Volunteers: Your Community By Design

A special and unparalleled way to know is to go where you’ve never been. And the key to this quest for knowledge is ‘elsewhere.’ – Hugh Kenner, The Elsewhere Community

Below the named Board of Directors, below the listed Administrative Staff, below the prestigious Advisory Committee, after the many Acknowledgements, after the Generous Sponsors and Donors, at the very bottom of the list, often in a smaller type, there is a line like this:

Thanks, also, to all the volunteers who have generously given their time and support.

Roughly a quarter of American adults will volunteer with a formal organization, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures from 2015, the most recent year with available data. That translates to at least 62.6 million volunteers working 7.8 billion hours, foregoing the equivalent of $184 billion in wages. Numbers worthy of respect and esteem.

Nonprofits spend a lot of energy on their mission statements to reflect the good they do, attract support and funding, and in most cases, to change the world for the better. It’s the reason why volunteers may want to get involved with an organization in the first place. But a poorly organized, under-utilized volunteer program can divert valuable resources away from that mission, and can even derail an organization entirely.

Every manager knows the importance of recognizing the outstanding performance and valued contributions of a volunteer. From service recognition banquets to nominating a volunteer for an award, it’s vital to praise hard work and let volunteers know that their efforts are appreciated. It’s equally important to let volunteers know when their performance has fallen short of your standards, when they have done something prohibited, or failed to fulfill the organization’s requirements. When volunteers participate without being given a clear understanding of an organization’s mission and intention, events and celebrations lose their potential for sustained meaning.

Volunteers and their organizations have a number of extraordinary things in common; among these are a commitment to a cause, service to a community, and a passion for the mission of the organization. Consider your volunteers from a communications perspective, and the community of clients you serve. A healthy volunteer program does not occur only by hosting a plethora of recruiting and high profile ceremonial events. It is built by design on the linchpin of communication.

Intentional Design of Volunteer Programs

Most information gathered from and about volunteers is anecdotal in nature, or has been collected in ways that do not allow comparison over time. As a result, volunteering may remain undervalued and its potential underutilized. Building your program by design should:

  • boost the visibility and credibility of the organization,
  • improve support and insight for management, and
  • provide a process for documenting the impact made by volunteers.

From the start of their partnership with an organization, volunteers, including board members, need to understand that to many observers, they are the organization. As such, they need to be deliberate in responding to inquiries from outside sources, and there must be a process in place for reporting back to the organization what they experience in the wild.

This is not about recognition for volunteers, it’s about establishing a reporting process for the organization, and disseminating that information to the community you serve, as well as to board members, associates, sponsors and donors. Many times nonprofit volunteer programs are so intensely focused on outputs (number of volunteers engaged and hours served) that they neglect inputs (the stories of volunteers and how well they served your community). Messaging should focus on volunteer impact and outcomes.

Like any thoughtful onboarding process, the most effective way of introducing messaging and community relations is to build these topics into the volunteer orientation.

  • Begin with prioritizing communication and engagement with volunteers
  • Educate and train volunteers as messengers and representatives for the organization and the community you serve
  • Empower volunteers with streamline reporting tools to communicate their activities: use sharing services such as Google docs and calendars, Dropbox, Hootsuite, Survey Monkey, and Evernote
  • Ensure that your organization has a plan to follow up with volunteers about their experience, and make sure volunteers know this is part of their engagement

Volunteers are a renewable resource for any organization, but their effectiveness requires a solid enabling policy along with a management strategy for information gathering. Volunteers need to understand an organization’s expectations up front, with a common vocabulary and set of values that support the organization’s stated mission.

Not only do unclear duties and expectations lead to a negative experience for your volunteers, but your community will get wind of these experiences soon enough. Your community should see and understand your organization’s mission from the success of your volunteer program. Likewise, information from volunteers is crucial to understanding the extent of your organization’s impact. This bottom up approach identifies themes and characteristics you may have missed in your volunteer programs, and will be invaluable to understanding how others see you.

Volunteers are an organization’s representatives, as much as the named board of directors, and like directors, they have a lifecycle. Bear in mind that volunteers may become donors and boosters, after a positive volunteer experience. Those who return for more assignments can also take more active leadership positions, and will serve as organizational ambassadors.

Without a group of dedicated volunteers most organizations would struggle. Dipping into this rich resource of volunteers solves staffing and budget issues, increases outreach and visibility, while building your “elsewhere” community. But it can be fraught with risk; the best volunteer experiences happen by design.

As summer vacations end later this month, the final weeks of August are the right time to assess how your organization will capture the attention of talented people who will be turning their sights on community service over the Holidays ahead.

Volunteer Risk Resources

See these additional resources on volunteer risk and reward to fortify and fuel your volunteer program.

Contact the Nonprofit Risk Management Center team to explore our volunteer risk management and risk leadership resources: info@nonprofitrisk.org or 703.777.3504.