If paid staff are the rudders of nonprofit organizations, volunteers are their engines. They help with fundraising, staff events, and administrative tasks, freeing up paid staff to focus on grant writing, strategic planning, and keeping overhead costs down.
Volunteers bring a passion for the cause and unique skill sets. They also promote your organization to their friends and across social media. According to The NonProfit Times, one hour of a volunteer’s time is worth nearly $25. But to keep getting that value from volunteers, it’s important to have a strong volunteer management program in place.
Volunteer management is everything a nonprofit does to find, engage, and keep their volunteers active in the organization. It goes beyond scheduling people for shifts; it’s the total volunteer experience that contributes to long-term volunteerism, from the recruitment process to showing your volunteers appreciation for their time.
For nonprofit staff who are already stretched thin, volunteer management may seem like a tall order. There’s always one more phone call to make, one more letter to send, or an event that needs to be scheduled. But taking the time to put a volunteer management program in place can help you attract and retain volunteers who contribute positively to your organization and free you up to focus on higher-level tasks.
In this guide, you’ll learn
- All about volunteer management, from the different types of volunteers you’ll be managing to best practices for good volunteer management, like a strong screening process and setting goals for your volunteers
- How to recruit volunteers, including how you can improve your recruitment process and what goes into a good volunteer recruitment plan
- The best ways to improve volunteer engagement, including developing volunteer retention strategies, so that your best volunteers stay with you for the long haul
- The importance of volunteer appreciation in volunteer engagement and retention, including examples of how you can inexpensively recognize your volunteers so that they feel appreciated for the time and talent they contribute to your nonprofit
As you develop your volunteer management program, keep in mind the specific needs of your organization, as well as the types of volunteers you hope to attract. What works for one type of nonprofit may not work for yours, and you may need to change and refine processes as you go. But if you put in the time now to create a strategy, you’ll spend less time recruiting new volunteers.
Ready to get started? The next chapter will cover the basics of volunteer management, including the volunteers you’ll be recruiting for your nonprofit.
What is volunteer management?
It’s tempting to think of volunteer management as the process of showing volunteers what they need to do and supervising them as they perform the tasks you’ve assigned them. However, volunteer management goes beyond the volunteer’s activities.
It covers everything a nonprofit does to recruit and retain volunteers — including volunteer appreciation — and create a positive experience for them. Without volunteer management, nonprofits must constantly find new people to help out with everything from event staffing to routine administrative tasks.
Many different types of volunteers donate their time to nonprofits. Here are the most common:
- Formal volunteers are a part of a structured, supervised, long-term program. They have regular volunteer shifts, and they usually have managers similar to those in a private sector organization. Examples of the positions might be tour guides or docents, hospital volunteers, or fundraising volunteers for larger nonprofits.
- Governance volunteers provide leadership for other volunteers. They assist with planning and decision-making for an organization. These types of volunteers might be members of the board of directors or hold an officer position in an organization like a local PTA.
- Informal volunteers work in an unstructured program. They’re the volunteers who show up for a park cleanup or to help stuff backpacks for needy children, but they don’t participate regularly or have formal shifts. They consider themselves members of an organization, and when you put out a call for help with a discrete project, they’ll sign up if they have time.
- Project-based volunteers help out with specific events, meeting time line goals and making sure the event happens. These types of volunteers might help organize a walk-a-thon or raise money for a specific project, like creating a cookbook or other items for sale. Project-based volunteers can be part of a formal or informal volunteer program.
- Skill-based volunteers provide assistance with specific types of projects. For example, a volunteer handling the organization’s newsletter might be a publishing or editorial professional. This can also be part of a formal or informal volunteer program, as you may need someone to update your newsletter regularly but only need someone to manage the A/V equipment at one particular event.
In addition to different types of volunteers, nonprofits also require different types of volunteering work. You’ll need to consider these common volunteer areas as you build your volunteer management program.
A lot of nonprofits are strapped for funds, and this is where fundraising volunteers can help. They can do anything from making phone calls to sending letters and helping with fundraising events.
Staff can only do so much, and paid staff needs as much time as possible to focus on strategy. Administrative work like answering phones, making copies, and filing can all be done by volunteers.
If you run an institution like a museum or a historical society, volunteers can serve as guides through your collections. They greet people as they enter and give tours. This type of volunteering work is ideal for a formal volunteer program, as you need volunteers to staff regular shifts.
Education volunteers also do things like provide tutoring services or teach skills to others. For example, a library might have education volunteers who run computer classes for senior citizens.
Hands-on volunteering work can be part of a formal or informal volunteer program. It includes things like cleanup efforts, handing out flyers, and stuffing bags for events. These can be volunteers for emergency relief efforts or for regularly scheduled service events.
A lot of professionals, like paralegals and counselors, are willing to offer their services for nonprofits. These specialized services can include things like advocating on behalf of crime victims in court or providing therapeutic assistance.
There are also types of volunteering work that can be done at home. For example, a volunteer could compile contact lists, make phone calls, or provide writing or editing services remotely. In the case of animal rescue nonprofits, volunteers can also serve as foster families for pets.
Volunteer management best practices
Since there are so many types of volunteers, using volunteer management best practices will help you attract and retain people who care about your mission and who contribute to your overall efforts. Here are some examples of how you can better manage your volunteers.
Use a strong screening process
When someone jumps up to volunteer for your organization, it’s tempting to take them on. However, they may not be a good fit — and may actually be detrimental to your mission. It’s more important to spend time interviewing them and doing a background check than to have a warm body in place, especially if the position involves handling money.
Set clear objectives for volunteers
Having objectives in place, particularly for formal volunteers, gives them something to work toward. Provide clear job assignments and even job titles to help potential volunteers know what to expect. Lay out the purpose of the role and how it helps your nonprofit reach its goals.
Provide orientation and training
Even the most skilled volunteers can benefit from learning more about your organization. Offer an orientation program that teaches your new volunteers about the nonprofit’s history, mission, structure, and programs. Provide them with training for their roles, as you likely have procedures that are unique to your organization.
Recruit corporate sponsors
Getting corporate sponsorships is a win-win for nonprofits. Corporations can be a great source of recruits for your volunteer programs as well as funds for community events. In return, the corporations themselves get positive media coverage and a way to foster morale among their employees.
Value your volunteers’ input
Volunteers, particularly long-term volunteers who are part of a formal volunteer program, give their time to your nonprofit because they want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. Show them that you value their input and perspective by inviting them to staff and planning meetings, and keeping them in the loop about developments in the organization. Invite them to staff outings and the holiday party — essentially, treat them like they’re part of the paid staff.
Recognize your volunteers
Formally or informally recognizing the work your volunteers do can go a long way toward keeping them engaged. You can give them certificates and thank-you notes or host a pizza dinner after a project is completed as a way of showing appreciation for their work.
While a lot goes into volunteer management, it all starts with recruitment. In the next chapter, you’ll learn best practices for volunteer recruitment and get examples for improving your volunteer recruitment process.
How to recruit volunteers
Volunteers are a nonprofit’s most valuable resource. Their enthusiasm and passion for the cause is what helps the organization fulfill its mission.
They handle everything from administrative tasks to staffing events, sorting donations, and even providing professional services that align with the nonprofit’s outreach, like counseling or tax preparation. That’s why volunteer recruitment is so important; long-term volunteers keep the organization running.
Make it as easy as possible for volunteers to express their interest and provide them with opportunities to help out. Think about how volunteers are already coming to you and whether they’re a good fit for the organization.
Even if you think you have a full slate of volunteers, a career commitment or family matter could take them away from you at any time because they’re essentially working for no compensation. A strong volunteer recruitment process is necessary to keep the pipeline full of people who are interested in actively promoting and helping with your mission.
The basics of volunteer recruitment
There are a few different ways you can engage in volunteer recruitment. Warm body recruitment is when you need a large group of volunteers for a limited time, and they don’t need to have any special qualifications. For example, if you need to hand out flyers downtown, you don’t need to be quite as selective regarding skill sets. As long as the volunteers are passionate about your cause, they can be very helpful.
Another way to recruit volunteers is to contact people who are already connected to your organization in some way. For example, donors, friends, or family members of people your organization has helped, and friends of your existing volunteers or staff, may all be interested in lending a helping hand.
You can also post volunteer opportunities on sites like volunteermatch.org. People who are actively looking for a way to give back, whether it’s for their own personal reasons or to fulfill volunteer requirements for school credit, use these sites.
Setting up a dedicated web page
One of the easiest ways to improve volunteer recruitment is to set up a dedicated web page for volunteers. If your website doesn’t have information on your volunteer program and opportunities, you’re missing out on a simple way for potential volunteers to contact you.
This web page, called something like “Volunteer Opportunities,” should include a short blurb about the mission of your organization and a paragraph about your volunteer program. You can include all the opportunities you offer, from long-term administrative positions to event volunteering. Then, embed an volunteer application form or link to a form that potential volunteers can fill out.
Using a form can make it easier to collect information and get a better idea of the skill sets and interests of your potential volunteers. For example, your form could ask if volunteers have particular skills like social media or audiovisual experience. Then, when you’re reaching out for help to promote and staff an event, you can contact the volunteers who have those skills.
When it comes to creating forms, less is definitely more. Make it as easy as possible for people to sign up as volunteers. If you request too much information, they’ll abandon your forms. If all you need is a potential volunteer’s name, email address and/or phone number, as well as areas where they want to help out, that’s all your form should include. If you need more information — to run a background check, for instance — you can create a separate form for those volunteers.
Ideally, you’ll download this information into a volunteer management platform, which makes it easier to sort volunteers by skill set, location, or interest and assign them to different tasks. Being able to track your volunteers, particularly those who sign up to help with special events, will make it easier to contact them the next time you put on an event and need to recruit volunteers.
Create a volunteer recruitment plan
If you really want to boost the number of people helping out your nonprofit, create a volunteer recruitment plan. A good volunteer recruitment plan has a few essential components.
Identify volunteer strengths
A big part of ensuring sure your organization can fulfill its mission is to make sure you use your volunteers’ strengths and provide them with opportunities to contribute in the ways that they’re most comfortable.
During onboarding, ask your potential volunteers about their strengths and weaknesses as well as what they prefer to work on (phone banking, handing out flyers, back-office tasks that don’t involve a lot of human interaction, etc.). Survey volunteers about their recent experiences to help pinpoint where they would be a good fit.
Create realistic opportunity descriptions
Just as you would for staff positions, create job descriptions for volunteers. These opportunity descriptions outline the role that the volunteer will fill, including the responsibilities that come with the opportunity and how it helps the organization meet its goals.
Keep the description concise but specific. This will help potential volunteers see what’s available and ensure they know what to expect when they start with your nonprofit.
Make sure your organization is ready for volunteers
Part of your volunteer recruitment plan should be preparing your nonprofit to work with volunteers. When you’re onboarding a new volunteer, they need to feel that the organization is welcoming them. Introduce them to other staff members and even provide them with a mentor who can help them get acquainted with their role.
Engage volunteers from the beginning
The foundation of any volunteer recruitment plan is engaging your volunteers. That means they need to be engaged from the first time you communicate with them.
Clearly communicate with prospective volunteers about what their roles are and what the next steps will be in the process. Learn as much as you can about them and give them what they need to do a good job. Be available for questions as they acclimate to their roles.
Volunteer recruitment is the cornerstone for any nonprofit. Setting up a dedicated web page to attract volunteers, as well as having a volunteer recruitment plan in place, can help you attract people who will help further your mission — and free up paid staff to work on strategic goals.
The next chapter will cover how to better engage your volunteers to keep them involved with your organization.
Improving volunteer engagement
Volunteer engagement is what keeps volunteers interested in your organization. If you don’t have a strategy in place, they’ll get bored and find other places to volunteer.
Sometimes, this can be a big challenge; in the chaotic world of nonprofits, where dollars and paid staff are stretched thin, it can be hard to create a volunteer engagement strategy and stick to it. However, this is essential if you want to keep your volunteers happy and eager to come back.
From the moment a volunteer walks through the door, volunteer engagement happens. Consistently communicating and recognizing your volunteers as they contribute to your organization is the basis of volunteer engagement.
Here are some ways you can create a volunteer engagement strategy and improve your overall volunteer engagement.
