Four Tips to Keeping Your Volunteers EngagedA few years ago I reached burnout. It wasn't my job or my personal commitments that caused me to hit maximum overload, but my once-a-month volunteer duties at four organizations. I couldn't keep up with everything. Something had to give.
Over caffeinated drinks at the Farmer's Market, I had a conversation with my friend Amy. We discussed my burnout situation, and she helped me decide to drop three of the four organizations with which I'd been volunteering.
Why did three of my chosen groups lose me? It wasn't because of their missions, staff, or constituents. My decision was based on how well each organization managed me as a volunteer.
Once you've secured a good volunteer, keep her! Here are four tips to help you.
Train Your Volunteers on Their Role in Your Organization.
Provide written job descriptions to help establish volunteers' expectations on the time commitment and skill set needed to do the job. These descriptions can be written once and used year after year, with only minor edits. The description should outline her role, who she "reports" to, and expected outcomes.
Devote some time to discussing procedures. To whom should a volunteer turn if, for example, a prospective donor wants to talk about an organization's negative press from an article two weeks ago? And what should a volunteer do if approached by a journalist while working at a gala? My auction team is regularly approached by the press at fundraisers, and they know to promptly escort the journalist to a designated contact. Do your volunteers know what to do in a similar situation? Another procedural example is the protocol for handling onsite emergencies.
Teach volunteers the history of your organization. How did your group come to be? Was it born out of a need seen by a visionary, or developed when a local family experienced a crisis? Did your school auction start when government funding ended, or when John and Sally Smith thought it would be a great way to meet other families? Don't assume your volunteers know the reason your organization or fundraiser exists. Build emotional ties by sharing your story.
Finally, make sure that every volunteer understands and can recite your mission statement. Your mission statement describes your organization's purpose. Understanding the mission will engage volunteers on an emotional level, and help them make better decisions when performing their duties if you're not there to direct them.
Communicate Using a Variety of Tools.
Last week, in my role as benefit auctioneer, I sat in an event committee meeting where the auction chairperson commented that he'd never received any of the nonprofit's newsletters - and he'd been on the committee for five years! The special events manager was in disbelief. "I'll personally add you to the database," she concluded.
Later in the meeting, I recommended that the committee send out a Twitter post each time they received a donation. She said, "I don't think any of our members use Twitter."
Without missing a beat, the Auction Chair piped up: "I'm using Twitter!"
Everyone has their favorite communication and social networking tools—including volunteers! At your auction planning kickoff, survey your volunteers to learn what communications methods they use so you can update them regarding meetings, item donations, and other announcements using the right communications medium.
Show Appreciation (Frequently!).
How can volunteers be thanked? Let me count the ways. One of my clients sends a 'thank-you' email to an individual and cc's the appropriate committee. "Susan, I want to thank you for bringing that prospective sponsor to my attention. I'll follow up," writes the Development Manager. The rest of the committee sees the email. It facilitates communication, and serves as public pat-on-the-back for the volunteer that's making positive things happen for the organization.
Bring refreshments to volunteer meetings. Whether it's snacks, drinks, or a full-blown meal, it will be appreciated. Some of your volunteers may be coming to a meeting directly from work, and food and beverages will re-energize them to focus on their volunteer duties.
Consider a raffle for volunteers. One of my clients had a surprise drawing at a meeting, asking the volunteers attending to write their name on a card and drop it in a box. She drew the winning card that evening; the winner received two tickets to a concert at a popular outdoor venue. Another client hosts a volunteer dinner about two weeks after their auction.
And don't overlook the value of a 'thank you', whether written or verbal. Keep a supply of thank-you cards on hand—it's quick and easy to write a brief message, and the volunteer's gratification when they get that note is phenomenal. Verbal thank-you's are powerful, too. After working for one of my clients for five years, I am still profusely thanked by everyone, from the executive director down to the volunteer coordinator. One of the Board members approaches me every year to compliment and thank me. "You're paying me," I'll remind him. It doesn't matter. He continues to ooze appreciation, and that sticks with me. When I had an opportunity to give a few clients a public relations boost this summer, that nonprofit was the first I called.
Value Your Volunteers' Time.
Volunteers will adore you if you demonstrate that you value their time. Of the three groups I dropped, two lost me because they were disorganized! Good volunteers vanish when they feel their time is being wasted, so be prepared in meetings, work from an agenda, and end on time. In short, be organized.
