It’s no secret that in the nonprofit sector, we rely heavily on volunteers. They help us carry out our mission and bring passion and talent to our organizations. However, if we’re honest we know that sometimes we don’t always manage volunteers the right way.
I remember a personal experience when I was volunteering at a food bank in Atlanta. I stood behind a counter and handed a brown grocery bag of food to each family that came to the food bank. Thirty minutes into serving food, we ran out. few later, the food bank coordinator shut the program down. We soon learned that demand for food assistance in Atlanta was rising, but food banks didn’t increase their food supply. It was clear our volunteer efforts were needed in a different way; we should have been collecting donations from the community so that the food bank had more resources for the families they served.
I took this experience with me when I started my term as the executive director of a volunteer-led nonprofit that provided free sports sessions to kids with disabilities. I developed processes for recruiting and retaining volunteers. When I started with the organization there were only 25 volunteers and one board member. Within a year, we had 10 board members hosting an annual gala and thousands of volunteer coaches leading kids in soccer, yoga, and dance across Los Angeles.
Here are some of the best practices that I learned through my own experiences managing volunteers:
- Be clear on the types of volunteers you need. Since I needed a high volume of volunteer coaches I focused on recruiting large groups, rather than one volunteer at a time. I tapped into local networks such as young professional groups, religious institutions, student organizations and corporate volunteer programs.
- Focus on retention. I was able to maintain a large and active volunteer corps because I continually focused on volunteer retention. We provided new volunteers with a training manual and they went through a training program so that they knew our organization’s culture and how to serve as a coach for our athletes. We made sure that volunteers knew their roles and other ways they could serve our nonprofit.
- Offer one-on-one attention. When new volunteers came out, I would have board members or our head coaches talk one-on-one with those who seemed most engaged with our athletes. We would then recruit these volunteers to serve as the leadership of our organization.
- Celebrate volunteers’ work! When I started as executive director, the nonprofit was in its second year and had growing pains similar to a start-up. All of our volunteers had an important role and we ensured they were aware that their dedication was integral in accomplishing our mission. The leadership of the organization continually expressed to volunteers how their service was directly linked to accomplishing our mission.
- Let volunteers take on new projects. While all nonprofits have unique challenges, sometimes volunteers have ideas that allow them to develop new skills and simultaneously benefit the organization. When my volunteers routinely organized a sports equipment drive, raised funds, or led a meeting they felt the impact of their work and learned a new skill set.
- Give volunteers tasks that match their strengths. I recognized dedicated volunteers by giving them leadership opportunities that matched their strengths. When new volunteers expressed interest, I met with them one-on-one or had another volunteer meet with them so they could share their expertise. We learned new volunteers’ interests and skills through an interview, application form or from a volunteer session serving as a coach.
I knew that our volunteer management efforts were successful when at our annual gala, our volunteer of the year shared in her speech that she could see her impact through the smiles on the kid’s faces. By connecting with volunteers and helping them see their impact, I was able to develop long-lasting relationships.
This article is part of a partnership between the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and Idealist. Read more about it here.
About the Author | Leah Weiner, Ed. D. serves as the Executive Director of The Division for Early Childhood, a nonprofit organization focused on advancing the field of special education. Leah has a doctorate in organizational leadership from Pepperdine University and a background in fundraising, volunteer management, board development, and planning giving. She provides consulting for small to mid-size nonprofits.