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Volunteer Management Best Practices For Each Stage Of The Volunteer Lifecycle

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Published: Sep 9, 2021

Volunteers are supporters who generously donate their time to missions they believe in. A considerable proportion of any nonprofit’s ground-level campaign work is done by them.

It’s no surprise that 80% of nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers, according to a study by the Urban Institute.

Undoubtedly, volunteers are valuable assets to your organization. Hence, it’s your responsibility to keep them satisfied, engaged, and excited to help if you wish to boost your retention rates and build an increasingly dependable base of support.

The key to this kind of success is continually updating and improving your management strategies while following volunteer management best practices. 

But, too many nonprofits get stuck in the past as they grow and tend to overlook updating their volunteer programs. 

Avoid that from happening by taking a close look at your volunteer program and making sure that you’re implementing the following best practices. 

Understanding the volunteer lifecycle

When we talk about volunteer management, the best practices don’t just apply to the volunteering experience. Good volunteer management entails following an optimized process throughout the volunteer lifecycle which consists of the following stages: 

  1. Needs analysis
  2. Recruitment
  3. Application and screening
  4. Orientation/training
  5. Assignment and execution
  6. Retention

Let’s look into each stage in a little more detail.

Needs analysis

The very first step of developing a volunteer program is writing out a plan describing your needs. This analysis lays the foundation of all the other tasks that follow. Here are a few questions you need to answer when doing a needs analysis:

  • What functions/areas do you need volunteers for? 
  • What are the specific tasks that volunteers would work on?
  • For what duration would you need the volunteers? 
  • What skills are required for these tasks?
  • Who would coordinate the volunteer program? 
  • What kind of benefits are you planning to offer to your volunteers to hook them?

Recruitment

The next step in the volunteer lifecycle is planning the recruitment process. Basically, this is where you define how you plan to recruit volunteers who have the skills and time to help you. 

Here’s what you have to lay out at this stage:

  • How do you want to portray your organization’s image? Volunteers are only going to give their time to organizations they feel are worthwhile.
  • Develop the messaging for the recruitment process. This includes your appeals, the hook, requirements/role, etc. 
  • What channels will you be using to reach your target audience?

Keep in mind that volunteer onboarding is not just going to affect your work but your existing staff too. So make sure you keep the following in mind: 

  • Your staff’s attitude towards the volunteer program and if you need to address it.
  • Steps to facilitate seamless collaboration between volunteers and staff.
  • Setting the role dynamics between staffers and volunteers – how are they collaborating? Where are they reporting? Can the staffers directly assign tasks? If so, what kind of tasks?

Application and screening

While the volunteer recruitment stage focuses more on the bigger picture of the program’s recruitment, this step dives into the specifics of the application process. Here’s what you need to plan for: 

  • The design and type of application. For instance, will it be an online form or a physical copy? 
  • What kind of questions will the application include?
  • Are there any additional documents that you’ll ask for? For instance, a government id card.
  • What factors would you use to filter out suitable applicants and match them with the right roles? 

Orientation and training

Once you onboard new volunteers, you’re going to want to get them accustomed to the organization and processes before assigning the tasks. All volunteers should go through an orientation that includes:

  • Giving details of your organization’s policies and procedures.
  • An introduction to the staff they’ll work closely with. 
  • An insight into the different teams working in the organization.
  • A brief about your mission, beneficiaries, and how volunteers fit into the picture. 

After the orientation, you can split the volunteers into groups based on their tasks and provide the technical (software training, task process, etc.) and soft skill training accordingly. 

Assignment and execution

After the training, your volunteers will be more equipped to carry out their assigned tasks. There’s not a lot that you need to plan for at this stage except for: 

  • Developing a way to supervise the volunteers at work.
  • Assigning a point person for each team who they can reach out to in case of any challenges. 
  • Developing a way to give and collect feedback from volunteers to make their experience better. 
  • Providing them with the right resources (like handy guides and software tools) to make volunteers more productive and efficient. 

Retention

The final stage of the volunteer lifecycle is retaining them. This is a crucial step in the lifecycle if you wish to build a solid, reliable supporter base. This is where you strategize ways to make sure your volunteers stick to your organization. Some of these strategies include: 

  • Recognizing volunteers regularly for the effort. 
  • Conveying their impact to keep them motivated.
  • Establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with volunteers to ensure they get what they wished for from the opportunity. 

Having a plan for all these stages beforehand helps reduce the hurdles you face during the process. And with the following best practices, you can ensure you make the most impact in each of the stages. 

Volunteer management best practices for needs analysis

Starting with the needs analysis, here are some things you can do to improve your planning.

1. Set aside a budget. 

Just because your volunteers are working for free doesn’t mean that your volunteer program wouldn’t cost you anything. When conducting a needs analysis, make sure you plan for the following expenses: 

  • Materials for recruitment, training, and orientation (print guides, brochures, CRM, etc.)
  • Background checks.
  • Volunteer recognition costs (sending out letters, tangible incentives, etc.).
  • Staff time dedicated to the volunteer program.
  • Volunteer support materials (food, travel, reimbursements, etc.).
  • Software subscriptions (internal communication, recruitment, volunteer management tools, etc.).

After approximating the cost of the program, you’ll be in a better position to set aside a budget for the program from your overall budget. This ensures that you’re not hit with any surprise expenses during the program and don’t have to divert funds from any other crucial activities. 

2. Define clear goals. 

Apart from assessing the needs of your volunteer program, setting goals for it is also quite crucial. Your goals help inform all the subsequent activities following this stage. Some examples of these goals are: 

  • Improving volunteer retention rates.
  • Boosting volunteer recruitment.
  • Growing the conversion rate of volunteers to donors.
  • Improving volunteer satisfaction and engagement.
  • Implementing more efficient or valuable data tools.
  • Strengthening communication across the program.
  • Measuring actual volunteer impact.

So, for instance, say your goal is to boost volunteer recruitment. Now you know that you have to make your application process simpler, so it’s easy to onboard a more significant number of volunteers in a shorter duration.  

If you’re wondering how to select a good goal, start by asking yourself, “What’s a problem that your volunteer program currently faces?” 

Your current biggest challenge can be the goal for the next program. 

Volunteer management best practices for recruitment

The following volunteer management best practices can help you reach out to a large number of quality volunteers. 

1. Use a multichannel approach. 

To recruit volunteers, you have to be able to reach out to a large audience. A multichannel approach helps you with that. It’s simple math. 

For example, LinkedIn has 756 million users, and Facebook has nearly 2.3 billion. By using LinkedIn and Facebook to drive volunteer recruitment efforts, you have access to almost 3 billion people. Sure, there is some overlap in the audience, but that just reinforces your message to them. 

Typically, for volunteer recruitment, you can think of being active on the following platforms:

  • Social media channels (like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
  • Email
  • Paid ads on social media or search engines.
  • Recruitment texts.
  • Flyers and posters in high foot traffic areas. 
  • Your nonprofit’s website
  • Information tables at community events.

2. Dig into your existing network.

Your existing network is not just your best source of funds but also volunteers. 

Before you go out recruiting, ask within your network for people who might be interested in volunteering or referring someone. This network includes: 

  • Donors
  • Past and existing volunteers
  • Staffers
  • Corporate partners
  • Other supporters (e.g., email subscribers or social media followers).

People are more likely to take heed to an appeal when asked by an acquaintance. So it might just reduce your overall efforts to recruit the required number of volunteers. Plus, it’s also a great chance to engage your donors and get them more closely involved with your organization. 

3. Write clear descriptions.

One of the top reasons why volunteers quit is because they’re confused about their duties. You can avoid this by setting clear expectations right from the start, i.e., when they apply.

Clear descriptions ensure that people know what they are applying for and what they’ll be doing. Here are the details you need to include in your descriptions:

  • The day-to-day responsibilities of the volunteer. 
  • The frequency of volunteering (the number of hours and days that people have to put in).
  • What they’ll get out of the experience.
  • Who they’ll report to.
  • What skills they should possess to qualify for the opportunity.

Volunteer management best practices for application and screening

These volunteer management best practices will ensure that the applications you receive are of excellent quality. 

1. Have a detailed application form.

Determining if you have the right applicant starts from getting the information you need on them. This is obtained from the application form. 

