Many nonprofits rely on volunteer programs to keep their organizations running smoothly. But because a volunteer is, by nature, an unpaid position, many organizations struggle to find the best people to fit the roles. In fact, some organizations struggle to find people at all, running on the minimum number of volunteers as they attempt to recruit additional forces. Volunteers can be difficult to locate and even harder to keep, so what can a busy nonprofit leader do?
First, consider the qualities that prospective volunteers are looking for in an organization. When volunteer work is enjoyable, accessible, and convenient, volunteers are more likely to sign up and stay on. Here are some tips for making sure your organization is as volunteer-friendly as possible:
- Enjoyable: Volunteers should feel welcome and excited about their volunteering. Not every task assigned to volunteers has to be a blast, but volunteers should not feel as though they are relegated to exclusively boring, menial tasks that the paid staff members don’t want to bother with. When possible, let volunteers decide what tasks they will be doing. Letting volunteers select their duties keeps them engaged and entertained as well as productive.
- Accessible: Open up volunteer opportunities with clearly defined roles for different types of volunteers and avoid physical requirements where they are not needed. Consider accessibility, both physically and mentally, when you are creating these roles. If most of your volunteer work needs to be public-facing, consider whether the person needs to be seated or standing and make that clear. As a less obvious example, someone who loves animals but suffers from a severe cat allergy likely thinks they cannot volunteer at an animal shelter. But if they come across a clearly-defined administrative role that doesn’t interact with the animals, they might be very interested.
- Convenient: Work with your volunteers to make their tasks as convenient as possible. A volunteer who can work flexible hours is a lot more likely to stick around than one who is chastised for asking to work only on the weekends. Offer a variety of programs and shifts; some volunteers will want to pick up a couple of hours while their kids are at school, while others will only be available in the evenings. Consider virtual work as well.
An important way to build a successful volunteer program is by creating a straightforward yet supportive hiring, training, and orientation process. Volunteers do not need less support or direction just because they are unpaid. In fact, many may want more direction. Because they don’t spend as much time in their volunteer positions compared to full-time jobs, volunteers might take longer to acclimate to the role and organizational culture.
It’s helpful for new volunteers to have an opportunity to shadow an experienced volunteer at first, or work directly with a supervisor who can answer questions and provide guidance in the moment. Avoid immediately putting a new volunteer to work with no direction or supervision. Not only does this open up the chance for mistakes, it may leave the volunteer feeling lost and unmotivated. If a volunteer doesn’t know how to do a certain task that they’ve been assigned, they need to know who can help them.
As volunteers acclimate to their new roles and learn the ropes, provide feedback and growth opportunities where applicable. The volunteer supervisor should provide positive feedback and gentle corrections as needed. As much as possible, volunteers should be involved in the decision-making process when the matter affects them and their role. Treat volunteers as valued members of the team whose contributions are noticed and appreciated.
Remember that volunteers are looking for work that is enjoyable, accessible, and convenient. Organizations that leverage these qualities can attract—and keep—excellent volunteers!