I love volunteers! Throughout my entire career, I’ve had the good fortune of working with amazing volunteers with a number of volunteer-driven organizations. Their drive, creativity, and willingness to give of their time and talents has inspired me to do what I do. When I was a volunteer (and even as a staff person managing volunteers), I had amazing experiences seeing people bring their ideas to life. Together, we built on work that had been done and worked towards advancing the position of the organizations we served. Volunteers are an imperative part of the nonprofit world. There are many things we could not do without them. Their enthusiasm and passion inspire us to reach new heights as they encourage others to join the causes they care about.
Today I’m sharing tips to effectively build strong, collaborative relationships with your key volunteers. These tips will help you increase volunteer engagement and be proactive in your communication and expectations of them. We’ll focus on three main areas – how to engage, equip, and empower volunteers.
Engaging volunteers is the easiest piece of this puzzle. We do this regularly from the minute they are recruited throughout their entire volunteer life-cycle. There are many ways to engage volunteers, so let’s focus on our top tips:
This one must be on every tip list for any type of relationship building. It is so simple and yet we don’t always make the time to do it. People want to feel heard. How are you listening to your volunteers and members? The simplest tip is to ask questions directly. Take the time to reach out in person or via phone or email. Other common ways to hear volunteers and members are through surveys, trends in data, and maybe an informational feedback meeting at an event or conference. These mediums tend to showcase the feelings of the squeaky wheel volunteers, the ones who speak up and out often. Other ways to listen are through onsite visits, social media, listening at chapter meetings, appreciation notes, or feedback calls.
Why does listening and connecting matter? By seeking out opportunities to listen, we don’t rely solely on frontline staff and their interactions or assumptions about what volunteers or members are saying. We are taking time to hear from those individuals directly and allowing them to share their ideas and feedback.
We must also listen with patience and make a genuine effort to ensure volunteers’ complaints and issues are understood and taken care of in a timely manner. Create a safe space for feedback as volunteers may bring extensive experience and easily see new (and potentially better) approaches to roles or tasks. In many cases, they are directly immersed in the experience and their perspective will provide valuable insight.
NEVER LOSE SIGHT OF YOUR BIG WIGS
Consider these your extremely involved volunteers and sponsors/donors. Sometimes they will be engaged more because the cause or group is personal to them, other times they may be a natural leader in their workplace or industry and that shows up in their volunteering, or they may simply be a big donor or sponsor. These contacts will help you have a better pulse on where the organization is and where it can grow. I spoke with Mark Thorsby about this in episode two of the podcast. We discussed if this type of volunteer should be on the path to Board leadership. It isn’t always the best case scenario for your organization but depends on you Board makeup.
On the flip side, your big wigs may not be volunteers involved in a committee or task force. They may not even be volunteering yet because they are too busy. These are people you want to engage. The visionaries who are too busy to get involved in the day-to-day may have insights to help expedite the impact of your organization or can even help set the strategic direction. They are typically your inspirational leaders with a lot to offer. By keeping in touch with them, they may be a great fit for your Board down the road if you need a different perspective.
So, how are you engaging both groups?
Do you understand why these individuals are participating with your organization? Learn their personal goals and motivations for being involved. Here are a few questions you can ask:
Truly listen to these answers and engage these people over time. If the Board decides on a new strategic direction, engage this group to understand how volunteers and members will respond.
BE CLEAR AND RESPECT THEIR TIME
Be up front about the expectations of the volunteer role. What responsibilities or outcomes are involved? Is there a volunteer job description you can share? What is the time commitment? Many organizations have formal committees or task forces for volunteers, so they may have a committee charge or defined purpose. This doesn’t always mean everyone on the committee understands how they fit into the committee and what is expected of them. When we clearly define guidelines, goals, and expectations, we avoid spending time tracking down people only to find unsatisfactory results. In turn, we run into conflicts and committees that don’t achieve the potential they are capable of reaching.
If you have a volunteer doing one-off tasks, share how long a task will take, when it’ll be available, and when it needs to be done. Providing alternate opportunities is also a great option—it includes your volunteers that have tight schedules, but still want to give their time.
