Here’s an interesting (and arguably enviable) story on volunteer management that caught my eye recently.

On 24th March 2020, the UK government appealed to the people to join the NHS volunteer army and ease the burden from healthcare workers.  

In the face of the ongoing pandemic this announcement had an overwhelming response.

Nearly 500,000 people signed up within a day. NHS easily reached their goal of 250,000 volunteers and in fact extended it to 750,000 volunteers. 

And guess what, they met that too!  

While such a show of solidarity is heartening, from the perspective of volunteer management, this raises two important questions:

  1. Can volunteer recruitment be this successful even without a global crisis? (or is it possible for me to replicate the same for my organization?)
  2. Will organizations be able to retain these volunteers once the crisis abates? (or even otherwise).

The answer to both these questions is a resounding No! (ah, were you expecting a yes?). 

You see, volunteer acquisition is at an all time high during crisis because people intrinsically ‘want to give back’. 

Since the feeling will abate after the pandemic, it is unlikely that they will stick around (or you would have the need to retain such a huge number).

However, it is possible to replicate a similar increase in your volunteer acquisition and retention with a sound volunteer management strategy.  

This post can help you there. Whether you are freshly launching a volunteer management strategy for your organization, or looking to tweak it (in the face of alarming attrition), these pointers can walk you through building a solid strategy for your nonprofit. 

What is volunteer management?

Volunteer management consists of recruiting, training, engaging, and retaining volunteers for your organization.

successful-volunteer-management-callhub

An effective (and successful) volunteer management program can be judged based on 3 criteria:

  1. It is strategic – that is, it attracts the right volunteers at minimal cost to the organization
  2. Gives a positive volunteer experience – it trains and handles the volunteers the right way
  3. Reduces volunteer attrition – it encourages volunteers to continue supporting your organization

So take a closer look at your existing volunteer management program. If you are struggling with volunteer recruitment, or attrition, then you need to rethink your system.

Why is volunteer management important?

An Independent sector study (2018), found that a volunteer’s time is worth $25.43 per hour. Organizations who see such a high benefit, clearly have a successful program that helps their volunteers reach their full potential. 

That is because a successful volunteer management program – 

  1. Attracts volunteers passionate about the cause
  2. Helps assign volunteers to the right roles (based on their skills and preferences)
  3. Enables efficient training of volunteers
  4. Keeps them engaged and retains them

Without a robust strategy, all the effort spent in their recruitment and training will be lost – and the volunteers will be unable to meet their potential as a critical asset to your organization.

Do you need volunteer management software?

This question often comes up in reference to successful volunteer management. A typical answer you would see here is an unequivocal yes. I would, however, be a bit more cautious. 

My answer would be “It depends”. Opting for a volunteer management software depends on the needs (and financial position) of your organization.

A volunteer management software helps you keep track of volunteer information (rather like a CRM for volunteers), and also enables you to communicate with them (via emails).

Now, if your organization is at its early stages, or is pressed for money, then you can do just fine with spreadsheets. To use this data for volunteer communication, you can club it with an affordable mass texting software or a call center software

Cohesive working of software enables you to run targeted volunteer communication using the data in your spreadsheets. 

However, if you find spreadsheets hinder seamless movement of data to your communication platforms (and affects personalization), then you may want to consider a volunteer management software. 

Having a system specifically built to handle volunteer data, activities, and track their performance can help streamline your volunteer management program.

Building a volunteer management strategy

Every volunteer management process encompasses 5 elements:

  • Planning
  • Recruiting
  • Training
  • Managing
  • Evaluating performance 
Volunteer-management-strategies-process-callhub
How volunteer management works

Credits: Samhsa.gov

While these elements can provide a framework for your volunteer management strategy, there are certain nuances that you need to keep in mind that can vary between organizations.

Let’s go into more detail for each of these steps.

Volunteer management strategy – Planning

From the image above, it is clear that the planning part of the process is to get the resources in place before recruiting new volunteers. 

But there is one crucial element missing. Focusing on the goals and objectives of your volunteer management program informs your strategy better.

1. Set a goal for your volunteer management program

The goal of your program defines how you handle recruiting and training your volunteers later in the process 

Yes, what you are told is that the goal should be a ‘SMART’ goal. The goal should also address the gaps in your volunteer management program today.

For instance, if your organization is struggling with volunteer retention, then the goal of the volunteer management program could be to reduce attrition.

Having a clear focus will better inform the next stages in the process.

If you’re interested in improving volunteer retention, for example, here is how the rest of your volunteer management process will pan out

  1. Measures to attract the right volunteers in the recruitment process
  2. Smarter training program that adds value to the volunteers
  3. Better communication during volunteering (and after)
  4. More volunteer appreciation
  5. Added perks for being a volunteer (maybe a letter of recommendation)
  6. Identifying the right metrics during evaluation

Even if these pointers seem to be general best practices, a lot of organizations struggle to execute them because they are not tied to an underlying goal. 

