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4 min read

The 5 Aspects of a Strong Volunteer Program

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Building a volunteer program isn’t easy, but it may be simpler than you might think. There are five key aspects of a strong volunteer program: Recruitment, Training & Onboarding, Management, Program Review and, of course, Appreciation.

I always start with Appreciation.

Appreciation is the air that volunteers breathe. Without it, they’ll be gone. If you can only do one thing well, make it this! It should permeate everything you do, from creating a recruitment posting to how you handle a personality conflict. There are four general ways to show appreciation.

  1. Informal thank yous – thank every volunteer, every shift, being specific whenever possible.
  2. Tangible gratitude – something special for when a volunteer goes above and beyond.
  3. Public acknowledgement – a shout-out on social media, or recognition at an event (get their permission first!)
  4. Appreciation events – finding out what the volunteers want and giving it to them is the key to having a successful appreciation event.

As you go through the items below, think about how you can show appreciation at every stage.

The next aspect is recruitment.

Recruitment begins with preparation. What are the tasks that the volunteer will need to do? Which skills and attitudes will they need to bring, and which can you train for? Who exactly are you looking for? The clearer a picture you have of the person who would be a fit for the role, the more likely it is that you will find them.

Once you’ve done your prep work start spreading the word: on social media, on your website, by word of mouth and by asking current volunteers to help (they can be your best ambassadors!) When the applications start coming in, set up interviews. If possible, meet the prospective volunteer face-to-face, whether in person or by video. Visual clues give you a much clearer idea of the person than just reading a resume or talking on the phone.

Only pick the best. It’s better to have a role vacant than to have it filled by the wrong person. Desperation to fill a role is one reason so many volunteer programs have a high turnover rate.

Training and onboarding is another way you can increase retention.

If a volunteer feels like they’re doing a poor job, they’ll leave. Good onboarding and training systems can bolster the volunteer’s self-esteem and make supervising easier. There are a few ways to do this.

  1. Immediately make them feel part of the team. Introduce them to staff and other volunteers. Show them around. Provide them with a tee-shirt, hat or pin to show that they belong.
  2. Discuss how the role impacts the mission. People volunteer because they care about your cause. If they can’t see how their role helps, they’ll become dissatisfied.
  3. Show them how to do things. Even simple things. Things that are self-explanatory to you may not be to them, so show them everything. Also, provide them with a volunteer handbook.
  4. If the role that they’ve been assigned is complex, break the training up over time. The more detailed a role is, the less likely it is that they will grasp it all in one session. By teaching it bit by bit, you will know what part they know and what they don’t.
  5. Finally, assign a mentor. Provide the newbie with someone they can ask questions of and learn the “unspoken rules” from. A friendly, experienced volunteer can prevent a lot of anxiety and errors.

Day-to-day management is next.

This includes everything from scheduling shifts to improving diversity. This can’t be covered in one article, but here are a few tips.

  1. Scheduling. Have some way of keeping track of who is showing up when, and how many hours they’re donating. This can be as basic as a spreadsheet or as sophisticated as a purpose-built volunteer management system such as Better Impact’s solution – Volunteer Impact. No matter your size, you need something!
  2. Supervision. Communication and accessibility are key to good supervision. Make sure everyone knows what’s going on and has a way to get to you if they need help.
  3. Learn to delegate. Done well, delegation can save you tons of time. Provide the volunteer with the outcome you expect, a deadline, the resources they need and – hardest of all – the autonomy to do it their way. You provide the what, they provide the how.
  4. Encourage a culture of problem solving. Don’t think that you must come up with all the answers. The best leaders surround themselves with people who can think for themselves. Develop this by asking volunteers who comes to you with a problem how they would solve it.
  5. Manage conflict. Conflict can be good or bad. It’s good for people to go against the majority if they believe something is wrong (think whistleblowers). It’s bad when people rather than ideas are attacked. When that happens, stay objective, listen to all sides and help them find common ground.
  6. Increase diversity. The diversity in your organization should match that in the general community, not only in ethnicities or gender, but in socio-economic status, physical and mental abilities, etc.

Finally, do a regular program review.

At least annually, review all aspects of your program, from appreciation to management. What’s working, what isn’t? What areas can be improved? If you take a benchmark of where you are now and compare it to your image of a “perfect” volunteer program, you can chart your progress from one to the other. This is the best way to continually improve your program.

Like I said, creating a strong volunteer program is simple, just not easy. But if you have a clear idea of what you would like it to be, take it step by step, and do a little bit every week, you will end up with a volunteer program that others will want to emulate. Good luck!