Another way to convey value is to share with them the real dollar impact they made to the organization. "Your willingness to serve on the 'clean-up committee' saved us $150 on the cost of a cleaning crew." Simple statements like that show a volunteer that you put real value on their time and effort.
Even though most volunteers expect nothing in return for their services but good feelings, try to offer your volunteers something quantifiable for their time. At some schools, auction volunteers have their school service obligation (like teacher assistant duty) reduced or eliminated. A nonprofit might be able to offer some service in exchange for hours worked, like a free CPR class or a free pass to tour a public garden or museum.
Follow these best practices—train, communicate, show appreciation, and let volunteers know their value—and you'll have volunteers committed to your mission for years to come.
Social Networking for Volunteer CommunicationsAre you looking for new ways to recruit and communicate with volunteers? Consider social networking sites. Two of the most popular sites, Twitter and Facebook, are ideal for the purpose. If your organization doesn't have a presence on any social networking site, this approach will also allow you to get some limited social networking experience prior to establishing an organizational presence.
Twitter allows users to 'subscribe' to others' text messages—called 'following' in Twitter parlance. Twitter users can publish their thoughts—called 'tweeting'—without a Website or a blog using their phone or the Web browser on their computer, and their followers get these messages instantly via their phone or a Web browser. This simple, straightforward communication paradigm has created a significant change in how people are sharing and communicating.
With this paradigm, current events that aren't or haven't yet been published in traditional media are published on Twitter—sometimes as they happen. For example, a Chicago organization that is recruiting volunteers for local events related to 'school funding' may hear about a rally that didn't make the local news by searching Twitter for "school funding Chicago." Twitter searches will help you identify individuals interested in a cause like yours. By 'following' them on Twitter, you can start to build relationships with potential volunteers who share your passion for your organization's mission.
To get started on Twitter:
- Create an Account: The account is free and should contain a keyword for your industry. For example, an organization involved in mentoring will often get more followers if mentoring is listed in their name. Create an individual account to start.
- Post a few comments related to your cause.
- Make your posts less than 130 characters so that when others forward ('re-tweet') your information, there is room in their post to give you credit.
- All URLs should have http:// in front of the Web address so that followers reading tweets on their phone can open the link.
- If your tweet includes a Webpage link, make sure you explain what is on that page as many followers are not willing to click on a blind link.
- Search Twitter at http://search.twitter.com to find other users that have similar interests. For example, if you are from an organization that cares about recruiting volunteers for schools, you may try a search for "parent volunteers in schools." Look at the posts that show up in your results and follow the users that interest you. Note that you should post comments prior to following other users so they read your posts and reciprocate by following you.
- For each person that you follow, review her followers as this is often a natural way to find individuals connected to your mission. For example, if your organization is working towards youth leadership, you may find followers such as "girl leadership" or "youthnoise."
- If someone follows you, review their posts to ensure they match your organization's goal and then follow them.
To connect in Facebook, you 'friend' or 'fan' another's page. Those visiting the page can click on a Friend or Fan icon to view those connected individuals' pages. Many individual Facebook accounts are personal in nature, designed for close friends and family. Organizations with Facebook pages may find that an individual that wants to join their Facebook page has personal content posted on their page that's inappropriate from an organizational perspective. To deal with this situation, many organizations choose to do their Facebook updates via a 'page' that your volunteers can join. This offers you the ability to get the word out on Facebook without asking your volunteers for access to their personal information.
To get started on Facebook:
- Create a Facebook account.
- Create a 'Page' for your organization.
- Invite your members to become a fan of your page to get updated information and see photos and other reports of past events.
- Post your Twitter updates on your Facebook page as well. This can be automated if you are making many updates.
Your current and potential volunteer workforce is using Twitter and Facebook to communicate their about their interests. Leverage these social networking tools to provide these individuals with opportunities to turn interest to action.
Heidi McGowan is the founder and owner of Healthy Business Systems & Associates, LLC. She can be reached by calling (541) 929-7501 or by emailing email@example.com.
Five Best Volunteer Management Practices
Using these best practices will help you recruit, retain, and leverage your volunteer community.
Best Practice #1: Make volunteering easy.
Schools often have a committee 'sign-up night' at the start of the school year. A nonprofit may have a similar situation when recruiting volunteers for their annual gala. Unfortunately, not all prospective volunteers may be available to sign up on a particular day. You will recruit more volunteers if you post your sign-up sheets online so volunteers are not restricted to a narrow window of time for sign-up. Successful volunteer programs recruit volunteers continuously throughout the year.
