Monday, March 09, 2009

Ten Steps: Effective Volunteer Program

I recently read Volunteer San Diego's ten steps for an effective volunteer program, as outlined by Sue Carter, Volunteer San Diego's Executive Director. She presented this list at The San Diego Foundation's "Survive and Thrive Initiative" workshop for nonprofit CEOs and board leaders. It is a very interesting presentation. As a member of the board of directors for Rolling Readers, I often wonder how our organization can further harness volunteer power. Small organizations like Rolling Readers have historically required the expertise of volunteers in a variety of roles to keep their doors open, but recent economic hardships are making the push towards volunteerism even more prevalent. Nonprofits and governmental organizations are calling on volunteers to fill the gaps left by new budget constraints. I am glad that Volunteer San Diego is in position with tools such as the ten steps and its community organization support to guide these agencies to greater success with volunteers.

Consider the nonprofit that you know and love as you read these suggestions. Significant improvements in your volunteer program are possible and I can't wait to see what you make of it.

Ten Steps: Effective Volunteer Program

1) Challenge Volunteer Assumptions
We stereotypically think labor (think envelope-stuffing, tree-planting, or soup kitchen helpers).

What about attorneys, doctors, accountants, marketing and public relations experts, engineers, executives, and skilled craftspeople? How can your organization benefit from the skills these potential volunteers have to share?

2) Challenge Cost Assumptions
It is tempting to just add up staff hours spent managing them and declare cost. Or add up volunteer hours and declare that their value ($22/hour according the Independent Sector). But these methods fail to capture some very important benefits:

a. What is the real savings when a professional (i.e. accountant, attorney, or public relations expert) gives time? (Hint: Ask their rates.)

b. Smartly recruited, well-managed volunteers free staff to focus on higher-level duties (OR volunteers can take on the higher-level duties.)

c. Volunteers, though they might be green, make your best fundraisers. They already have the passion. (What else could they do if you trained them?)

3) Think Investment
Time and effort spent planning a volunteer program fits in the same category as smart financial management, marketing, or fundraising. Yes, it costs something up front, but the long-term payoff more than justifies the time and resources designated.

4) Designate a Champion
Find a point-person to serve as a champion and manager for your program. This can be an existing staff member (just make sure they are given enough time to truly focus on the volunteer program, if this is a new part of their job). Think of this as a parallel to and equally important as HR. They will oversee the program in much the same manner HR oversees your employees. Recruiting, screening, setting policies, and reviewing, but not as the everyday supervisors of each volunteer.

5) Plan Strategically
Your champion should consult your entire team to find the smartest matches for volunteers. The thinking and the decisions should be part of your organization’s strategic planning process. Challenge the team to think in terms of items 1-3:

a. What kind of help could we really use (fantasize)?

b. What have we always wanted to accomplish?

c. Could any of our staff members move to another position (one they have or could develop skills for) and have volunteers fill in?

d. Could any of our staff members manage their current role and replace themselves with a team of volunteers (accomplishing even more)?

6) Create Your Wish List
Turn step 5 into a “Wish List” document. Make everyone in your office, including existing volunteers, aware of what is on the list. (Those volunteers will become your best recruiters.)

7) Develop Volunteer Job Descriptions
Create position descriptions from the Wish List. Yes, just like HR. What do you need from these volunteers? Education. Skills. Commitment. Resources. What should they expect of your organization?

8) Use Volunteer San Diego (That’s what we’re here for.)
Post projects and positions you are actively seeking to fill to the Volunteer San Diego website (

a. More than 35,000 volunteers use this database annually to find tailored opportunities, much like a job board.

b. The database allows you to indicate times, locations, experience required, screening requirements, and commitment levels.

c. It’s free; however, for $150/year, you receive a host of services from a team highly-experienced in volunteer organization, management, training, and leadership. (Save yourself time and resources!)

9) Train Well
Training establishes expectations from both sides, as well as two-way communication. Training can make the difference between a one-time volunteer and someone who becomes a longer-term, passionate advocate for your organization. Training is also a benefit many volunteers seek, leading to job skills and resume-builders.

10) Seek Candid Feedback
As part of training—and the volunteer’s ongoing relationship with your organization—seek their feedback. (Make this a ritual.)

a. Make volunteers feel as much a part of the organization as your employees. The entire staff must carry this candle.

b. Regular feedback (and acting on what you can change, which is a key part of listening) helps keep volunteers engaged and advocating for your program.

c. Hint: Volunteers, because they are not worried about losing their positions, are more inclined toward being candid.

Anna Schulz is a member of the Flex program and a volunteer blogger for Volunteer San Diego. She also writes for her family blog, The Full Catastrophe.


Rachael Chong said...

This is a great list. Thanks so much!

john pelley said...

Great information. Thanks for sharing it.