Without their dedicated and hardworking volunteers, most nonprofits couldn’t function for long. Yet it’s easy to take these volunteers for granted and neglect to solicit their opinions or provide them with a “career path” that rewards talent and experience.
Not only might such neglect cause your organization to miss out on valuable perspectives, but it can lead to demoralized volunteers shifting loyalties to other nonprofits. To get the most from your volunteers and keep them committed, it’s essential to treat them like valuable resources.
Cheryl, executive director of a community food bank, had always depended on volunteers to help with such essential tasks as unloading trucks, stocking shelves and distributing food to community members. As the organization and its funding grew, Cheryl was able to hire more paid staff members — but she still relied on her volunteers to do much of the organization’s physical labor. Unfortunately, volunteer support had dwindled lately, with even longtime supporters no longer showing up to help.
When Cheryl asked a recent “dropout” about his decision, Pete explained that he and some of the other volunteers were tired of being treated as little more than extra hands. Their ideas and suggestions for greater operational efficiencies were ignored by staff members, and the more experienced volunteers found little opportunity to grow and assume greater responsibility as their knowledge about the organization increased.
If it was going to continue to fulfill its mission, the food bank clearly needed to do something — fast. But Cheryl wasn’t sure what that “something” was.
Keeping good volunteers can be relatively simple if you think of them as hired consultants rather than menial labor. Start with a formal orientation process that introduces volunteers to:
- Your mission and programs,
- Staff members and other volunteers with whom they’ll work,
- Members of the public your organization serves, and
- Tasks and projects that need their help.
During orientation, stress the importance of volunteer input and explain the best way to provide it. For example, volunteers and staff members who work on the same program might meet regularly to share ideas. To create a comfortable forum for volunteers to offer their suggestions, staff members or chairpersons should be discouraged from talking “at” the group or directing the entire agenda.
Or, you might consider forming a task force of volunteers to periodically assess programs. The task force can examine every volunteer job, asking why it was created, whether it’s still needed, and if the current method of carrying it out best accomplishes its goal.
Informal methods of soliciting feedback can work, too. You might ask volunteers individually if they see any unmet needs or have suggestions for improvement. To encourage volunteers to speak up, keep them informed about changes within your organization, such as staff hires, discontinued services and upcoming events.
Designing a “career path” can give volunteers a stake in your nonprofit’s success. Ask volunteers to set goals related to completing projects, mastering tasks or working a specific number of hours. Then reward them for reaching goals by recognizing their achievements publicly and providing them with more challenging assignments. Ultimately, you may ask an experienced volunteer to become your organization’s volunteer coordinator or join your board of directors.
When volunteers offer suggestions or feedback, be sure to follow through on them just as you would with a paid staff member. Even if you decide that an idea for a new program or solution to an ongoing problem isn’t feasible, explain your decision and encourage the volunteer to keep offering ideas.
To address her food bank’s volunteer troubles, Cheryl met with current and former volunteers to solicit their opinions on improving the organization’s volunteer experience — and its programs. After she appointed a longtime volunteer as coordinator and set up regular staff/volunteer meetings, attrition slowed and the food bank started attracting new volunteers. Best of all, Cheryl implemented one of Pete’s distribution solutions, and the food bank was able to expand its reach to dozens more in the community.