Volunteers provide an array of important services to nonprofits. They can help with administrative tasks, social media management, and other office-based activities. They can also dig into hands-on work, such as putting together meals at a shelter or participating in a litter pick-up.
Volunteer opportunities are also perfect opportunities to show prospective donors what your mission is all about. Think of volunteering as storytelling in action. Your volunteers are getting to experience the impact of your work firsthand to understand why it's so valuable to the communities you serve. Seeing that impact builds a strong case for giving.
To create an effective volunteer program, you need to follow two key steps: recruitment and retention. Below, we’ll dive into the details of each to help you recruit and retain volunteers that become true champions for your organization.
Step One: Recruit Volunteers
The recruitment stage of establishing a volunteer program is all about finding the right people to fill the right roles. This means knowing where to look for new volunteers and how to ask them to donate their time. But it also means creating volunteer positions that are enticing and offer shared value for both you and your volunteers.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you’re developing volunteer roles to ensure they’ll be activities people want to fill:
- Does this activity let a volunteer use their professional skills for the greater good? For example, perhaps a corporate accountant would like to donate their auditing skills to a mission that aligns with their values.
- Does this task allow volunteers to hone new skills? For example, college students may be interested in helping with your social media marketing to both give back to a cause they care about and have experience to add to their résumé.
- Does this project offer chances for volunteers to give back in a tangible way? For example, volunteers who care about the environment may appreciate the hands-on nature of a litter pick-up.
- Does this volunteer event help to build community? For example, young professionals or recent transplants to your area may be interested in a group trail-building activity in the local park to give back while meeting new people.
- Does this opportunity help connect volunteers emotionally to our cause? For example, people may wish to help with a meal service at the local emergency shelter to interact with their homeless neighbors and learn how they can make a difference in their lives.
Once you’ve asked questions to clarify the value of your volunteer opportunities, use what you’ve learned from your answers to inform your outreach.
If you’ve realized your volunteer needs are best suited for college students, you’ll want to look for opportunities to connect with that population. If your event will provide chances for community-building and networking, include that in your recruitment messaging.
When you have clarity on your volunteer roles, you can turn towards looking for the right people to fill them. Here are a few avenues to try for your outreach:
- Partner with corporate sponsors to encourage their employees to join a volunteer day.
- Use social media to reach potentially younger generations.
- Collaborate with local schools or universities that may have volunteer requirements for students.
- Connect with prospective volunteers via LinkedIn; if they list past volunteer history, they may be more inclined to say yes to new volunteer opportunities.
- Host a bring-a-friend volunteer event for current volunteers to introduce their connections to your nonprofit.
- Post your opportunities on local job or community boards.
- Use a volunteer matching service, such as VolunteerMatch, Idealist, JustServe, or United Way.
Step Two: Retain Volunteers
The retention stage of a volunteer program is just as important—if not more so—as the recruitment stage. Successfully encouraging volunteers to volunteer again or to commit to a regular volunteer schedule:
- Provides consistency for meeting your organizational needs
- Builds strong relationships where volunteers are more likely to become donors
- Costs less and is less time-intensive than recruiting brand new volunteers each time
- Lets volunteers grow an identity as a supporter of your nonprofit, which they are more likely to share with their networks
- Elevates your brand identity as an organization that cares and where people want to be involved
Overall, your retention activities should aim to leave your volunteers feeling appreciated, seen, and supported. You want them to feel like you care about them as an individual and take the time to add personal touches to your connections.
Here are a few ways to foster this relationship-building with your volunteers to increase your volunteer retention rate:
- Create a community and identity around your volunteers. Consider giving your community of volunteers its own fun team name. You can also set up an email segment to send them “insider” updates or provide them with some special branded swag.
- Host an annual volunteer appreciation event. Take time each year to honor your volunteers for their time with a fun event. You can give out silly awards connected to your mission, such as “Most Wild Litter Find” or “Best Dressed Garbage Getter” for members of your litter pick-up team. You can also present awards for years of service or have specially nominated “Community Champion” awards chosen by your staff.
- Provide supportive structure for your volunteer activities. Ensure volunteers have just enough to do and the resources they need to do it. Too little work can lead to boredom and low investment, whereas too much work will be overwhelming and not fun.
- Check-in with your volunteers personally. Take time to see how your volunteers are doing and what they need from you. If they’ve shared something personal with you about an upcoming vacation, job opportunity, new baby, or other life topic, remember to follow-up and ask them how it’s going. Creating a friendly, caring volunteer culture will make volunteers more likely to return.
Recruit and Retain Volunteers for Mission Support and Donor Cultivation
With purposeful volunteer recruitment and retention efforts, you can cultivate a community of champions for your cause. Volunteers lend critical support to your mission-driven activities and also provide warm leads to your donor stewardship team.