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Harnessing Volunteer Power

Lori Halley 13 April 2011 3 comments

Volunteers can transform communities and they are the lifeblood of many associations, non-profits and clubs. But many organizations struggle to effectively recruit, train and manage their volunteer base. In fact, volunteer management was identified as one of the top issues facing organizations for 2011 in our recent Blog Reader Survey.

Our volunteer experience can be very different at small non-profits, associations or clubs, than it is at large national organizations with professional volunteer managers. The key difference is that while small or solely volunteer-based organizations may need volunteers to thrive, they may not have the resources required to invest in effective volunteer program planning, recruitment or on-going management.

I’m no volunteer management expert, but I have been on both sides of the volunteer equation - working with volunteers as a non-profit staffer and as a volunteer for small organizations. From what I’ve seen and read, it seems that in order for individuals to have an enjoyable volunteer experience and for organizations to reap the full benefits of a volunteer program, some basic volunteer management principles should be applied: 

  • Organizations need to:
    • set clear objectives for how volunteers can help
    • set specific goals for volunteer activities/tasks/projects
    • create job descriptions for volunteer roles
    • identify a process/person for responding to volunteer applicants

  • Volunteers need to be:

    • screened and matched to opportunities
    • oriented to the organization and to the commitment they are making
    • trained on the specific project/task
    • supervised and encouraged
    • recognized

The following are some ideas, suggestions and resources that might help you get started in developing your organization’s volunteer management strategy:

Developing  A Comprehensive Systematic Approach to Volunteer Development

In a post a while back, Jeffrey Cufaude (Idea Architects) noted that he was discouraged to realize how few organizations seem to have a comprehensive, systematic approach to volunteer development.  He suggested that organizations that recruit volunteers ask one important question:

    would any credible, successful HR professional manage paid staff the way volunteers are managed in your organization?

    If the answer is yes, congratulations.  You can probably stop reading.  If the answer is no, you've just identified where your New Year's [volunteer management] resolutions should focus.” 

    While Cufaude recognizes that having large groups of volunteers poses logistical and management challenges, he believes these can be managed if you develop the appropriate systems or procedures. Check out his 12 Volunteer Management Practices to Adopt for 2011.

    Mapping Your Volunteer’s Journey

    Jayne Cravens (Coyote Communciations) appreciates the time and effort involved in recruiting and managing volunteers. She suggests organizations consider going through a mapping process to figure out how you can respond to and manage potential volunteers as they come in the door. She created Your flow chart for volunteers to demonstrate what a volunteer in-take flow chart could look like as a result of your mapping exercise. Check out her flow chart to see if it could help your organization get started mapping your own volunteer experience process.

    Rethinking and Restructuring Your Approach 

    If, like many organizations, you find that the majority of your volunteers are skilled, experienced professionals, you may need to rethink and restructure your volunteer management approach. As our “Are You Ready for the Volunteer Boom”Baby Boomers post suggested, Baby Boomers can offer an untapped volunteer resource of extraordinary proportions, but to manage successful volunteer programs with this group you need to offer volunteer roles that allow them to apply their skills and experience. Recognizing this, Volunteer Canada created Baby Boomers —YOUR NEW VOLUNTEERS an introductory workbook: Rethinking your organization’s approach to Baby Boomer volunteers. This workbook confirms that “when baby boomers volunteer, they want mission-linked, productive, satisfying work ...They want short-term work, flexible schedules at convenient locations, including opportunities to volunteer online. To effectively engage baby boomers as volunteers, your organization must think about volunteer roles and responsibilities differently and adapt to meet their needs while meeting the needs of your organization.”

    Creating Volunteer Job Design/Descriptions

    So how can you ensure that your volunteer roles are engaging and satisfying for your potential volunteers? Volunteer Canada suggests that “job design is the key to success.” They’ve created another resource - A Matter of Design–Job Design Theory and Application to the Voluntary Sector (PDF) that explains how the job design model can be adapted to volunteer roles and offer information and sample templates for creating volunteer job descriptions.

    While the Volunteer Canada materials I’ve noted were designed to focus on Baby Boomer volunteers, I’d suggest the guidance also applies to the majority of young to middle-aged professionals as well. If that is the case, applying job design and creating job descriptions should help to make the volunteer experience more enjoyable and productive for all of your volunteers.

    We hope this post offers some helpful volunteer management food for thought. Check out the additional links to volunteer management resources below.

    Read More About Volunteer Management in past Wild Apricot Blog Posts:

    Volunteer Resources:

    Photo source:  American Libraries

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Published Wednesday, 13 April 2011 at 9:00 AM


    • Shari Ilsen said:

      Thursday, 14 April 2011 at 3:38 PM

      What a great post, Lori, thanks! This is such a key issue across the entire nonprofit sector, but especially for smaller nonprofits.

      The resource list you provided is wonderful, and I'd like to add the VolunteerMatch Learning Center, as well. We're currently running 17 free webinars for nonprofits in the area of volunteer recruitment and management. Here's the link:


      Thanks again for the great article!

    • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

      Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

      Friday, 15 April 2011 at 4:40 AM

      Shari: Glad you liked the post and sorry I didn't include Volunteer Match - a wonderful resource. Thanks for bringing it to our reader's attention.

    • Jill Friedman Fixler said:

      Wednesday, 20 April 2011 at 5:55 AM

      When creating powerful and impactful position descriptions for volunteers consider the following:

      -    Are you telling them too much? Position descriptions should tell the key responsibilities for the volunteer, not how to do their work. Position descriptions with more than five key responsibilities can easily overwhelm potential volunteers. Conversely, position descriptions that just have one or two key responsibilities can underwhelm the volunteer and leave them wondering what kind of impact that they can have.

      -    Are you explaining the immediate impact and long term outcome of the volunteer's work? Today's volunteers what to know what difference they make in the short and long term. So the volunteer who is serving food to the hungry is creating a warm and welcoming place for the homeless to eat. And the long term impact is on decreasing hunger in the community.

      -    The more flexible that you can make the commitment, the more likely a volunteer will say yes. So instead of saying four hours ever Monday between 10 and 2, give the volunteer the option to chose when they volunteer with a requirement for 20 hours over six months.

      -    Do you tell the volunteer what is in it for them? By defining benefits such as learning new skills, meeting new people, free membership in the organization, you are outlining a benefit package for the volunteer. It is a competitive world out there for volunteering. By telling the volunteer what they can expect to get out of the volunteer experience, you stand out in the crowd.

      -    Is your position description marketable? If you post the position opportunity on a website such as www.volunteermatch.org and you don't get a response, the market is telling you to go back to the drawing board and redesign the opportunity.

    Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.

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