If your organization doesn’t have a partnership agreement, also know as a volunteer agreement, commitment of responsibilities, or relationship agreement, I highly recommend putting one into place. Ideally, there should be something in place between a Committee Chair and their support staff person. A partnership agreement can be one page that provides an opportunity for both parties to be a part of the process in defining the relationship. Because each person is contributing, it provides a greater success of expectations being met due to each parties input and agreement of the terms. In turn, this produces more enthusiasm, more productivity, and more organization. A partnership agreement should include: Who, What, and How. What covers the responsibilities while how consists of things such as time requirements and addresses the best method of communication between parties.
Download our free checklist here of what to include in a partnership/relationship agreement.
HAVE A THOROUGH ONBOARDING PROCESS AND PROVIDE THE NECESSARY RESOURCES
I was working with an organization that had a lot of committees. There were so many committees, most of the initiatives overlapped with other committees. You know the feeling. You get on a conference call with a group of eager volunteers and the Chair begins the meeting only for the group to be silent. You have these talented, dedicated volunteers on the line and the Chairs is going through the agenda and the. group. is. silent. Why would a group of competent people have nothing to say? It’s because they didn’t understand their role. Not the chair nor staff had explained what the volunteer experience would entail and what to expect. So each person was following the lead of another volunteer who also didn’t fully understand their role. Sure they saw the committee description when they raised their hand to volunteer, but no one set the ground rules, no one helped them with the parameters on how to contribute.
In order to effectively equip volunteers for their role, it is imperative to have an onboarding process. This prepares volunteers by setting expectations and helping people to be comfortable in their role.
The Wild Apricot, a Membership Management Software company, has an amazing checklist with questions to consider for your onboarding process:
Here are things you should consider for your orientation materials:
We don’t want to overwhelm volunteers, so avoid information overload by providing only “need to know” information when applicable.
Give them meaningful tasks that allow them to create value. Many of your volunteers will come with significant talent and experience that if engaged effectively and properly will benefit the organization. Have a task that may not be considered meaningful? Help them see how what you are asking them to do to ties back to the mission or strategic goals.
To empower is to give someone the authority to do something or to make someone strong or more confident. Empowering volunteers will create a culture of creativity and openness. Be sure to communicate with volunteers the strategic goals from the Board and how their work plays a role in the overall vision for the organization, but then empower them to create value and accomplish what has been assigned to them. Too often as staff, we feel the need to step in and micromanage. If we have the right people in place, we need to empower them to do what they’ve been assigned to do. This leads to a more fulfilling volunteer experience, less burnout of staff filling the gaps, and a more loyal volunteer. When volunteers understand expectations and feel empowered to use their gifts to benefit organizations they care about, we see a full commitment to productivity and progress. We know volunteers love seeing the impact their work has made and this helps to facilitate that.
There is a greater sense that their service is respected and valued. The relationship agreement we covered in the Engage section reflects these ideas and can be used as a tool to ensure both parties stay on track.
You can also empower volunteers by offering mentoring. Volunteers stay engaged when they are able to mentor, or train, someone else. By pairing new volunteers with a more seasoned volunteer, you will help to ensure longer service and volunteerism. This also helps your veteran volunteers to feel as though they are creating more value within the organization.
There is one final tip that applies to all three areas and that is volunteer recognition. Say thank you! By recognizing volunteers’ efforts, you show them how they are making a difference for the organization. They are often more motivated when they understand how their role fits into the overall mission. By developing a process to recognize their efforts, volunteers feel more engaged and appreciated. Spread as much love and appreciation around as you can. How should you show your appreciation? Send notes, make visits, give them your time or a small token of appreciation, create awards, throw a party, have the Board thank them. Showing gratitude can manifest in many ways – just make sure it is personal and intentional. Say thank you sincerely and often. Your appreciation and encouragement will go a long way.
Keeping your volunteers motivated shows them you care. By engaging, equipping, and empowering volunteers, you prepare them for meaningful work to contribute as part of a greater community.
What do you do for your volunteer onboarding? Do you have an orientation process?
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