another through Volunteer luncheons or picnics. 

Improve or Learn a New Skill

Volunteers want opportunities to learn and grow. Make sure that your volunteer opportunities offer them the chance to learn or develop a new skill. This could be specific to your nonprofit or professional development skills. For example, if you are an animal shelter, you may teach your volunteers proper animal handling techniques. You could also build in opportunities for growth within your programs. This can look like long-time volunteers moving into leadership roles. 

Volunteering Builds Confidence and Wellbeing

Volunteering builds confidence as the volunteers are contributing to the greater good of their community. According to helpguide.org, volunteering can give you a sense of pride and identity. Make sure that your volunteers know the impact of their work to ensure they are gaining personal confidence from volunteering. 

Volunteering Provides Creative Ways to Donate

Not all of your supporters have significant financial resources, but they may be rich in availability. Having a volunteer program provides more accessibility for people to give to your organization. There may be many people who feel passionate about your mission and want to become part of your organization. Volunteering provides those without financial resources the opportunity to get involved in your organization.

Prepwork for a Successful Volunteer Program

In order to have a successful volunteer program, you will need to do some planning and prep work to start. The more you plan ahead of time the smoother things will go. You will also have an easier time recruiting the right volunteers if you plan ahead. Below are the following steps you should take in setting up your volunteer program.

Establish the need for volunteers

The first step in setting up a volunteer program is establishing the need for volunteers. It can be difficult to determine which work is worth training volunteers on and if you can rely on them to complete it. It can be helpful to brainstorm with your team about gaps in skills/labor. Start by thinking about physical work (trail work, events, etc.), administrative work (data entry), special skills (photography, program leaders), or one-time large group events. Once you have determined where and when you can use volunteers, create a calendar of your different volunteer opportunities/events. 

Write your volunteer job descriptions

Now that you have established your need for volunteers and broken them out into different dates and jobs you can start writing your volunteer job descriptions. The more detailed you are in the job description the better you will set your volunteers up for success. 

You  should include the following information in your volunteer job descriptions:

  • Job Title
  • Where the volunteer opportunity is located (remote, at your office, at a different location?)
  • Purpose – what is the goal of this volunteer opportunity, what will they do (a summary)
  • Clearly outline duties/expectations
  • Time commitment (specific dates, or length of commitment)
  • Qualifications necessary (able to lift 50 lbs)
  • Training – will your organization provide support and training?
  • Age requirement – can minors apply?
  • Will there be a background check/interview?
  • How to apply

Create a volunteer page on your website

Your website should have a page on it with information about volunteering. It should be clear and easily accessible from your home page. Some things to include on your volunteer website are the benefits of volunteering, the impact of volunteering on your organization, a calendar of events, a listing of opportunities, a signup form, and a form for volunteers to log their hours. You can create both of these forms in DonorSnap, and the data will feed right into your database.

Establish a communication plan for volunteers

It is important for your nonprofit to establish a communication plan for your volunteers. Good communication is key to creating lasting relationships and it should be no different with your volunteers. From the moment someone signs up to volunteer you should have a plan in place on how to communicate with them. Some questions to consider when you establish your communication plan are:

  • What happens when someone signs up? Will there be an interview/background check and how will you let them know?
  • How many reminders will be sent before a volunteer event and through what channels (email, text message, phone call?)
  • How soon after volunteering will volunteers be thanked?
  • When will you notify volunteers of opportunities?  

Where to Recruit Volunteers

Now that you have done all of the prep work involved it is time to start recruiting volunteers. If you don’t already have a good pool of volunteers, consider the following places to source them. 

  1. Social Media
  2.  Volunteer Forums
    1. volunteermatch.org/ 
    2. https://www.catchafire.org
  3. Local Schools/Universities 
  4. Hang flyers around town
  5. Local classifieds 
  6. Your supporters/current volunteers 
  7. Connect with other local organizations

How to Retain Volunteers

Volunteer retention is as equally important as donor retention. It requires a lot of time and resources to recruit and train volunteers. Once you get them in the door you want to keep them. The longer volunteers stay with your organization the more skills they will develop, and they will require less work to carry out important tasks. 

Below are the top things your nonprofit should do to retain your volunteers. 

Be clear about tasks and expectations

This all starts with the planning phase and the job description. Be very clear and specific about what is expected of your volunteers. This way when they are volunteering they will know what is expected of them. Volunteers will then feel accomplished when they deliver on the tasks.

Create a feedback loop

Your volunteer program should be constantly improved upon. Take every volunteer event as a learning opportunity. Certain things will go great and other areas will need improvement. After volunteering, offer a survey for volunteers to give you their honest feedback. 

Feed your volunteers

It is always a nice gesture to provide refreshments for your volunteers, especially if they are working for more than an hour. If offering food is not within your organization’s budget, create a volunteer opportunity for someone to make refreshments. This is a great volunteer opportunity for those who might not have the physical capabilities to do more hands-on projects. 

Offer support and guidance to your volunteers

It is safe to assume your volunteers will not show up knowing what to do. Make sure you have well-thought-out training and orientation so your volunteers can feel confident in their work. Also, offer opportunities to teach your volunteers new skills so they can grow both professionally and personally. 

Thank Your Volunteers

Thanking your volunteers is so important to keep them around. Make sure you thank them well and thank them often. This can include shout-outs on social media, in your annual gratitude reports, or in newsletters. Sending thank you letters after events or throughout the year are also a great way to thank volunteers. Volunteer appreciation events are another great way to show your gratitude, and this will allow all of your volunteers to get to know one another. 

Final Thoughts

Building a successful volunteer program will be beneficial to both your organization and your volunteers. It is important to plan properly before promoting your volunteer program and recruiting volunteers. This involves planning out your opportunities, writing your job descriptions, developing a communication plan, and creating a volunteer page on your website. 

Once you have recruited your volunteers, it is important to retain them. You can do this by being clear about expectations, creating a feedback system, feeding your volunteers, offering support and guidance, and thanking your volunteers often.

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