Skip to main content

How To Create A Volunteer Engagement Strategy that Actually Works

Author: Tatiana Morand
August 29, 2019
🕑 9 min read

When Maria started volunteering at the animal shelter, she was excited.

She was hoping to meet new people who shared her love of animals, and was especially looking forward to walking and playing with dogs.

But eight months into volunteering, things were different.

Most of the time she was asked to run the front desk, rather than interacting with animals.

Plus, the desk was a solo assignment, so she hadn’t met any other volunteers.

She dutifully showed up for her volunteer shifts, but she wasn’t excited.

She planned to finish her one-year commitment, then find somewhere else to volunteer.

Joe, a long-time volunteer at the shelter, was also losing steam.

All he ever did was walk dogs — which he liked, but after five years of walking dogs twice a week, he wanted to do more.

He had an idea for improving the volunteer rotation, so everyone could do a little bit of everything.

He would be happy to make the schedule to make it happen, but he didn’t want to step on the volunteer manager’s toes.

Meanwhile Tasha, the volunteer manager at the shelter, was wondering why it was so hard to keep good volunteers.

“People are flakes,” she concluded.

Does this story sound familiar to you?

If so, you might have the same problem as Tasha: no comprehensive volunteer engagement strategy.

But don’t worry: in this post, I’m going to cover exactly how you can develop a strategy that works for your organization, from beginning to end.

Volunteer Recruitment Checklist

How To Develop A Volunteer Engagement Strategy

A volunteer engagement strategy is simply a plan for keeping your volunteers active and interested and avoiding volunteer burnout. It starts with orientation, and continues with feedback, check-ins, and recognition.

To get started, consider the journey a volunteer takes when they get involved with your nonprofit. At each point, you can look for new ways to build the relationship, take things deeper, and connect the volunteer more with your mission.

1. The First Thing You Need To Do

What’s your process for onboarding a new volunteer?

At many organizations, the answer is: “What process?”

It’s just, “Show up on Thursday at 10, and you’ll see how the soup kitchen works.”

This may work for one-off volunteer opportunities, especially if they’re mostly manual labour.

However, it doesn’t give potential volunteers an opportunity to put the program in context, or feel prepared.

Even something as simple as a ten-minute meeting before the soup kitchen opens to show new volunteers where things are, establish who already knows how to chop an onion, and remind people of basic kitchen safety can go a long way to giving a good volunteer experience.

Other organizations have much more deliberate processes, complete with presentations, workshops, shadowing, and mentorship.

This type of orientation is good for volunteer opportunities that have very specific procedures, are working with challenging or vulnerable populations, or will require the volunteer to work independently most of the time.

Not every volunteer role requires this much preparation, however.

If people who just want to chop onions in your soup kitchen have to attend six orientation sessions before they can start, you’ll probably lose them.

So, for most organizations, the best orientation process will be somewhere in the middle, but towards the more “deliberate” end.

A formal volunteer orientation lets people know what they’re getting into, and will help them feel more confident when they start volunteering. Even if it’s just meeting with the volunteer manager for an hour to learn about volunteering, take the time to introduce your programs to each new volunteer.

A good volunteer orientation process:

  • Informs volunteers about your mission
  • Educates them about different volunteer opportunities
  • Establishes goals for volunteers
  • Safeguards against common mishaps
  • Helps you learn more about them
  • Excites volunteers to make a difference

At the end of a volunteer orientation, your volunteers won’t know everything — they’ll have to volunteer for that — but they’ll have a solid grasp of your programs, their role in the mission, and what to expect. This sets them up for success, and ensures that they’ll know how important they are right away.

To learn more, check out this video:

Learn More: Starting Volunteers Off Right: A Guide to Volunteer Onboarding

2. Keep Each Other Posted

You probably don’t want to do the same task over and over again… so why would your volunteers?

Interests change, and new challenges arise. Being there to support volunteers, especially those who have demonstrated a continuing commitment, requires an ongoing investment.

One way you can do that is by establishing regular check-ins and coaching sessions.

This helps keeps volunteers engaged by giving them support, encouraging their good work, and helping them grow.

In the long term, it encourages volunteer retention, and helps the organization cultivate deeper long-term volunteer relationships.

Read More: Why You Might Need a Volunteer Newsletter + 3 Templates

How You Can Effectively Coach Volunteers

Coaching as a leadership practice is defined as conducting regularly scheduled one-on-one discussions between the leader and the volunteer that are focused on performance and development. Whether it’s a once-a-year meeting or monthly check-ins, these coaching conversations can help volunteers feel like more than “free labour,” and have a meaningful part in shaping the organization.

In your coaching sessions, ask open-ended questions to encourage open dialogue. Volunteers offer a unique perspective on organizations, so make sure you include opportunities for them to bring up ideas and concerns — what you learn may surprise you.

Coaching is also an opportunity to offer feedback and guide volunteers toward success. If you’d like them to do something differently, gently and tactfully tell them so. This shows that their volunteer work is important, and that you trust them to do it.

Check-ins help you solve problems before a volunteer leaves your organization.

