Real talk here because it’s just us. How much do you wish your volunteers would organize themselves? Like, a lot, right? We totally hear you on that. Volunteers are awesome and we are forever grateful that they are willing to give so much of their time and energy to causes close to their heart. But for the resource-strapped nonprofiteer, managing volunteers can take up a lot of precious time.
Let’s talk about the dream, shall we? The dream that involves you focusing more on your most important tasks and volunteer management taking up less of your time. Doesn't that sound toes-in-the sand-, umbrella-drink-in-your-hand-kinda-dreamy?
Here’s the thing – achieving this dream may not be as out of reach as you think. Getting your volunteers to organize themselves may be a matter of approaching volunteer management a bit differently and making some changes to your current system.
Ready to make those dreams a reality? Then take heed of these seven tips for getting your volunteers to organize themselves.
Tip #1: Define what success looks like for your volunteer team
Lewis Carroll once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” So if you don’t know what success looks like in terms of volunteers organizing themselves, you may not know how to get started or sustain this new approach to volunteer management. For instance, does success look like volunteers emailing a lead volunteer with questions and scheduling issues? Does success look like you spending two hours or less per week on volunteer management? Of course, there are many more definitions of success for this, but the point is, you need to decide what it looks like for your organization.
Pro-tip: Have a brainstorm session with your volunteers to create a shared vision for success.
Tip #2: Recruit the right people
Maybe you already know that it’s important to have the right employees in the right roles in your organization. The same goes for volunteers and building a solid volunteer program starts with recruiting the right people. Or as Jim Collins puts it, “It is better to first get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. ...”
Look at your definition of success and ask yourself if the people who are currently volunteering match the expectations and skills need to meet this vision. If the answer is no, it might be time to change your approach to recruiting volunteers.
Since we’re talking about volunteers who can organize themselves, you may want to look for self-starters, people who don’t need a ton of direct supervision, and who are not afraid to ask clarifying questions.
Pro tip: Start with a solid volunteer job description to clearly communicate expectations.
Tip #3: Find a lead volunteer
We know you’ve got a to-do list that’s a mile long and several plates full of work. We get that you want to work smarter, not harder. I mean, who doesn't amirite? That's why, when it comes to your volunteers, you need a partner in crime, the Alfred to your Bruce Wayne—someone who can support you and lighten the load. A key role you may want to consider is having a “lead volunteer.” This is someone who can oversee other volunteers and is willing to take on some extra leadership responsibilities.
Ready to find your lead volunteer? Look at your current volunteer roster for that superstar who may fit the bill.
Tip #4: Think mentorship, not supervision
One big change you can make in your volunteer program to cultivate and encourage a self-organizing volunteer group is to offer mentorship, not supervision. Of course, this assumes that you have the right volunteers in place (see Tip #2). Once you have the right people on your volunteer bus to awesome-town, start to understand your role as a mentor and not a supervisor. Offer support and coaching that helps your volunteers do their best work.
If you have a lead volunteer, you may want to invest a little extra time in their leadership so that they can continue to grow and shine.
Tip #5: Provide volunteers with tools and systems
You don’t want your volunteer program to be like herding kittens. They may be cute, but ain’t nobody got time for that! What you need are tools and systems to keep your volunteer team running smoothly.
As the staff member ultimately in charge of some volunteers, it pays to provide volunteers with tools and systems for communicating and doing their work. Maybe you have a shared Slack channel or even just a shared calendar. If you want to take it up a notch, consider creating a Google site for #allthingsvolunteer at your organization.
Tip #6: Have a plan for ongoing engagement
If you’ve got a team of great volunteers and momentum with them self organizing, you’ll want to make sure you keep ‘em. Often times retaining volunteers comes down to creating opportunities volunteers want and are genuinely excited about. Find ways to help your volunteers get what they want out of the experience by understanding their goals and reasons for volunteering.
Pro-tip: Schedule a check in with each of your volunteers to take their pulse and create a winning volunteer work plan.
Tip #7: Thank and appreciate your volunteers
What’s the best way to encourage volunteers to stay the path? Thank and appreciate their work! And not just during National Volunteer Week. Find little opportunities year round to say thanks and encourage them. Maybe it’s a quick chat during their volunteer shift or a heartfelt card for their birthday. There are plenty of little things you can do to show volunteers a little love.
Volunteers are awesome and so are you! These seven tips will help you optimize your volunteer program so that you have more time to do world-changing work. Together, you and your volunteers are bound for nonprofit excellence.