Lisa Hazirjian, Ph.D., Win Together Consulting
Like many people working in the nonprofit sector, I started volunteering when I was a kid. Over the decades since, I’ve learned a ton about successful volunteer engagement in various ways: building a statewide nonprofit advocacy network heavily powered by volunteer support; showing up to volunteer for various causes and organizations; partnering with clients to help them establish or improve their volunteer programs; and, listening to feedback from friends and colleagues who volunteer.
I love seeing organizations provide fantastic volunteer experiences that build a sense of community and work towards the mutual goals of their volunteers and the organization – and I believe every nonprofit can and should be doing exactly that. Happy volunteers come back and bring their friends along when they return. More broadly, they become strong ambassadors for your organization. Many become donors or start giving more. And a few eventually become board members or staff members, or go on to work in your field – in part because when they first showed up to volunteer, they fell in love with the work and the mission it supports.
To help every organization build that quality of volunteer program, I’ve pulled together this checklist highlighting simple practices you can use to improve your volunteer engagement practices. Timing matters, so I’ve grouped them into four decisive moments of contact that can make or break the quality of experience volunteers have with your organization:
- When People First Express Interest in Volunteering with You
- When People Sign Up for a Volunteer Shift
- When People Show Up to a Volunteer Shift
- When People Complete a Volunteer Shift
Spoiler: At every step of the way, authentic communication is key to making sure your volunteers feel useful, supported, and valued!
When People First Express Interest in Volunteering with You
From the moment you ask people to volunteer – whether on your website or in person – start building honest, deep relationships.
Share a bit about how your organization will be utilizing volunteers in the next few months and what qualities you’re looking for in people to fill those roles. Painting a picture of how volunteers will fit into your work matters for setting expectations and helping people envision themselves playing a useful role. Make sure to let people know what qualifications they need and what training you’ll provide. Ask for what you need and, above all, be honest!
Ask people to provide you with the information you need to match volunteers to appropriate opportunities. Some particularly useful things to ask:
- Suitability: We need volunteers with a wide range of likes and strengths – which roles best suit you? [Provide a tailored list.]
- Availability: Are there specific times that work best for you to volunteer? What about times that rarely or never work?
- Frequency: How often do you see yourself volunteering with us?
- Individuality: What else should we know about you to help match you with the best possible volunteer experience?
Reach back to everyone promptly and reach out individually to people whose specific qualities would make them an especially valuable asset to your organization. You may not have the capacity to reach out individually to everyone who expresses an interest in volunteering. But at minimum, send out a stock volunteer welcome email that expresses gratitude and begins laying the foundation for people to turn out when you ask them (see the next two points). At the same time, be on the lookout for individuals who deserve a more personalized reach back. For example, a person who told you they have bilingual fluency, can volunteer every Wednesday, and have a bunch of friends who share their interest in your cause is someone it’s likely worth meeting ASAP!
Let people know more about what to expect. When you write that stock welcome email, let people know how frequently to expect to hear from you (Weekly? Monthly? Sporadically?). Share how your organization’s equity, diversity, and inclusion commitments are reflected in how you run your volunteer events; what are you doing to create a space where everyone feels safe and valued? (Choosing accessible locations, providing activities for children, and tracking specific needs can make a huge difference to people.) Perhaps highlight a few ways volunteers have made a difference to your organization’s work over the past year (if you can include a photo or video, even better!). Definitely let people know how they’ll hear about specific volunteer opportunities, and what you do to make sure people who sign up for them can excel in those roles.
Offer a few specific volunteer opportunities that people can sign up for immediately. Whether your needs change frequently or you have standing volunteer opportunities, be proactive about asking people to sign up for specific volunteer shifts you have coming up next. If there’s something people can do right away, getting them signed up for a specific volunteer role right when they express a general interest is a great way to harness their enthusiasm.
When People Sign Up to Do a Volunteer Shift
Now is the time when you start communicating 1:1 with every volunteer. Here are some things you should make sure you’re doing.
Thank them. This should be a given, but it’s not. Say it with genuine enthusiasm.
Tell them why it matters. “We couldn’t do this without you” is a good way to start explaining the value of what you’re asking volunteers to do, but don’t stop there. Provide the context for your incoming volunteers to see themselves playing an integral part in supporting one of your initiatives.
Prepare to give volunteers a great experience. Think through the flow of the volunteer shift – what can you do to make everyone feel useful, supported, and valued from start to finish? Have all the materials you need ready well in advance. Get some snacks and beverages for your people; yes, they can probably bring their own but providing them is one way to show you value them – a small investment in volunteer retention. Lean into your tendency to worry about things going wrong by doing a pre-mortem, using the results to refine your plans and make back-up plans.
