Transforming Nonprofit Volunteers into Long-term Supporters

portrait of a happy and diverse volunteer group pointing towards camera

For most nonprofits, volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization’s work. The time and talent volunteers contribute can be a pivotal factor in how well and how cost-effectively NFPs achieve their mission, affecting the organization’s long-term success as well as the ultimate impact of its programs.

But while the value of volunteer efforts is clear, finding strategies to fully leverage the power of volunteers’ goodwill and willingness to serve isn’t always as obvious. Nonprofits typically wrestle with the need to achieve complex goals using limited resources. That often means issues that deserve robust treatment must, by necessity, make do with only cursory attention. Volunteer management is frequently approached almost as an afterthought, given the multitude of other pressing concerns.

Making it a priority is an investment that can yield results many times greater than the costs in terms of staff hours and money alike. Without a clear, comprehensive approach to managing and developing volunteers, nonprofits won’t reap all the benefits of this important resource. To take best advantage of the vast power of nonprofit volunteers, organizations should focus on three key strategies.

Optimize Internal Systems

A strong volunteer management program relies on both people and technology; a CRM or some sort of system to track volunteers’ tasks (and also their giving) is crucial to success. The system must be consistently used and constantly updated, not just “in place” in order to be effective. A detailed database within the system can enable organizations to match volunteer skill sets with unmet needs and identify volunteers who may be able to provide in-kind donations of specific items or professional services.

But technology alone is insufficient; organizations should designate a dedicated manager of volunteer programs and provide adequate personnel to manage and supervise volunteers. If this role is shared, staff should have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and established procedures for managing volunteers and adding information to the CRM. Effective internal controls are another important component of a well-run volunteer management system. In addition, regularly scheduled planning sessions can help nonprofits identify meaningful work for volunteers, enhance skill-building programs for volunteers and foster seamless volunteer management across the organization.

Ensure Effective Communication

Clear and timely communications to volunteers at all stages of engagement is critical for building strong, supportive relationships that endure over time. Nonprofit leaders should seize every opportunity to educate volunteers about the organization’s mission and programs, as well as the impact of volunteer efforts. Keep volunteers informed through social media, in-person meetings, emails, newsletters and other forms of communication as appropriate.

In all communications with volunteers, NFPs should strive to be as clear and specific as possible to increase the likelihood of getting the desired results. What exactly does the organization want, need and expect from volunteers? After a volunteer experience, organizations that follow up gracefully and frequently can significantly improve retention and engagement. Make sure that volunteers receive adequate thanks for their efforts. Email is a great tool, but when offering thanks – or requesting additional commitments – a phone call or personal conversation is much more effective.

Maximize the Volunteer Experience

Giving volunteers a positive experience is one of the most important ways nonprofits can encourage them to provide future support. Volunteer managers should be mindful that while working to benefit the organization is their daily job, it is an optional and generous act for volunteers. Engage them in activities that allow them to see the impact they make and offer plenty of praise and encouragement for their efforts. Special events, recognitions and campaigns to celebrate dedicated volunteers also go far toward bolstering the impulse to stay involved.

Organizations should provide ample opportunity for volunteers to perform hands-on work with programs and activities, along with strong leadership development programs for volunteer staff.  Involving volunteers in strategic planning allows organizations to benefit from an outside perspective and innovative thinking while helping volunteers feel more involved and valued. It’s also important to build a sense of community among volunteers, staff, donors and program participants.

Managing and developing volunteer programs takes time, talent and financial resources that nonprofit leaders often hesitate to divert from service delivery. However, it is a mistake to think of this kind of resource allocation as taking anything away from the fundamental services and programs the organization provides. The enthusiasm, talent and dedication that volunteers bring to a nonprofit – not to mention the hours and monetary donations they provide – are a critical part of any organization’s success. As such, a focus on building strong and effective volunteer management systems must be recognized as a legitimate priority that directly impacts the organization and enhances its ability to reach its goals.

If you have more questions about volunteer management we work with some wonderful nonprofit volunteer consultants. Call us an we would be happy to further discuss and connect you!