Amanda PetersenWe’ve been talking recently about how to understand the value of volunteers within your organization. If you missed the two previous posts in this series, get caught up on quantifying the value of a volunteer and understanding the role that volunteers play in your organization.

In 2018, ten years after the Great Recession, volunteers provide essential support for resource-constrained non-profits. From the delivery of direct services to completing functional projects, volunteers want to engage and drive your mission forward. They expect a great experience, and when they have it, they reward the organization with a deep, long-lasting relationship that benefits the organization.

Experience Matters

In the last year, I have submitted four volunteer inquiries. One got back to me with a list of requirements I couldn’t do from my phone. 🙁 Two didn’t reply.

This experience wasn’t great. It’s also not unusual. These are good organizations. I am volunteering with the one that got back to me quickly with clear next steps, ones that were matched to my expertise.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m a pretty resilient volunteer. As a volunteer professional, I know every one of these orgs can do a better job of engaging their potential volunteers.

Strategies to Optimize Engagement

Call them back

I had the great fortune to be part of an amazing team at the American Cancer Society rebooting volunteer onboarding and focusing on volunteer engagement. The first thing our fearless leader told us straight from our CEO’s mouth was “JUST CALL THEM BACK.”  This is a great life tip, in general, but invaluable for volunteer engagement.

If you can’t reply to all the volunteer inquiries you have, this is the first thing we have to address. Technology can help ensure each volunteer gets some kind of response from your organization. Between instant notifications upon application to both you as the administrator and the volunteer, the first contact doesn’t have to be the last. This can be a first touch in the process to encourage volunteers and find the right fit for them.

Connect the Right Person to the Right Role

In my previous position, we talked about this a lot. If the CEO of a local organization comes in, we don’t ask them to walk the dogs or make the soup, we ask them to be a leader too. Purpose, in and of itself, is a deep human need and motivator. Tie purpose to competence and mastery and the person, whether they are paid or unpaid, will soar.

Doing this without technology, can be a logistical nightmare and a theoretical nightmare. How do people find the roles that interest them? How do I create roles that meet most people’s needs?  How do I not create too many roles that I’m unable to fill? These are the middle-of-the-night thoughts that haunt every nonprofit volunteer manager.

With the right technology, you can create a detailed inventory of a volunteer’s skills, interests and qualifications. When you have a role, you can filter for what you need and reach out directly. With technology, you can post roles and needs and have volunteers pick for themselves. Autonomy and choice go a long way in helping people feel connected to your organization from the beginning.

Streamline onboarding

Once you call them back and connect them to the right role, you have to provide guidance for them to succeed. One of my supervisors told me once, “Volunteers are the gift that eat.” Truer words have never been spoken.  While volunteers allow nonprofits to do more than they could on their own, you have to invest in them by educating volunteers and preparing them for their duties. By doing so, you facilitate a deeper relationship with the volunteer and ensure their success.

What do volunteers need in onboarding? They need to see the why in what they are doing, in addition to how they will accomplish it. They need to understand their tools and know where to turn for help, and they need relationships. Like employees, volunteers leave volunteer work because they weren’t connected to the humans behind the mission or didn’t like the people they were working with.

One other note, their experience should be seamless and easy. The level of effort for entry should match the level of responsibility. If I am volunteering for a two-hour event, I don’t want to do a three-hour training first.

Online communities can prove invaluable here, providing not only a way to capture and share information but also easy-to-navigate access to resources and an automated way to walk volunteers through the information most beneficial to their role. It gives independence and connect them to others walking the same path.

Communicate respect and professionalism

Gone are the days of getting a pass because you are a nonprofit running on a limited budget. Volunteers expect to be treated as a colleague and not a family or friend coming over to pitch in. They don’t want to wait 30 minutes for you to figure out what you need them to do, and they really shouldn’t have to.

Offer digital sign-up opportunities accessible to the growing number of potential volunteers engaging with your nonprofit via a mobile device. Create communications plans to share all the relevant details and keep excitement high. Leverage workflows to streamline operations on your end and to ensure all volunteer details are received in a timely manner. Keep events organized, taking advantage of tools to limit participation, introduce waitlists, hour-tracking and role assignment. Make sure volunteers are kept in the loop by taking advantage of automated reminders and notifications

Recognize Contribution

Building relationships with your volunteers isn’t the only way to increase volunteer retention. Volunteer recognition acknowledges accomplishments, reinforces efforts and is a sign of appreciation. Frequent acknowledgement of their contribution offers a great way to show volunteers that you value their time and commitment to your organization. Seeing how volunteer efforts directly affect your organization and/or cause can not only inspire action from those not currently serving but encourage those already giving their time to become more involved.

Technology allows us to take this beyond an annual award. This can include highlighting successful volunteers in blogs, asking people doing innovative things to host a webinar and ensuring volunteers have a career path of increasing opportunities as they succeed. All of this is vital for long term retention.  Because we aren’t paying volunteers in cold hard cash, we have to make sure primary motivations are met. The need for mastery and social connection drive human behavior like nothing else.

Connect Them to Each Other – They are Your Organization

Strengthen a volunteer’s relationship with your organization by connecting volunteers to one another. In 2018, most non-profits would not exist without dedicated volunteers and donors. Your organization probably started as a meeting in a small little coffee shop or community meeting room. No one was paid, and everyone was the organization. We’ve forgotten this. To remember, we need to bake it into our bones that our volunteers are the foundation of our organization.

Create digital homes for your organization’s most enthusiastic supporters. Give them a place to spark conversation in exclusive forums, groups and blogs where everyone shares their commitment to your cause. Empower them to share their experience and show your impact by sharing photos and videos.

We’ll be sharing more about the Value of a Volunteer in our upcoming webinar on Wednesday, Nov 28 at 11:30 AM CST.

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