Designing and Developing a Successful Volunteer Program

The majority of nonprofit organizations rely heavily on volunteers — the nonprofit sector itself is sometimes referred to as the volunteer sector. Without volunteers many organizations wouldn’t accomplish a fraction of the good work they do. There simply isn’t enough money to take care of all the needs in our society, which is why volunteers are so important.

During the early Clinton years, there was a big meeting in Philadelphia hosted by Colin Powell and others to try to encourage volunteerism in America. Thousands of people attended to push a nationwide effort to get Americans to donate time and talent to serve their communities. In response, hundreds of thousands of our citizens began to volunteer their time at various nonprofits; however, many of the organizations weren’t ready or organized to effectively use these people and therefore turned off many of the potential volunteers. It might have been more valuable to first assist the nonprofits in developing infrastructures to support the volunteers before asking people en masse to descend upon their local nonprofits to volunteer.

It takes a great deal of strategic energy, time, money, and effort to develop a successful volunteer program. Volunteers can become not only the deliverers of services, but future board members, donors and key stakeholders in your organization. The following are the elements that we believe are necessary for a successful volunteer program.

1. Designing a plan for the volunteer effort. This first step should be carried out with the paid staff, board members and a committee of volunteers. Make sure you look clearly at your volunteer needs in relation to your mission, your values, and your vision; look at the overall goals, objectives, and your budget. This initial planning is critical to the success of the program.

2.  Nuts and bolts of the volunteer program. Look at the types of policies and rules you’ll need in order to shape the volunteer program. Ask the following questions to help begin the process: do we need an insurance policy? what are the rules and regulations required of the volunteers? do we need personnel or supervision policies? do we pay for transportation and food? The policies and rules you generate after answering these questions will essentially govern the volunteer activities and behavior.

3.  Recruitment strategies. After you define the policies and rules, you then have to decide how you’ll recruit the appropriate volunteers.  What are the strategies, timelines and costs associated with attracting volunteers to your organization? Are you looking for generalists or individuals with specific skills such as doctors, lawyers, accountants — and what is the strategic approach for finding them?

4.  Interviewing and screening. What process will you use to screen and interview potential volunteers? Will you conduct background checks? What are the questions and the processes for interviewing volunteers?  Be very careful when recruiting volunteers — remember that these people will represent the organization and work with your clients and constituents.

5.   Orientation, support, and training. It’s critical that you develop an orientation program to both familiarize the volunteer with the specific job or task they’ll be doing, and to introduce them to the organization. What kind of support will they need on a daily or weekly basis? Will you have a weekly meeting with them? What kind of training will they require?

6.  Oversight and supervision. It’s not okay to just let the volunteers run loose with your constituencies and assume they’ll do well.  Like staff members, the volunteers need to be managed and supervised carefully by experienced individuals within your organization who know the agency and the specific tasks the volunteers have been asked to accomplish.  In many cases, organizations that use large number of volunteers hire a volunteer coordinator.

7.  Evaluation and monitoring. It’s important for the organization to establish performance criteria, a process of regular evaluation of the volunteers, and a process for frequent monitoring of their work. When a new volunteer comes on board, it’s a good idea to have daily feedback meetings with them for the first few weeks. Once you have confidence in their abilities, you can pull back a little bit.

8.  Reward and recognition. If the volunteer is working out well you’ll want to retain them and keep them motivated. It’s important to set up a regular reward and recognition program where you thank the volunteer. You should also have an annual dinner or special event in which you pubicly thank your volunteers for their work and dedication.

9.   Measuring the effectiveness of the program. As part of the evaluation you should look at statistically measuring the impact of the volunteer program in relation to the costs, mission, and the goals and objectives of the nonprofit.  Sometimes it may be more costly recruiting and supervising the volunteers than it’s actually worth. Ask yourself: what is the real cost-benefit analysis of the volunteer program?

10.   Should we hire a professional volunteer coordinator? Depending upon how extensive and complicated your volunteer program and numbers are, you very likely would need to hire a professional to be responsible for each of the nine elements we just outlined above.

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