Know why your volunteers are there
Most people volunteer because they want to do something good. They believe in your organization’s mission and want to help people (or animals or the planet) by signing up with you. But there are other motivations for volunteering, and it helps to know what they are.
Some people may volunteer with your organization because they want a completely different experience than their day jobs, while others want to use their specific skill sets, like accounting or marketing. They may also want to meet school volunteerism requirements, get experience to add to their resumes, or meet other people. In the case of someone who is retired, they may be looking for something to keep them busy in between grandchildren’s visits or help them stay active.
One of the best ways to engage your volunteers is to know what motivates them. That way, you can match them to the right opportunity. The retired teacher who wants to keep busy may be perfect for leading nature talks, while the editor in between jobs could help with your newsletter.
To find out more about what motivates your volunteers, ask them. The form you used to get their contact information likely doesn’t have enough information to place them, particularly if they’re long-term positions. You can use task forms to match them to ideal projects or give surveys asking what interests them.
Provide orientation for volunteers
When volunteers start, they expect the nonprofit to show them the ropes. That means you’ll need to invest time in orientation and training. Consider using a volunteer handbook that lays out policies and procedures, as well as providing a written description of their duties. Pair new volunteers with more experienced ones so they can get acclimated to the environment.
Ask for feedback
Let your volunteers know that feedback is a two-way street. While you’ll provide them feedback on how they’re doing, which is particularly valuable for those who are volunteering to gain job experience, ask them for feedback on and suggestions for your organization.
Regularly ask what you can do better and what they like about volunteering for your organization. This will let them know that you care about their experience and help you improve your volunteer program overall.
Typically, volunteers have other commitments: jobs, families, and personal pursuits. Be flexible about how they can schedule their time to help out. For example, you might create a form so that they can input their availability or request specific shifts. This makes it easier for them to volunteer when they have the availability.
Foster a volunteer community
There are plenty of volunteers who sign up because they want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves and hope to make connections with like-minded people. As part of your volunteer engagement strategy, create a sense of community by making sure your volunteer opportunities provide an environment where friendships can develop.
Volunteer engagement leads to volunteer retention
Strong volunteer engagement is critical to volunteer retention. If they feel appreciated and serving your organization meets their needs, they’ll keep coming back. As with paid staff, it’s more efficient to keep a volunteer than to train new ones on a regular basis.
Here are a few volunteer retention strategies you can use, in addition to the volunteer engagement strategies provided previously.
Provide volunteers with the resources they need
Some volunteers sign up to help because they need something in return, like job experience or college recommendation letters. If you know their needs, you can match them with an opportunity that will make their experience with your organization more valuable. If they have the chance to develop their skills, they’re less likely to look for another opportunity.
Uncover their talents
When you get to know your volunteers, you also find out what they’re good at. For example, someone could sign up with your organization and secretly be a web design wizard. There might be an opportunity for your organization to use their talent as a web designer, instead of just having them hand out flyers.
Using a volunteer’s skill sets helps prevent them from getting bored. And if a volunteer hopes to learn certain skills, pair up that volunteer with one who has the skills they want to learn.
Stay in touch
Another volunteer retention strategy is to stay in touch after the volunteering event is over. Thank your volunteers and let them know how much they helped. Keep them in the loop about future opportunities. For example, if you host an annual event, let your volunteers know when the next one will be held well in advance so they can sign up to help. This makes it easier to plan.
With a strong volunteer engagement strategy, you can increase volunteer retention. In turn, you’ll spend less time recruiting volunteers and more time furthering the mission of your organization.
But there’s one last component to volunteer management: volunteer appreciation. The next chapter will discuss how recognizing your volunteers can affect your volunteer engagement and improve retention.
The importance of volunteer appreciation
The last, but certainly not least, important component of volunteer management is volunteer appreciation. Everyone needs some level of validation, and volunteer recognition is a great way to build your volunteers’ confidence and let them know how important their time and talents are to your organization.
Volunteer appreciation makes volunteers feel connected to the organization, which helps you retain them.
While there are formal weeks and months set aside for volunteer appreciation, such as National Volunteer Week in April, you don’t have to wait until then to recognize the hard work your volunteers put in.