When creating these forms, make sure that you ask them questions that help you know them better. Here are some questions that your application must include:

  • Basic details like name, address, number, email id, etc. 
  • Their motivation behind volunteering. This gives you an idea of what they expect out of the experience. 
  • Interests, hobbies, strengths, and weaknesses. This helps you match their skills to the right opportunity. It also gives you an insight into their personality type to create a well balanced team.  
  • Employment information for a better idea of their skills and if they can be leveraged for a matching donation program in the future. 
  • Whether they’re interested in a long-term or short-term commitment– this sets expectations on their commitment right in the beginning so you can plan how much you want to focus on retaining them. 

2. Run background checks.

This is especially important if your organization works with vulnerable beneficiaries like children, refugees, or the elderly. Typically, there are two ways you can run them:

  • Criminal records repositories: Nonprofits can access these repositories to check criminal records. Alternatively, they can request applicants to submit their records from these repositories or reach out to a private screening company. 
  • Commercial background screening: Commercial background screeners run credit checks, Social Security number checks, DMV checks, etc., to verify the applicant’s information.

It’s also a good idea to include background check permission forms and confidentiality agreements along with your application to ensure you don’t invade any privacy laws. 

Volunteer management best practices for orientation and training 

To make your orientation and training program more relevant and fruitful, follow these volunteer management best practices. 

1. Get feedback from past volunteers.

Supporters involved in your past volunteering programs are the best source of the shortcomings in the past. Whether they’re volunteering with you for the current program or not, reach out to them and ask them if:

  • The training you provided was adequate.
  • Was there anything missing from the orientation or training that you should have included? 
  • Is there anything you should have done differently?
  • Were there any extra resources that you should have provided? 

You may get a large number of suggestions from this survey. But you can narrow them down to the ones that appear most commonly and start by improving them first. 

2. Have a set of training resources available to everyone.

A study showed that people forget almost 70% of their training in a day. While the study was based on businesses and employees, it can hold true for nonprofits and volunteers too. 

Not being able to retain everything that was taught during the training can lead to volunteers performing poorly and hence quitting because of an unsatisfactory experience. 

As big as the problem may sound, the solution is quite simple; just make sure to have the training resources available to everyone at all times. Here are a few ways you can do that: 

  • Create and upload the training guides/videos on a shared drive or software. 
  • Mail the resources to all volunteers after the training, so they have a copy of their own to refer to. 
  • Appoint a point person for each volunteer team that people can go to if they have any troubles. (Training resources don’t necessarily have to be paper guides, they can be people too).
  • You can even upload these guides on your website, something similar to this introductory guide on peer-to-peer fundraising by OneCause. While being an easily accessible resource, it also helps you with SEO. 

Volunteer management best practices for assignment and execution

When volunteers start working, it’s your duty to ensure that they enjoy it. Here are some volunteer management best practices that help you with that. 

1. Implement an internal communication system. 

When your volunteers are on the field, you want to make sure that you are accessible to them. You also need a way to get their feedback or suggestions on the processes, tasks, or problems they may have. 

A dedicated internal communication system ensures that you can have these conversations securely. Here are some options that you can look into:

  • Dedicated Slack channels for different volunteer teams.
  • Groups on online messenger platforms like WhatsApp or Viber. 
  • An internal SMS communication system, which may be even more easily accessible as it doesn’t even require a smartphone or internet connection.

Try out CallHub’s SMS marketing tool to set up an internal SMS communication system for all your volunteers. 

2. Assign tasks that suit volunteer skills.

The most intelligent way to ensure your volunteers feel engaged and impactful to the cause is to match them up with the tasks based on their skills. 

Understanding and valuing a volunteer’s unique skills is a highly effective way to show that you care about them and the contributions they bring to the table.

Here are a few examples of how you can put this into action:

  • For tech-savvy volunteers, ask them to help research new tools your team is thinking of adopting to help make the smartest choice.
  • For outgoing volunteers, have them serve as hosts for your events. Keeping event volunteers engaged by placing them where they shine can go a long way in boosting attendance over time.
  • For design-minded volunteers, ask them to help create new marketing materials for your upcoming campaigns.
  • For more reserved volunteers, orient them with your digital fundraising tools. For instance, ask a volunteer to help track your text-to-give campaign results.
  • For younger volunteers, ask them for suggestions on your marketing and social media strategies, communication channels to reach the new generations, etc. 
  • For volunteers who may be unsure, build a workflow that offers them the chance to work for multiple teams before they can finalize their forte. 