Therefore, set goals that make sense for you and then structure your best practices around achieving those goals. That way, there are less chances of them being out-prioritized by other tasks.

Volunteer management best practice 

In the light of the ongoing pandemic, the goals you had planned for would have pivoted slightly. E.g. you would be focused on getting more volunteers to respond to the crisis instead of retaining them. 

In such cases, try to make the adjustments in every part of the volunteer management process to ensure that they are aligned with your new goals. 

2. Create an accurate job description

The job description you put out there must create curiosity and excitement among the prospects you are targeting. However, it should also set the right expectations and give valid information.

Here are somethings you should consider before creating your job description

  1. Who is your organization looking for?
  2. What position are you looking to fill up? What skills do you need?
  3. Where can they work from?
  4. When does the job start?
  5. Why do you need volunteers for this job? Why should they be interested?
  6. How can your volunteers be successful at the job?

Use simple language to answer the above questions and tailor it to the audience you are targeting. 

For example, if you are looking for student volunteers, let them know how this job will benefit their overall growth and development. 

If you want to target working professionals give them insights about how volunteering will help improve their skills and help them meet like-minded people or make social connections.

Volunteer-job-description
Sample Volunteer Job Description

Source: Samhsa.gov

Volunteer management best practice: 

Volunteer job description during the pandemic can also detail the extent of exposure a volunteer would get (in terms of social distancing). This will give them a sense of how safe it is to volunteer with you. 

You can also describe how the role is crucial in fighting the pandemic (in case your efforts are focussed on fighting COVID-19). Doing so will convey a sense of urgency and importance to your role that can help increase your applications.

Volunteer management strategy -Recruitment

Recruitment starts from the time you get volunteer applications pouring in, till when a candidate is approved to be a volunteer. 

Here are two aspects that can refine volunteer recruitment further.

3. Go digital

Handing out flyers, running TV ads, and even word of mouth are excellent ways to attract volunteers. However, overlooking social media as a channel for recruitment can be a oversight. 

Here are the advantages your job application can get by being ‘social’.

  1. Your application is seen by followers of your account – this is a treasure trove of interested prospects who are the most likely to volunteer (and stick!)
  2. It increases the chances of your followers sharing the opportunity within their network. That means more eyeballs on your ad, and more importantly, a personal endorsement for the role (and more subtly for your organization).
  3. The ad targeting options help put your ad in front of the right audience (those who are most interested in your cause).

Volunteer management best practice 

There are multiple ad restrictions on using the ongoing pandemic to run ads. Ensure that your ads conform to them before publishing. Also, keep your ads relevant to the ongoing situation (so that it resonates with your audience).

4. Look at other sources for volunteers

Volunteer service organizations, student populations, and even volunteer referral services are great options for broadening your existing volunteer pool. 

You can also look at business to see if they can pitch in (as part of their corporate social responsibility programs). They can help by creating a work environment that inspires their employees to volunteer and participate in your cause. 

Here are some alternative sources (as per Samhsa.gov)

  1. People in recovery
  2. Retirees
  3. Community associations
  4. People from shelters
  5. State denominational offices
  6. Persons mandated to perform community service
  7. Stay at home mothers
  8. Service providers

Volunteer management best practice

You can redefine the role of your volunteer based on where they come from. For instance, retirees can help do wellness checks on their peers (or others in retirement homes). 

If the scope of your cause does not allow for such a re-assignment, then see be more circumspect about your hiring sources. 

Volunteer management strategy -Training

A successful volunteer management program is one that gets the best out of its volunteers with as little resource investment (both time and manpower) as possible. This does not mean scrimping on the quality of your training program, but rather being smart about its implementation.

Here is how you can achieve that goal:

5. Assess volunteer skills before the training program

During your interview and screening of volunteers, check what skills they come with. Also understand if they have a natural aptitude for one particular role. These can be in addition to the general evaluation you do during volunteer recruitment.

Here is how it can add value to your organization

  1. Provide more custom training to every volunteer
  2. Understand volunteer capabilities and requirements better (and thus be more adept at handling them).
  3. Know the extent of the skill-set available at your disposal so that you can get the most from them.

Volunteer management best practice 

Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, a lot of training sessions may have to be held remotely. It would be a good idea to check the volunteer’s comfort level on that medium and the effort involved in onboarding them. 

Doing so will give you a realistic estimate of the costs (in terms of resources) to your organization and also set the right expectations for when they can actively help out.

6. Assign volunteers (with the right skill and passion) to every task

In an ideal scenario, you would assign volunteers with complementary skill sets to tasks. This will ensure that you get the best out of them, with least onboarding efforts involved. 