Create a comprehensive plan for volunteer recognition to ensure you acknowledge these individuals for their participation and effort, and keep them engaged with your nonprofit.
How to communicate with volunteers
A big part of volunteer appreciation is communication. In any good relationship, communication keeps both parties happy and frustration-free. For example, when you explain a task to a new volunteer who has little to no experience, use language they understand and avoid jargon. This can help them better understand what you want them to do.
Get to know your volunteers as well. Not only will this help you identify their talents and interests, but it will also show them that you’re genuinely interested in what they can contribute to the organization. Consider hosting an orientation session where you show your appreciation from the get-go, and introduce them to your staff and your organization.
Host group meetings and activities to foster volunteer communication. This not only lets you provide volunteers with information but is also an opportunity for them to contribute ideas to the organization. In the case of activities, volunteers can communicate with each other. This helps them feel engaged and like part of something bigger, which is important since many people volunteer in the hopes of meeting like-minded individuals.
Finally, use different communication methods for different needs. There are a lot of options available, including personalized text messages, social media, phone calls, and email. Peer-to-peer texting is especially useful if you have an urgent need for volunteers. Email works well to notify volunteers about fundraising events or to put out a call for help.
Volunteer communication will go a long way toward volunteer appreciation and engagement. But you should also engage in volunteer recognition efforts to help retain volunteers.
Volunteer recognition ideas
When you start thinking about volunteer appreciation ideas, consider how you already recognize your volunteers and what would make them feel valued and appreciated. You don’t always need to have a formal volunteer recognition ceremony; informal appreciation is always welcome and lets your volunteers know that they’ve contributed positively to the organization.
As you start looking at volunteer recognition ideas, keep in mind that this needs to be a priority and should be done often.
You can thank your volunteers in different ways and make the form of recognition appropriate to the achievement, like a private thank-you and a certificate for helping out with an event or a plaque for 10 years with the organization. Be consistent with your efforts, and arrange for recognition as soon as possible after an achievement.
Here are some volunteer appreciation ideas:
- Hold an annual volunteer t-shirt design contest. The winning design will be used on the t-shirts for special events, and long-term volunteers can wear t-shirts from previous years if they want.
- Create a “volunteer of the month” page on your website. Each month, highlight a different volunteer and what they do for the organization. You can also use your Facebook page to recognize your volunteer of the month.
- Take a volunteer out for coffee. It’s a small gesture, but if you have office volunteers, they might enjoy the break. As a bonus, you could use this time to get to know your volunteers better.
- Send thank-you notes regularly. This can be for volunteer recognition after an event or a “just because” thank-you note to let your volunteer know how much their work is appreciated.
- Hold workday parties, like cookie swaps, during the year. This is a great volunteer appreciation idea for your office volunteers.
- Celebrate volunteer milestones, like time with your organization or completion of big projects. One easy and inexpensive way to do this is to create certificates and print them on card stock for volunteers to display in their homes or offices.
- Enlist those who your nonprofit serves to create a gift. For example, if your nonprofit works with children, encourage them to work on a piece of art for your volunteers.
- Host an event for your volunteers and their families. This can be as extravagant or as simple as you want: an ice cream social, a picnic, or a bowling party. This not only shows your volunteers that you appreciate them but also thanks their families for supporting them as they help your nonprofit.
- Write letters of recommendation. For volunteers who are at your organization to gain work experience or meet school requirements, offer to write them a letter of recommendation when they apply for jobs.
- Nominate your volunteers for awards. Look for local, regional, or national awards that celebrate volunteers, and if one of your volunteers fits the criteria, fill out an application for them.
- Host a recognition ceremony. After a big fundraiser or at the end of the year, put on a dinner and ceremony to recognize your volunteers. Provide plaques to long-term volunteers and hand out certificates to those who have contributed in the past year.
A strong volunteer appreciation program will go a long way toward engaging and retaining your volunteers. It does take some time and effort to create a volunteer appreciation program, but the return on that investment is worthwhile if it means your volunteers keep coming back. You’ll spend less time on recruiting and training volunteers and more time focusing on what you need to do to fulfill your organization’s mission.