4 Steps To Improve Volunteering At Your Nonprofit

Volunteers gather for a mobile packing event in Chicago for Feed My Starving Children (FMSC.org). Flickr Photograph by Feed My Starving Children.

Volunteers gather for a mobile packing event in Chicago for Feed My Starving Children (FMSC.org).
Flickr Photograph by Feed My Starving Children.

A nonprofit organization with too many volunteers and no plan to utilize their time and talents is poor stewardship. It’s parallel to an organization holding millions in cash instead of allocating it to be wisely invested in an endowment fund.

A board member of a nonprofit organization serving the poor and homeless recently shared how they have too many volunteers.

“Every year around Christmas, I get stalked by my friends who want to help out during the holidays,” she said. “They want to give back and help. But we don’t have enough tasks for them to help with. There are only so many people you can utilize to serve meals or pack gift baskets. I have to avoid some people before Thanksgiving because I know they want to help and it is painful telling them, ‘no.’”

Similar stories are told by administrators of senior citizens communities. Everyone wants to visit or perform some sort of service during the holiday season, but it’s a struggle to attract volunteers during the remaining 11 months of the year.

Most organizations plead for more volunteers. There’s much work to be done and never enough hands to help.

Whether there are too many volunteers or never enough, here are four steps to improve your organization’s volunteer strategy, culture and performance:

Volunteers package food for Feed My Starving Children.

Volunteers package food for Feed My Starving Children. Flickr Photograph By Feed My Starving Children.

Assess: Review organizational data to determine if your number of volunteers is increasing or decreasing. An online survey can provide feedback from volunteers on whether or not they enjoy serving your organization, why they continue to be engaged, and what might be planned to improve your organization.

If your volunteers are decreasing, examine the reasons for their departure. If your volunteers are increasing, examine the reasons for the growth. What makes them enthusiastic and fulfilled by the work they perform? Could the quality of your organization’s programs increase through the utilization of additional volunteers or reorganizing volunteer resources? Are there stalled initiatives or programs still on the drawing board because there’s no plan or a poor strategy to utilize volunteers?

Flickr Photograph By Communities Creating Opportunity (Kansas City)

Flickr Photograph By Communities Creating Opportunity (Kansas City)

Train: High-performing nonprofit organizations are prepared to welcome, orient and train volunteers to successfully deliver programs. Do you need to create new or additional training programs to address the changing needs of your clients or volunteers? Can you make more resources available so volunteers can educate themselves and refer to information when needed? Are you providing a venue where volunteers can come together and share best methods or assist other volunteers in solving problems?

A volunteer recognition area at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

The volunteer center at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis provides a wall display where volunteers are recognized and information for people who would like to volunteer.

Recognize: Most volunteers don’t desire recognition. However, recognition can be the fuel that keeps your organization’s volunteerism engine running strong. No matter how many times a volunteer might brush off messages of thanks or praise, all human beings need and appreciate positive reinforcement. Recognition can take many forms. A public forum—banquets, conferences or other meetings—provides an opportunity for your organization to praise the efforts of your volunteers. Recognition can be as simple as presenting a framed certificate to engraving the volunteer’s name on a plaque for all to see for years to come.

Redeploy: Volunteers can experience burnout from years of performing the same types of service or tasks. Build into your organization’s strategic plans and program manuals a three-year rule for committee chairmanships and other labor- or time-intensive positions. This allows a volunteer to learn the ropes during the first year, add any new ideas or personal approaches during the second year, and really excel to new heights during the third year. Give them a role in choosing their successor. Hold frequent conversations with volunteers about what types of service they would like to engage in.


2 responses

  1. Joe, this is so true – volunteers can be a powerful force in getting things done but there has to be organization and a purpose for them, or they lose interest … and who could blame them? Their time is valuable too, they want to spend it well.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mary. You witnessed some of the challenges in managing volunteers during your career and I’ve always valued your perspective. Hope all is well with you and yours!

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