Prepare everyone who signed up to volunteer. Even if volunteers are coming in to do the simplest of tasks, they’ll want to know what they’re going to be doing before they show up. Tell them and let them know what you’ll be doing to make sure they feel confident in their ability to do a great job. Some volunteer roles require extensive training – more than might be feasible to provide at the start of a volunteer shift (though a quick refresher is always good). Whatever your training might look like, include opportunities for participants to practice what they’re learning (role playing works well in many situations) and leave room for discussion and questions.
Touch base with them the day before they are scheduled to volunteer. A reminder text or confirmation call is the bare minimum you should do to show that you really do care if people show up for their volunteer shift. But if you can actually connect with people, you can use this as an opportunity to build your relationships with your volunteers. Make sure you know how they want to be referred to (name and pronouns). Ask about what motivated them to sign up, what they need to be successful, and what they can contribute to your team. Tip: Instead of “do you have any questions?”, ask “what questions do you have?”. That language encourages people to express any concerns they might have.
When People Show Up to Your Volunteer Shift
Now is when the magic happens. Bring all your positive energy and be highly engaged with your volunteers throughout their time with you.
Thank them. Every. Time.
Be ready for them. Arrive in advance of your volunteers, set up all your materials (including a sign-in sheet so you have an accurate list of who showed up), be ready to greet everyone with warmth and enthusiasm, provide name tags and model using them to ensure everyone’s addressed properly (e.g., Lisa, she/they).
Create a safe, pleasant environment for everyone. Play some upbeat music to generate energy in the room as people are arriving. Start conversations with everyone as they come in, and make introductions so people begin to make personal connections before the work gets started. Offer a snack or beverage. When it’s time to get started, set the tone and provide the support they need. Throughout the shift, demonstrate appreciation, generate enthusiasm, and be present to provide both emotional and technical support for your volunteers.
Talk about why it matters and how it fits in. For example, if you’ve brought in a dozen volunteers to put together produce bags for food insecure families, instead of just assigning roles, take a few minutes to educate the people in the room about the extent of need in the community you serve, the number and demographics of who you served last year and hope to serve this year, where the produce they’ll be bagging comes from, and what happens next after the bags are assembled. Doing this allows people to see how their immediate efforts fill a greater need, helps individual volunteers feel more connected to the community, and empowers them to be stronger ambassadors for your organization.
Support them throughout their shift. Use your on-the-spot training to help your volunteers feel confident in their ability to excel at the tasks at hand. But don’t stop there: be available throughout the shift for any questions that arise and be proactive about coaching your volunteers. Publicly celebrate what you see your volunteers doing especially well, too!
When People Complete a Volunteer Shift
Keep that magic going by reinforcing the sense of community and agency you built during the shift, demonstrating how much you value your volunteers and their contributions, and laying the foundation for their future involvement.
Celebrate what you’ve accomplished together. Bring everyone together to tally up the results of your collective efforts and ask people to share the high points of their experience. Invite people to huddle up for a group photo and ask permission to share on your social media, too. It’s a great way to thank people publicly and build buzz for your program, too.
Get feedback from them. Asking your volunteers for their honest input on what you’re doing well and what could really be improved simultaneously shows them how much you value them and shows you what you can be doing better. Don’t hesitate to be vulnerable and candid about the aspect of the program that you’re not completely satisfied with yourself – you may learn that you’re being too hard on yourself, or you may get some great ideas about how to strengthen that weak spot in your program.
Ask them directly if they’d do it again. Find out why or why not. For people who are open to coming back and doing the same thing next time, get them signed up for the next available opportunity before they leave this one. For others, talk about other roles that might be a better match for them.
Cultivate volunteer leadership. Keep your eye out for people who exhibit stand-out qualities that distinguish them as candidates for taking on larger roles with greater responsibility in your volunteer program. The workhorse volunteer who sticks around in 38 degree weather to support you until the end of a shift – invite them to coffee on the spot and learn more about what motivates them. The volunteer who talks openly during their volunteer shift about their personal experience with the issues your program addresses – make plans to talk one-on-one about why this work matters to them and what they want to get out of volunteering with your organization. Do this, and you’ll grow a team of volunteer leaders whose continued involvement is a win-win-win: for them, for your organization, and for the community you serve.
Believe it or not, this isn’t an exhaustive checklist but it should put you on the path to improving the quality of volunteer experience for everyone who wants to support your work.
Lisa Hazirjian, PhD, founded Win Together Consulting to help nonprofits, campaigns, and social justice organizations develop strategy, build power, engage supporters, and leverage strengths to achieve their goals. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy Studies, Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies, and Ph.D. in U.S. History from Duke University, and is working toward a Nonprofit Leadership Certificate from the Harvard Kennedy School. You can reach Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org.