However, such a match made in heaven rarely happens. Your volunteers would apply to get better at certain skill-sets and acquire new skills that can later help them in their career.

In such cases, match volunteers to tasks based on how passionate they are about them. Even if it means a steep learning curve, it increases the chances of retaining them.

Volunteer management best practice

During times of crisis, you may not have the luxury or choosing the volunteers you get. It is typically a ‘all hands on deck’ scenario where everyone pitches in to do what they can.

In such cases, it is important to set expectations with your volunteers (especially with the new ones). E.g. tell them that such an arrangement is temporary and you could find something more suitable for them later.  

Volunteer management strategy -Managing volunteers

Your volunteer managers should already be on the lookout for volunteer burn out. They should also be creating resources to help volunteers better. 

In this stage, your role would be to enable the volunteer managers to better do their jobs. 

7. Using technology to streamline management

A secret to high volunteer retention is personalized communication and engagement.

That means keeping track of the volunteer’s activities, their strengths, and their achievements and weaving that into your communication (or even in your training).

Undoubtedly, such a high level of personalization cannot be possible without the right system in place. Here are some of the digital tools you should be using:

  1. Using online application forms, to accurately capture and record volunteer data
  2. A CRM to keep track of volunteer activity and information. Yes spreadsheets work. But honestly, they are tough to manage and use for personalization.
  3. Communication tools – emails, and texting software to send out bulk messages
  4. Tool for analytics and reporting – to see how well your volunteer management process is working. Typically, reporting is a part of a CRM or a volunteer management software. However, if you are not using either of these tools, then getting a tool to keep track of the numbers is important.

Volunteer management best practice

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, if you have to reassign volunteers, or check on lockdown areas, having data to inform your decisions can be a huge asset.

8. Effective and frequent communication

We briefly touched on text messaging software as being part of your digital tool kit. This is in part linked to that, but is not wholly limited to it.

Effective communication inspires your volunteers to take action. Since text messages are so personal (and have such high response rates), they are perfect for that. 

In some cases, you can also run volunteer led phone banks (with a call center software), and immediately follow up the calls with texts to ensure that your prospects respond (use a software that enables you to send texts from a call center).

Frequent communication also helps you keep your volunteers updated on how their efforts have helped shape your cause, for example the impact of a fundraising event they may have helped organize.

Volunteer management best practice

A lot of your existing volunteers would not be able to help out because of the ongoing crisis – may be due to lock down (or personal preferences).

In such cases, send them texts on what your organization is doing and keep them in loop. This will ensure that they have a higher chance of returning to volunteer with your cause again.

Volunteer management strategy – Evaluation

This is tricky because evaluating the success metrics of your volunteer management program will depend on the goals you had previously outlined (in the first step). 

While the data you collect for evaluation can be around those goals, here are two more aspects  to consider.

9. Set up a feedback system

A feedback system gives you a different perspective of  the gaps in your existing volunteer management system. You can ask volunteers to participate in a phone survey, or an automated text survey and get them to share their thoughts.

If a lot of volunteers say that they don’t feel appreciated enough in their roles, it can explain why your retention rates are low. 

This feedback can also give you insights to streamline your volunteer management process and better cater to volunteer’s needs and expectations. 

Say, a lot of volunteers feel that they are not getting enough value by volunteering, then you can step up your training program to ensure that they develop additional skills that help them later.

Volunteer management best practice

While tweaking your volunteer management system is not always possible given the circumstances (read global pandemic), it is still essential that you continue to listen to what your volunteers say.

Not only will it help you plan a better program when things get back to ‘normal’, it will also give you a realistic view of how your existing volunteer management system fares  when faced with a crisis

10. Assess volunteer’s happiness while working

To be honest, this can be clubbed as part of your feedback form. However, it deserves a note of it’s own because it is very different from the regular feedback you get. 

Unlike your usual feedback forms, this does not tell you what you can improve. It merely assesses how happy a volunteer is while working with your organization. 

It is recommended that you run periodic happiness checks to capture the pulse of your volunteers and see if you can actively help improve it.

This metric actually ties back to the initial stage of your volunteer management strategy (planning, goal setting). If your goal is about retention, then implementing a happiness metric is crucial.

Volunteer management best practice

It could be difficult to get the right numbers because of the adjustments you have made to your organization’s efforts in light of the pandemic.

Maybe you have put some of your events on hold (which means that the volunteers who worked so hard for it are quite upset about it).

In these cases either modify the questions, or weight the scores to give you the true picture

Take-away

Implementing a volunteer management program may look simple. However, unless it is well thought out, with a solid strategy behind it, you will have trouble with volunteer acquisition, performance, and retention. 

Hopefully, these tips helped you look at your existing volunteer management plan with a fresh perspective. Good luck!

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