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Illustration by Jocelyn Ruiz
Many charitable nonprofits rely on the help of volunteers to fulfill their missions. Whether it be packing food boxes, mentoring youth, or assisting with general office work, volunteers contribute valuable time and energy to help organizations succeed. Implementing management practices allows organizations to recruit and retain volunteer resources, but many nonprofits struggle to successfully engage volunteers and reap the full benefits of their service. By effectively managing and engaging volunteers, organizations can save costs, increase community support, and build their capacity to operate efficiently and sustainably.
Engaged volunteers feel connected to the organization and are more easily retained, allowing nonprofits to benefit from volunteer contributions over longer periods of time. Building relationships with volunteers and unlocking additional ways they may be willing to support the cause helps an organization develop its capacity to fulfill its mission. Implementing strategic engagement initiatives designed to leverage the assets of volunteers expands a nonprofit’s ability to maximize its social impact.
Nonprofits should consider engaging volunteers as leaders, donors, and advocates to grow their commitment to the organization, boost retention, and build organizational capacity. In order to cultivate volunteers to contribute in these ways, a strong foundational volunteer program must be in place.
Develop an Integrated Volunteer Program
Effective volunteer engagement can only be implemented in conjunction with a robust volunteer program. An investment must be made to develop a program that is run by paid staff and adopts key volunteer management practices. Nonprofits should strive to create a culture that embraces volunteers and integrates them into the organization by providing opportunities for them to interact with staff and other volunteers. Creating this culture starts with sharing the rationale for the use of volunteers with employees to gain staff buy-in. With sound infrastructure and staff support, organizations can begin to design engagement strategies that build upon basic management practices.
Engage volunteers as leaders
Respected, competent, and skilled volunteers should be entrusted with leadership responsibilities. These volunteers can help to lead others in service delivery or assume management duties such as recruiting additional volunteers at community events. Volunteers with leadership potential should be identified and empowered to take on larger roles. As staff gain confidence in volunteers’ abilities to handle situations independently, managers can begin empowering them to resolve challenges with minimal guidance. Initial training and oversight should be provided to develop their capabilities, but the return on investment will be beneficial once volunteers can lead projects autonomously. Engaging volunteers as leaders alleviates staff time and increases productivity, all while causing volunteers to grow closer to the organization.
Engage volunteers as donors
Volunteers are often viewed as a separate entity from donors, but volunteers also have money they may be willing to contribute. In the 2014 Fidelity Charitable study, 87 percent of respondents reported overlap between where they volunteer and where they give, which suggests organizations should not shy away from introducing volunteers to ways they can make donations. One way to tactfully cultivate volunteers into donors is to steward them in a similar manner as existing donors. Sending volunteers regular communications and inviting them to special events can be an effective method of developing a donor relationship with volunteers. Exposing volunteers to ways they can grow their individual impact helps organizations to retain and leverage the time and money of volunteers.
Engage volunteers as advocates
Engaging volunteers as advocates for the organization and its cause can help nonprofits gain visibility and increase community support. Volunteer advocates might share the organization’s mission on social media, host a small fundraising event, or provide testimonials for publications. When volunteers share a positive message regarding the organization with their individual networks, nonprofits can expand their reach, build public trust, and foster donor relationships to move the work forward. Organizations should be sure to educate volunteers to accurately convey the desired message. Advocacy efforts can also be facilitated by creating sharable social media posts or providing guidance on ways to promote the organization in the community. Nonprofits can leverage compassionate volunteer advocates to raise awareness for the cause and develop the resources needed to achieve impact.
Volunteers who lead, advocate, and/or financially contribute to a nonprofit feel involved and invested in the organization’s work. This connection to the organization produces a sense of value and belonging that encourages volunteers to continue serving. Leveraging the time, skills, networks, and financial capital of volunteers over extended periods of time builds an organization’s capacity to grow impact. Nonprofits must strive to develop effective engagement strategies that leverage the assets of volunteers to increase capacity, achieve outcomes, and drive social change.
Molly Wagge is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. After attaining her bachelor’s degree in Justice Studies, Molly completed two terms of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA, followed by an internship with Arizona Public Service’s Community Affairs department. Molly has a passion for volunteerism and seeks to contribute to creating a more just and equitable society throughout her career.