Getting the Most Out of Your Nonprofit's Volunteers

February 20, 2024
8 minutes
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As a nonprofit leader, you have a million things to juggle every single day (a circus clown's got nothing on you). You typically don't even get a minute to sit down and breathe, let alone actually think strategically about how to best utilize your amazing volunteers. Unfortunately, that could be hurting your nonprofit organization more than you might think.

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What is the value of a nonprofit volunteer?

One of the greatest things about nonprofit volunteers is that their time is donated, so no matter what, they aren't costing you any money, right? Not so fast. According to Independent Sector, the US national value of a volunteer hour as updated in April 2023 is $31.80, which is a lot of money to save. 

And with "inflation" being the word of the day, it stands to reason that the value of volunteer hours has increased at a rapid pace since 2019. Before then, the national value of the volunteer hour rose at a steady pace, with 2019's value hitting just over $25. From then on, that value rose steeply, increasing more than $6 over 4 years. 

Keeping that in mind, to really maximize that valuable time, start by managing volunteer expectations and creating a training program, then build relationships with volunteers and prioritize volunteer engagement, and finally, take volunteer feedback into account and provide additional resources for volunteers to make the positive impact they're seeking.

On the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast, Amber Christoferson, VP of DickersonBakker's Executive Search Group, had some sage advice for nonprofit volunteer managers and staff leaders: 

"When setting the tone of the culture in your organization, if you're not listening, you're losing. nonprofit organizations, if you're not bold, you're not moving. We have to be bold in how we tackle the challenges of today." –Amber Cristoferson, DickersonBakker

When you think "volunteers", what comes to mind?

  • Do you currently have returning volunteers? This can mean they volunteer daily, weekly, or even a couple of times per month.
  • Do you know most of your volunteers by name?
  • Are these volunteers aware of how much you appreciate the work they do for you?
  • Do your volunteers understand that their work is resulting in significant volunteer impact, whether that be freeing you up to take on higher priority items, fulfilling programmatic goals, or building relationships with your constituents.

If you answered "No" or "I don't know" to any of the above questions, then you have some serious work to do. If you have no return volunteers, you probably aren't realizing the full value of that volunteer hour, and you could be misusing several hours of employee (paid) time to constantly help new volunteers get up to speed.

Lucky for you, you won't have to figure all of this out on your own because we have some tips to pass along to help with the entire volunteer process, from recruitment all the way to retention.

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Volunteer Recruitment

Volunteer recruitment efforts should be constant and continuous. You should always have your eyes and ears open for potential volunteers that might be a good fit to work with your team or fulfill specific volunteer roles. Attend networking events for nonprofits and fundraising events put on by others who share your concern for your cause. When you're shopping or out to eat, pay attention to the people that are helping you. Volunteer recruitment strategies can make good for you in the most unexpected places.

If do you happen to stumble upon that nonprofit unicorn who shares an interest or concern in your cause, give 'em some details about what your org is doing to help. This is something you're both passionate about, so get each other excited. Let them know you have volunteer positions available and that you'd love them to come check things out if they are interested. Make sure to always carry business cards with your website and contact information.

Another great way to tap into your volunteer roster is to encourage your paid employees to have the same awareness and keep an eye out for potential volunteers to add to your pipeline. Activate your employee network by having them share fun content and information about your org to their social media accounts. Encourage them to tag your company and also to share content posted from your company accounts.

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Nothing beats in-person networking when it comes to finding people who genuinely share your interests. An added bonus is that you'll know a bit about them before they even begin volunteering. However, you'll probably need a bit more help to build your ideal volunteer brigade. If you're actively looking for volunteers, which we've established should always be the case, make sure you're letting the world know through your marketing and social media platforms. Also, be sure volunteer information has its own place on your website; it should be easy to find and make it completely clear and simple for people to get involved.

Volunteer Training & Task Assignment

All too often with nonprofits that are overstretched, the process for new volunteer onboarding looks like showing up and getting a five-minute rundown on what "the group" will be doing for the day. No real parameters are established, leaving people to come and go whenever. Lots of times, these volunteers end up doing mindless tasks for a couple of hours and are sent on their way with a quick thank you.

Most nonprofits have a mile-long list of tedious tasks that need to be completed, and it's absolutely okay to assign those to volunteers, but make sure they have support and feel like a part of the big picture while they're doing that boooooring work. Have one of your staff work alongside them and chat them up about how this work is specifically going to help. Provide refreshments and regular breaks, turn on some music... do what you can to make the atmosphere enjoyable even if the task is monotonous.

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For the jobs that aren't as simple and may require a specific skill set, you'll want to take a deeper dive into creating a transparent volunteer application, comprehensive volunteer training, and an inclusive volunteer handbook. Ongoing, regularly scheduled volunteer gigs can actually be a really great way for a student or person looking to transition careers get some real-world volunteer experience to add to their résumé while helping your organization in a meaningful way. The work they do is real; treat it that way!

You'll want to get your skilled volunteers set up more like employees. Not all volunteers are created equal—different people are gonna come in with different skills and levels of experience. For people that are going to be performing skilled tasks, you'll want to take a look at their résumé and have a discussion that resembles an interview. Match their skill set to the type of role you need filled and allow people to specialize.

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Provide these individuals with an orientation that supplies all of the training, information, and resources they'll need to perform their job function. Work with them to set up a schedule and provide specific expectations around hours, performance, quality of work, any deadlines, etc.

We understand that this level of training and onboarding takes time and resources, but treating these individuals as valuable "employees" should help minimize role confusion and decrease turnover for these skilled roles. That means fewer trainings and re-trainings over the long term, making room for you to focus on other impactful work, like developing your next fundraising efforts. You can also engage your more experienced volunteers that have been with you for a while to help train new volunteers for specific roles. Remind them that this provides meaningful experience that can be added to their résumé . If one of your volunteers asks you for a work or character reference, you should be eager to tell the world how much amazing work they've done for your team.

Volunteer Support & Engagement

All of your volunteers need to be supported while they're performing their duties. They should know ahead of time exactly who and where they should go if they have questions or run into any issues. Leaving this to chance can mean frustrated volunteers who won't come back (goodbye recruitment efforts) or confused volunteers who are less productive or require more time from your employees to track down answers.

There should be a schedule laid out at the beginning of the day. You can set up time slots throughout the entire day, have the volunteer do the first task for a certain amount of time, and then if they'd like to stay longer, they can move onto a second task. Set up as many of these time slots as you'd like. You could also use these to help manage people coming in periodically. Most importantly, make sure you never waste a volunteer's time. You wouldn't want them wasting yours, and their time is just as valuable.

You should never feel bad for utilizing volunteers or feel as though you're taking advantage of people for not paying them. If you do feel that way, then you probably aren't treating them right. Your volunteers should feel like part of the team! Just don't go putting Baby in the corner; get your volunteers involved and get 'em excited.

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Volunteer Recognition & Retention

Humans tend to enjoy knowing they've done a good job and hearing that their work is appreciated (you get a gold star, and you get a gold star, and you get a gold star!). Recognition is an important part of any workplace, especially one that includes skilled volunteers. Set up a recognition system for performance that goes above and beyond. This doesn't have to be anything that costs a lot of money. It could be a gift card or perhaps a Volunteer of the Week award where their picture and story go up on a wall or your website. But don't just rely on the formal system; build relationships and make connections with your volunteers so you can show genuine appreciation for all they do for your cause.

At the end of a volunteer's first shift, ideally, you should meet with each volunteer to review how it went and get any feedback they might have for your team. If it's not possible to meet with each volunteer in person immediately, make sure you have contact information for them so you can follow up and invite them to return for additional shifts. When you get feedback, take it seriously and implement changes when necessary.

You should keep track of your volunteers at the same level you keep track of your clients or major donors. They're valuable, especially if they return to volunteer for you often. Use the communication channels that each volunteer prefers, past and present, and continue through the same methods (whether it be email, text, or phone calls), so your effective communication process is consistent.

Your volunteer retention rate should be a focus of your robust volunteer program; just like your staff and donors, impactful volunteer initiatives only work when they're part of an efficient, long-term holistic strategy.

Getting Volunteers to Organize Themselves

While volunteers are awesome and we are forever grateful for their time commitment, effective nonprofit volunteer management can take up a lot of precious time. Instead, here's how to get volunteers to organize themselves so that you can focus more on your most important tasks. Sounds like a dream, right?

Here's the thing – achieving this dream may not be as out of reach as you think. Getting your volunteers to organize themselves may be a matter of approaching volunteer management solutions a bit differently and making some changes to your current system.

Francesco Ambrogetti, Principal Adviser of Innovative and Alternative Finance for Children at UNICEF, explains the lessons he learned as Worldwide Supporter Engagement Lead on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast:

"Acquiring new supporters is your single source of growth, so improving the experience is important. Every time you buy, download, go to a concert, the first thing you got how was the experience from 1 to 10. How often do you recommend to your friends? And why?" –Francesco Ambrogetti, UNICEF

Ready to make those dreams a reality? Then take heed of these seven tips for getting your volunteers to organize themselves.

Tip #1: Define what success looks like for your volunteer team

Lewis Carroll once said,

“If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there.”