Certainly, some people will complain if there isn’t a clear opportunity to do so — they will find a way! But a lot of people will quietly become more and more frustrated until they can’t stand it, and then, just as quietly, leave. If you have regular conversations in which you directly ask, “Is there anything that could be better?” they may tell you before they reach the breaking point.

3. Recognize Their Contributions

Think back to the last time you were thanked for something you did at work.

Even though it may be a small gesture, didn’t it feel good?

You can support volunteers in many significant ways just by being there, and noticing what they’re doing. Simple feedback like, “You handled that very well,” or “That’s exactly right!” can make a big difference for volunteers.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Just remember: each volunteer has a unique set of preferences for being recognized. Some people love to receive branded tote bags and framed certificates, while others sigh and put them in the back of the closet.

To gain insight on what has meaning, just ask your volunteers. Most of us are in tune with our preferences in this area — people know if they’d wear a branded t-shirt or not.

Then, you can tailor your recognition to their preferred style. A heartfelt thank you may be all that person needed to feel seen for their work.

Learn More: How to Write a Volunteer Program Report That Proves Your Volunteers’ Impact

Free Best Nonprofit Software

3 Tips For Better Volunteer Relationships

1. Honour Their Commitment

Volunteers are generously giving their time and talents to your nonprofit. You aren’t paying them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be professional in your interactions with them.

You can respect their generosity by:

  • Giving them clear information
    Be honest about what you can offer volunteers. If Tasha doesn’t have any open volunteer roles that work directly with animals, she should make sure Maria understands that before she starts volunteering.
  • Being mindful of their time
    Start and end meetings and events on time. Be sparing with mandatory in-person meetings. Respect the time limits volunteers give you–if they say they can volunteer once a month, don’t pressure them to switch to once a week.
  • Being fair
    If you have a mix of “juicy” and dull volunteer tasks, make sure you’re switching things up so everyone gets a chance at something fun. It’s tempting to give these assignments as a prize to the most dedicated people, but look for other ways to reward them that aren’t at the expense of other volunteers.

2. Make It Meaningful

Just like any other job, volunteers stay engaged when their volunteer roles are meaningful to them.

People volunteer to make a difference, but they usually have their own, not-entirely-altruistic hopes, too.

Maybe they’re hoping to make new friends, or improve their resume, or use their professional skills.

And if you can help them meet these goals, you’ll be a lot less likely to deal with boredom and burnout.

You can determine volunteers’ interests with:

  • A checklist of tasks
  • A list of opportunities they can rate in order of their interest
  • A conversation about what they’d like to do
  • An email to your current volunteer base when a new opportunity arises

And remember that people find meaning in many different things.

You might think running the signout desk at your afterschool program is a boring assignment that someone would be in a hurry to move on from, but your volunteers might live for the fifty high-fives they get from kids on their way out.

Simply by asking the question, “Why do you choose to volunteer?” you can learn a lot. Most volunteers can quickly describe just what it is they’re getting from this commitment. People have an innate sense for what encourages their continued volunteer service.

They can also recognize the inhibitors that are discouraging for them — but they probably won’t mention either unless you ask.

Read More: Volunteer Appreciation Guide

3. Give Opportunities To Grow

Some volunteers will want to do the same volunteer tasks for years at a time.

They really just want to chop onions in the soup kitchen, and that’s it.

But many will want to do more.

So, look for opportunities to give your dedicated volunteers more responsibility.

Maybe they could take on some of the menu planning, or work on the fundraising campaign for a new stove.

That’s because, no matter their motivation for volunteering in the first place, people stay engaged when they feel some ownership of their volunteer roles.

It’s easy to drop out of a crowd, but if you know you’re the person who drives the van, or makes the schedule, or leads the tour, you’re much more likely to feel responsible. More than just responsible, you’ll probably take pride in your contribution.

Mentoring new volunteers is an excellent leadership opportunity for established volunteers. This recognizes and promotes their expertise. They understand volunteering in a way that you might not, and will have their own tricks and tips for newcomers.

Read More: Successful Volunteer Teams Have These Four Types of People

Engaging Your Volunteers Is A Long-Term Strategy

Let’s go back to Maria, Joe, and Tasha, and imagine how their story could have been different with a volunteer engagement strategy.

When Tasha instituted periodic check-ins with her volunteers, Joe pitched his scheduling rotation.

Tasha thought it was a great idea, but didn’t have time to implement it — so Joe offered to do it, giving him a new sense of engagement and responsibility.

This meant that when Maria came in for her next shift, rotating volunteer assignments were an established practice.

She got to spend an even amount of time working at the front desk, walking dogs, helping people with pet adoptions, and cleaning out cages with a crew of other volunteers.

And after six months, she met up for a check-in with Tasha, who answered a couple outstanding questions she had, and expressed gratitude — making volunteering at the shelter the highlight of Maria’s week, and meaning she’ll be a lot more likely to stay on after her year’s commitment is up.

A volunteer engagement strategy like the one I’ve described helps you show volunteers how important they are. It can take you away from constant recruiting, and let you build deeper, richer relationships with volunteers, making them your organization’s most valuable asset.

Do you have any other advice for creating a sound volunteer engagement strategy? Let me know in the comments.

Read More: How to Build an Effective Volunteer Management Plan in Six Steps

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!