Best Practice #2: Make commitment easy.
Prospective volunteers want to help, but fear letting you down. Most won't make a commitment if they don't know what the position requires in terms of time and expertise. In volunteer opening posts, in addition to the committee name, include a job description, explaining what the volunteer will do, in what time frame, and for how long. The good news for you is that when volunteers sign up knowing what they're committing to doing, most will stick with the job to the finish.
Best Practice #3: Welcome new volunteers.
The committee staffing process should be transparent to potential volunteers. Successful volunteer programs clearly explain the sign-up process and ensure it works as advertised. Start out on the right foot with every volunteer. Make sure to track every sign-up, and follow up with each new volunteer with a 'thank you' and next steps in the process. Follow up is essential to making every volunteer feel needed and appreciated, so they commit to their assigned tasks.
Best Practice #4: Empower volunteers.
Encourage volunteers to join the committee or committees in which they are most interested. Volunteers are more motivated and empowered when they decide to what purpose they are going to donate their time. Allowing committee chairs to select volunteers from a volunteer pool makes volunteering a 'popularity contest' and creates resentment and negativity—a poor way to start volunteering! Also, make sure that volunteers have the right to make nominations for next year's leadership positions. Empowering volunteers gets them engaged and keeps them committed to the cause.
Best Practice #5: Communicate with volunteers.
Committee chairs should actively communicate with volunteers. Keep a list of all committee members' contact information within easy access, and share that list with the committee. When a new volunteer joins a committee, the chair should send them a welcome email that thanks them for making the commitment (emails are more immediate than snail mail). Send the welcome email prior to the next committee meeting so new volunteers attend the meeting already feeling welcomed and needed. And introduce new volunteer committee members at the beginning of the first meeting they attend.
Neill Ray is the founder of The School Volunteer. He can be reached by calling (972) 931-9114 or by emailing Neill.Ray@sbcglobal.net.
What is the Right Number of Volunteers?Having the 'right' number of volunteers working at your event will significantly improve your guests' comfort and your operational efficiency. But how many volunteers is the 'right' number? The best way to determine the optimal volunteer count for your event is to use the projected event guest and auction item counts as your guide. The following chart shows ratios for each task type.
Ratio to Guests
Ratio to Auction Items
|Silent Auction Monitors||1/50|
|Live Auction Spotters||1/5 tables|
|Live Auction Runners||1/10|
|Deliver Invoices||1/5 tables|
|Collating Auction Items||1/50|
|Distribution of Items||1/50|
Establish early how many volunteers or staff members you will need and from what sources you'll get them. You should start recruiting volunteers as soon as you start planning your event, 9 to 12 months in advance. Always plan for more than you will actually need. You'll find that you'll have some volunteers whose plans change and will have to cancel at the last minute. Don't be caught short-handed!
Look for event volunteers from resources like these:
- Staff members
- High school and college students needing community service hours
- Volunteer Websites in your area
- Volunteer swaps with other local nonprofits
- Employees of your corporate sponsor
Once your event program is established, you can refine your volunteer assignments. Interview volunteers the same way you would interview a prospective employee. Someone who's shy or reserved will be uncomfortable running your helpdesk or greeting guests at registration, so assign them to a task that they can do comfortably, like collating auction items or entering bid information in the Auctionpay system. An outgoing volunteer will work great at your helpdesk or monitoring the silent auction. Put volunteers in the positions that suit them best, and they'll enjoy their experience more and be more likely to come back next year.
Depending on your program, you can assign volunteers to more than one activity. For example, once you close your silent auction, and move those items to the check-out area, the volunteers working the silent auction can move to another task. The chart below illustrates how volunteers can be assigned to more than one activity, reducing the total number of volunteers needed.
If you have a large enough guest list, you'll need more than one volunteer for most of your tasks. Create teams that will work together throughout the event. Have fun with the teams! Can you assign clever team names, or create friendly competition among teams to keep your volunteers motivated? What about having a drawing at the end of the evening with a prize going to the winning team?