So if you don't know what success looks like in terms of volunteers organizing themselves, you may not know how to get started or sustain this new approach to your volunteer management process. For instance, does success look like volunteers emailing a lead volunteer with questions and scheduling issues? Does success look like you spending two hours or less per week on various aspects of volunteer management? Of course, there are many more definitions of success for this, but the point is, you need to decide what it looks like for your organization.

Pro-tip: Have a brainstorming session with your current volunteers to create a shared vision for success.

Tip #2: Recruit the right people

You already know that it's important to have the right employees in the right roles in your organization. The same goes for volunteers and building a solid volunteer program starts with recruiting the right prospective volunteers. Or as Jim Collins puts it,

“It is better to first get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. ...”

Since we're talking about volunteers who can organize themselves, you may want to look for self-starters, people who don't need a ton of direct supervision, and those who are not afraid to ask clarifying questions. Starting with a solid volunteer job description can clearly communicate your expectations.

Tip #3: Find a lead volunteer

We know you've got a to-do list that's a mile long and several plates full of work. We get that you want to work smarter, not harder. I mean, who doesn't amirite? That's why, when it comes to your volunteers, you need a partner in crime, the Alfred to your Bruce Wayne—someone who can support you and lighten the load. A volunteer role you may want to consider is having a “lead volunteer” or volunteer coordinator. This is someone who can oversee other volunteers and is willing to take on some extra leadership responsibilities.

Ready to find your lead volunteer? Look at your current volunteers for that superstar who may fit the bill.

Tip #4: Think mentorship, not supervision

One big change you can make in your volunteer program to cultivate and encourage a self-organizing volunteer group is to offer mentorship, not supervision. Of course, this assumes that you have the right volunteers in place (see Tip #2). Once you have the right people on your volunteer bus to awesome-town, start to understand your role as a mentor and not a supervisor. Offer support and coaching that helps your volunteers do their best work.

If you have a lead volunteer, you may want to invest a little extra time in their leadership so that they can continue to grow and shine.

Tip #5: Provide volunteers with tools and systems

You don't want your volunteer program to be like herding kittens. They may be cute, but ain't nobody got time for that! What you need are tools and systems to keep your volunteer team running smoothly.

As the staff member ultimately in charge of some volunteers, it pays to provide volunteers with tools and systems for communicating and doing their work. Maybe you have a shared Slack channel or even just a shared calendar. If you want to take it up a notch, consider creating a Google site for #allthingsvolunteer at your organization.

Tip #6: Have a plan for ongoing engagement

If you've got a team of great volunteers and momentum with them self organizing, you'll want to make sure you keep ‘em. Oftentimes retaining your for-free-for-good team comes down to creating volunteer opportunities that folks want and are genuinely excited about. Find ways to help your volunteers have a positive experience by understanding their goals and reasons for volunteering.

Pro-tip: Schedule a check in with each of your volunteers to take their pulse and create a winning volunteer work plan.

Tip #7: Thank and appreciate your volunteers

What's the best way to encourage volunteers to stay the path? Thank and appreciate their work! And not just during National Volunteer Week. As we've mentioned, you need to find little opportunities year round to say thanks and encourage them—especially if they're doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Maybe it's a quick chat during their volunteer shift or a heartfelt card for their birthday. There are plenty of little things you can do to show volunteers a little love.

Turning Volunteers Into Donors

Perhaps one of greatest benefits of cultivating a positive volunteer culture and building lasting relationships with your nonprofit volunteers is that they may eventually turn into donors or financial supporters. According to a study by Fidelity Charitable, 50 percent of volunteers said volunteering leads them to give more financial support. Wowza.

With so many benefits to your organization, if you aren't focusing on volunteer cultivation and volunteer retention, do you even nonprofit, bro?

As your friendly neighborhood nonprofit CRM, Funraise is with you every step of the way and will be there to help manage all of those volunteer-turned-supporter donations when the time is right.

Managing Your Nonprofit's Volunteers: Key Takeaways

  • Donors give money; volunteers give time. Both deserve your attention and appreciation.
  • Recruit potential volunteers by advertising open volunteering opportunities, attending virtual events, and screening for the right people.
  • Engage your passionate volunteers by onboarding and training them, using their time well, and providing continued support and relevant volunteer experiences.
  • Retain your current volunteers by communicating regularly, recognizing their hard work, and, most of all, showing them some love. Maybe by holding a volunteer appreciation event?
  • Eventually, your volunteer base can organize themselves—it just requires some planning on your part. But don't discount the importance of choosing a volunteer volunteer manager and getting volunteer management software.
  • Dedicated volunteers often turn into donors, so cultivate those relationships and keep on recruiting! Let's hear it for turning volunteers into donors!
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