3. Actively encourage a sense of belonging. 

An old-fashioned but extremely reliable best practice for volunteer management is building team spirit.

A sense of belonging and team identity is essential for helping your volunteers feel included and valued. Depending on their roles and the types of events you host, there are a few ways to encourage these feelings:

  • Team-building exercises and excursions.
  • Customized badges and ID cards.
  • Volunteer uniform t-shirts.

Badges and t-shirts double as an easy way to identify volunteers staffing your public events and as a subtle marketing strategy too. Just make sure to find a custom merchandise platform that allows you to print and order as few or as many items as you need.

Volunteer management best practices for retention

Volunteer retention is critical for any program. The more people you retain, the stronger base of support you build, and the more you push your mission forward. 

Retention efforts typically start from the point a volunteer starts executing their tasks and extends way beyond the end of the campaign. 

Here are some best practices of volunteer management to help you boost retention rates. 

1. Prioritize thanking and rewarding volunteers often.

After volunteers put in hours of their time and effort in helping you achieve your mission, an impersonal thank you email is not going to cut it. What volunteers need are more personalized incentives (both tangible and intangible) that show that you genuinely value them.

Here are some ways you can reward your volunteers for their efforts:

  • A personalized thank you letter or card.
  • Board members or team leaders thanking the volunteer in person for doing a great job. 
  • Offering badges of achievements to top volunteers to reward their efforts while keeping the others motivated. 
  • Host volunteer-only events to recognize the efforts of your volunteers and treat them with a good time. 
  • Publicly recognizing volunteers by giving them shoutouts on social media, your newsletters, or your website.

Apart from the type of recognition, it’s also important to thank volunteers often. Showing your gratitude shouldn’t be a one-time thing but something you do on a regular basis to earn their loyalty. 

2. Focus on building deeper relationships.

A guiding purpose of any nonprofit volunteer program should be to invest in those valuable relationships with devoted supporters continually. 

Building deeper relationships with your volunteers, of course, begins with thanking them, but it encompasses quite a lot more, too. Consider these strategies:

  • Offering event perks to dedicated volunteers. If they’re not staffing your events, offer your loyal volunteers free or discounted tickets. Use a customizable online event registration platform to make the process easier.
  • Focus on training and additional opportunities. As discussed earlier in this post, training is essential for any volunteer program. Offering additional skill-development opportunities and leadership roles is a great way to help them feel valued.
  • Promote corporate volunteer grant programs. Volunteer grants are a highly effective way to help volunteers feel that they’ve made a positive impact on your work. Check out the top volunteer grant companies from 360MatchPro for more information. 

Expressing your gratitude, investing in their skills, and finding ways to boost their impact are all great ways to build lifelong relationships with your volunteers. This will increase retention for years to come and contribute to a strong, supportive culture within your organization.

3. Keep the conversation alive.

Another major reason for volunteer churn is that they are not regularly contacted. Once a volunteer is done with a campaign/project, the next time they hear from the organization is either when they send them newsletters or when they need more volunteers or donations. 

And that puts them off.

To build a better relationship, you need to keep the conversation going, but it also has to be personalized. And it shouldn’t just be when you need something. The communications that should be a majority include:

  • Updates of the team that the volunteers worked with, like changes in tasks/processes, special events like member birthdays or anniversaries. 
  • Impact that the volunteers made and how it’s improving the lives of beneficiaries. 
  • Feedback on the volunteering process, the work, training, etc. 
  • Calls or texts to simply check up on volunteers and how they have been doing in general. 

These conversations keep volunteers interested in your organization which in turn leads to improved loyalty. 

Managing your nonprofit’s volunteer program can be a real balancing act. Effectively distributing tasks, keeping everyone engaged, and finding the time to thank everyone for their help can feel overwhelming. 

But with the right tools and the above best practices, volunteer management can be more efficient and effective in boosting engagement, retention, and satisfaction. Here’s a list of some of the best volunteer management software that you can use to help you. 

Featured image source: Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

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