Flow Chart of Volunteers
|Task||6 to 6:30||6:30 to 7||7 to 7:30||7:30 to 8||8 to 8:30||8:30 to 9||9 to 9:30||9:30 to 10||10 to 10:30||10:30 to 11:00|
|Express Check-in||TEAM B|
|Silent Auction Monitors||TEAM D|
|Silent Auction Closings||TEAM D|
|Live Auction Spotters||TEAM A|
|Live Auction Runners||TEAM A|
|Call from Heart||TEAM A|
|Super Silent Closing||TEAM D|
|Invoices & Notification||TEAM C|
|TEAM A||Registration - Live Auction|
|TEAM B||Express Checkin - Cashier|
|TEAM C||Raffles - Invoices|
|TEAM D||Silent Auction - Collating - Distribution|
Ask volunteers to arrive several hours prior to the event. Schedule a mandatory volunteer meeting to reinforce the volunteer arrival time. If you haven't already done so, assign volunteers to their teams and tasks, and provide training—although making team and task assignments and training volunteers is always better done a day or two prior to the event to avoid the inevitable event night distractions.
Volunteer recruitment and management is challenging, but you can cut that challenge down to size by starting early, determining volunteer count using a volunteer/guest/item ratio formula, interviewing volunteers prior to task assignments, and training volunteers prior to event night. You'll breathe easier when your event rolls around!
Maureen and John Winter own Target Funding Group. They can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Building Relationships with "Professional Volunteers"
Some of the best and brightest volunteers are skilled individuals who regularly volunteer through their workplace, usually with a group of friends or associates. I call these special people "professional volunteers". Do you know what makes them want to sign up year after year for certain events? Have you asked them about best practices they have seen exhibited at other events? Do you treat them with gratitude or as second-class help?
Volunteers are not paid, not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.
Instead of a "one-night stand", think of these volunteers as potential partners because they are in effect an extension of their employer. Their companies encourage volunteerism as part of their role as good corporate citizens, empowering their employees to contribute to the local community.
How these employees rate their volunteer experience with you—as poor, average or exceptional—and how they communicate that rating to their employer significantly affects their involvement, and their company's involvement, with you next year. Good or bad, benefit events are a reflection on nonprofits and the companies that sponsor them. A good experience is a statement on your relationship-strengthening skills, respect for your donors, and stewardship patterns. Exceptional volunteer experiences can persuade a company to consider event sponsorship, ask for a tour to see your mission in action, or invite you to talk to their employees about your program and ask for donations of time and money.
What do corporate volunteers say is important to them?
- Have you pre-determined how volunteers can help you to have a successful event and prepared accordingly?
- Is their introduction to your event a calm, positive environment, with things running smoothly? Or is it a chaotic first impression?
- It is essential to have clear written instructions and a physical sample of any assembly tasks (goodie bags, registration packets, etc.).
- Be sure that volunteers are thoroughly prepared for their event assignments.
- Initiate some role-playing; walk them through the process several times.
- Stay with them until you are confident they understand how you want the task done.
- Be sure you have all the tools, equipment and supplies that volunteers will need to accomplish their assigned tasks.
- Check back with them periodically to see if there is anything they need.
- Respond promptly to questions and concerns.
- Schedule an appropriate number of volunteers for each time slot and divide them into teams to work on specific tasks.
- Assign a committee member or staff member to welcome them, orient them and get them started on their assigned tasks. Put a label with the name and cell phone number of this supervisor on the back of their name tag in case they have questions.
- Do not allow other volunteers and staff to give them conflicting assignments.
- Acknowledge and appreciate their special talents and skills; put the right people in the right place.
- Treat each volunteer with respect.
- Sincerely thank them for coming to help make this critical fundraiser a success for your clients/constituency.
- Set up a volunteer work area where they can perform their tasks without being in the way of other set-up functions, where they can access beverages and light snacks without having to ask, and where they can store their personal belongings.
- Provide them with a name badge holder that identifies them by name as an event volunteer. Hint: volunteers especially appreciate the holders on lanyards that do not damage clothing and can securely accommodate a key, credit card or cash, and a (validated) parking ticket!
- Along with a hand-written thank-you, preferably from your clients, include an invitation to the post-event celebration party.
- Ask volunteers to fill out a brief evaluation when they check out at the end of their shift with recommendations for what you could have done better and if they would like to serve on the committee next year.
- Send a thank-you with photos and a list of volunteers to the company CEO.
Kathy P. MacNaughton, CFRE, is President and CEO of KMAC & Associates. She can be reached by calling (210) 497-8998 or emailing email@example.com.