Would you be surprised to learn that most nonprofits are failing to make use of one of their most valuable resources? What if I told you that that resource is 100% free?
As non-profits, human capital is often one of our greatest, yet woefully under-utilized assets. Many organizations are brimming with board members, current volunteers, and other interested individuals eager to use their time and talents to help out, but never get the opportunity. Engaged volunteers can supercharge your organization’s reach and impact. So, how do we do it? How do we maximize engagement of our staff and volunteers?
Many organizations have a plan for paid staff that outlines clear roles and responsibilities, but we can’t treat volunteers as paid staff and expect them to be thinking about their “assignments” daily. We have to find ways to break down the volunteer’s role, so that—
- the volunteers are engaging in assignments that are manageable for both the volunteer and for the staff to provide the necessary support to that person; and
- the volunteer has a clear understanding of precisely how they can best support the organization.
While there will be exceptions, most volunteers will want and need a staff member to walk alongside them through the work they’re providing. This doesn’t mean staff has to (or even should) manage every aspect of the volunteer’s work but staff should make time to touch base with the volunteer often, ensure progress is ongoing, and provide that volunteer with the tools they need to be successful.
As you think about more effectively engaging your volunteers, here are some steps for your organization to consider:
- Assess your organization and determine the key activities where your staff is spending their time. Are there areas or portions of a project where a volunteer could assist to allow the staff member to focus on other priorities? It is critical for both your success and to retain the esteem of your volunteer that you are not asking your volunteer to engage in “busy work.” Volunteers should be asked to help with meaningful projects that move the organization forward.
- Consider how a staff member and volunteer would work together to complete the task. Create a plan for moving the project forward. It should include items such as: ways to share information, a timeline for updates, and key benchmarks. This might sound like more work for the staff initially – when the goal was to reduce the staff’s time – but dedicating time upfront to planning will make the volunteer’s work go more smoothly and create a higher level of buy-in from your volunteers. Once the volunteer is up and running, the staff will have additional capacity for other items.
- Identify the pool of volunteers that you want to engage. Consider members of your board, committees, or potentially bringing in a new group of volunteers that have shown an interest in the organization in the past. This could be a great opportunity to get a former board member reengaged or to cultivate a potential future board member.
- Reach out to the volunteers and have a very open and transparent conversation about your organization’s needs. Explain the project or task that the staff has identified and ask if they would be interested in partnering with you. The conversation may be very similar to asking for a gift – talk about the impact they will have on fulfilling the mission of the organization. Walk the volunteer(s) through the plan your team has created, the impact that their contribution will have, and how it fits into the organization’s larger goals. No one wants to spend time and effort on a project that is set up to fail, so prove that you have thought through each step and have a plan in place. Don’t forget to go over the expected time requirements.
- Assure the volunteer(s) that your team is there to support them along the way. They are not in this alone but are part of the team and your organization’s larger mission.
Once the volunteer accepts the role, the fun can really begin. Not only do you have a new team member onboard, but you have someone who is willing to invest their time and skills to move the institution forward. This can be very powerful in getting closer to your goals and growing the reach of your organization. As the project moves forward, keep a few things in mind:
- Refer to your plan on a regular basis. It should have natural check-in points and benchmarks to make sure you are following up with your volunteers on a regular basis. Don’t let too much time go by – in most cases the volunteer will not feel like you are bugging them but will appreciate the reminder and/or the opportunity to ask questions.
- Make sure others on your team know what volunteers are working on which projects. This will ensure that staff and volunteers are not overlapping in efforts and allow the entire organization to provide good stewardship when they see them in the office or around the community.
- Show the volunteers the impact they are having on the organization. The power of this cannot be overstated. Don’t let volunteers work within a vacuum without seeing how their work is a part of a larger plan. This is a great opportunity to highlight what the organization is doing to make a difference.
- Don’t be afraid to step in and change the scope of the work or keep the volunteer tightly focused. In many cases, volunteers get excited and start going down a path that was not intended. This is not a terrible thing because they are showing a strong interest but is it in the best interests of the organization? You have to be willing to have conversations that reinforce the focus of the project and remind volunteers of how their work furthers the organization’s goals.
- Thank the volunteer often. Remember you are being paid for the work you do. Volunteers are essentially giving you their time and skills. It is essential that they know how much you appreciate that. Don’t let opportunities pass without thanking them and remining them of how their work is benefitting your organization.
Volunteers can drastically expand the impact of your organization – if the proper plan and structure are put into place.