Building a Solid Volunteer Base

Written by Kimberly Elman, Manager, National Outreach Volunteer Programs, Best Friends Animal Society®

So many people working at nonprofits are caught in the cycle of focusing on the urgent task in front of them and just trying to get through the day. They know a well-trained and motivated team of volunteers could really help them accomplish more without breaking the budget, but are reluctant to take the time required to recruit and train volunteers. Staff ends up working extremely long hours, and “weekend” just means another day of work. Too many things that the organization really would like to move forward are stuck in neutral and there is a definite zombie vibe that can start to set in.  Worst of all, those ambitious, lofty ideas for making the world a better place start to seem like platitudes you frame and hang on the wall, not viable goals that can be achieved.

Get off the hamster wheel! Slow down now so you can go fast later. Think of it this way: Nobody wants to live in a house without a solid foundation, so why would you allow your organization to not have a solid foundation as well?

If you still need motivation to slow down and build that volunteer base, consider this: Volunteers are almost twice as likely to donate to the nonprofit they are aligned with than non-volunteers.

Building a solid foundation

Do not move forward with attracting potential volunteers until you know you have a quality experience to offer them. Nothing is worse than volunteers feeling under-utilized or like the organization they are trying to help is disorganized and unclear about their role and impact as it relates to your mission.

Clearly define for which functions your organization needs volunteer talent, and don’t recruit more volunteers than you can use.

Getting ready to recruit

Once you are ready to recruit volunteers, make sure that you have information on volunteering on your website as well as social media platforms, but don’t overwhelm your sites with too much information.  If you can, have a dedicated email address and phone number that is on your website and social media.  Also, before you start outreach, determine your process to make sure inquiries get a prompt response—within 24 to 48 hours is ideal; remember, first impressions are lasting ones, so you need to start off on the right foot.

The hallmark of a successful volunteer program is having job descriptions for the various types of volunteers you need, which should include:

  • The name of the position
  • A description of the position’s function and what its impact is on the work
  • A named person that the volunteer in the position should report to
  • A clear description of the time commitment and the location of the work
  • A description of the core responsibilities for each volunteer position
  • A way to determine and explain all qualifications and other requirements the volunteer needs to meet

If you find you’re getting a lot of applicants who aren’t suited to the positions you’re offering, think about how you can develop a team of “community ambassadors” who can work to raise awareness of your cause and hopefully attract more suitable volunteers—not everyone can directly volunteer in the practical roles you have, but what else can they do to help your cause?

Finding volunteers

So where do you find your volunteers? Start with your staff’s own circle of acquaintances, since their friends may already have expressed interest in helping.  Likely points of outreach include service organizations, chambers of commerce, churches, synagogues and mosques, retirement communities, and setting up tables at community events that offer that option.

In talking with your volunteer recruits, ask them about their work and life experiences, as they may well have exactly the skillset you need.

Think about how you are going to introduce your recruits to the volunteer opportunities. Do you have a meeting room at your facility? If not, identify community rooms at libraries, banks, etc. that would work for your purposes. Offer different times and days for orientation meetings:  People’s schedules are different, and you want to offer orientations at times that work for them—this usually means offering evening or weekend sessions as well as daytime.

Orientation and training

It may sound a little silly, but onboarding and sustaining volunteers is very similar to online dating. First you read their profile, then the orientation is like that first date. After that the volunteer decides whether they are ready for that second date, i.e., signing up for volunteer training.

The purpose of an orientation meeting is to help the prospective volunteers determine if your organization is a good fit for them. Present information about your organization’s history, mission, values, structure, etc. Describe the volunteer opportunities and answer questions. Be sure to have volunteer applications and sign-up sheets for training sessions on hand for the recruits who decide that your organization and its mission are a good fit for them.

Speaking of training … before you ever have an orientation meeting, think through who in your organization will create the training. Who will conduct it? Where, when, and how will the training be offered?

Also, before you do that first orientation meeting, you want your staff ready and willing to work with volunteers, and this may involve doing training sessions with your own workforce—people skills, people! Determine who new volunteers will go to with questions. Once you have that first group of volunteers fully integrated in your work, they can be mentors for new volunteers.

Feedback and retention

Continual, ongoing feedback is important for volunteers—let them know what they are doing right and, if improvement is needed, guide them through that. Make sure your staff is trained in how to give effective, productive feedback. Praise in public, save constructive, redirecting feedback for in private. If something they are doing is outside procedure, have that conversation privately.

Be open to feedback from them. In fact you should actively solicit feedback and make sure they feel safe to let you know if they have concerns. Volunteers often have creative ideas that improve work.

Now that you have volunteers, you want them to want to be with you a long time. You are building a very special community—a family, if you will—of people dedicated to the same cause. Make sure they feel welcome. Branded badges, ball caps, T-shirts, etc. are important physical expressions of being part of the team. If you require a uniform for your volunteers, make sure they have a place to store their things while they are volunteering.

Be sure they have work to do when they arrive. Nothing is more demoralizing for a volunteer than feeling like they are not contributing. They are working for free, so make good use of their time. Periodically you will want to reassess your volunteer needs and make changes or increase volunteer opportunities as needed.

In summary

  1. Slowing down to go fast: Acknowledge where you are and need to be to achieve your mission.
  2. “If you build it, they will come.” Lay a solid foundation for your volunteers. Take the time to develop a well-rounded volunteer program. Continually re-evaluate if the program is growing with your mission.
  3. Communicate impact and gratitude with everything that you do. Volunteers need to know they are making a difference and are appreciated. Actively engage them and create a positive culture and welcoming community.

A couple of final thoughts for you:

In the words of Francis Hesselbein, former Girl Scout CEO, Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, president and CEO of the Francis Hesselbein Leadership Institute: “Without a disciplined and respectful approach to recruitment, orientation, support, assessment, and recognition, we will have lower performance and a disenchanted volunteer.” (From “Hesselbein on Leadership”)

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou