The competition to attract devoted, well-connected and passionate volunteers to organizations in Canada is fierce. Over the past 10 years, charities of all shapes and sizes have searched for ways to secure the time, commitment and connections of key volunteers who are also often the gateway to philanthropic support for years to come. The increased knowledge and expectations of volunteers has led the nonprofit sector to create best practices and standards for healthy, strong volunteer management programs.
Now, the question many organizational leaders are asking is: how do we ensure we are giving our volunteers the opportunity to make a difference while still meeting our own priorities with less human and operational resources? To get the conversation moving in your organization, here are 10 tips to bring a volunteer program out of the dark ages and into the light:
1. Create a strategic volunteer program
Just as we plan our marketing, client services and fundraising campaigns, we also need to have strong, strategic volunteer programs. People today tend to “lead more structured lives, are more results-oriented, autonomous, tech-savvy, and have multiple responsibilities and interests,” as cited by Volunteer Canada in its Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement. These are important factors to keep in mind when creating a volunteer program, which should include volunteer job descriptions that fit into an agency’s strategic plan. This takes time but it is vital to the success of any volunteer program.
2. Recognize that everyone in your organization is a volunteer ambassador
Once someone becomes a volunteer, they are part of the team. Bringing on a new volunteer is similar to onboarding a new employee – they need to meet their colleagues, understand the mission/vision and a have clear and concise job description. It is important that everyone on your team understands the role of the volunteer and treats them respectfully. Volunteers will likely interact with a variety of staff and these interactions will form their experience with your organization.
3. Do not overlook the impact of personal experiences
Big volunteer appreciation events have their place but volunteers remember the personal experiences. Receiving a hand-written thank you card from a client or having the opportunity to hear a patient or family member talk about the impact the agency has had on their lives, are experiences volunteers will remember. These personal outreach experiences will motivate volunteers and create memories that will keep them connected.
4. When all else fails, read the directions
There are many volunteer management resources available today such as the above-mentioned Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement, which outlines the guiding principles of volunteer standards of practice. It is also a good place to start as a tool to evaluate, enhance or even create a volunteer program. Volunteer Canada also has a “code audit” available for members to assess and analyze volunteer programs. These documents have been researched and offer solid frameworks from which to build strong volunteer programs.
5. Sincere, timely volunteer appreciation
Imagine Canada reports that “there are an estimated 170,000 nonprofits and charities in Canada and that half of these (54 per cent) are run entirely by volunteers.” Statistics Canada notes that 13 million Canadians volunteer each year. These millions of Canadian volunteers get involved for different reasons but every volunteer deserves to receive a timely, sincere thank you.
There are numerous ways to thank volunteers for their time but the two most important aspects of any thank you are: sincerity and timeliness. A recognition program can be both formal and informal and should be ongoing and involve all levels of your organization. In particular, senior management and governance leaders need to be engaged in the volunteer recognition component.
6. You tell a friend and then they tell a friend and so on…and so on…
Volunteers listed “word of mouth” as the number one way they were recruited to get involved as a volunteer, as noted in Statistics Canada’s Canadian Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (CSGVP 2013). Volunteers often connect charities with their personal and professional contacts, especially if their experiences at the charity have been good ones. Make sure you have left these doors open by encouraging your volunteers to bring others on board.
7. View volunteerism as community engagement
Volunteerism is a staple in any strong, healthy community. There are proven mental and physical health benefits of volunteering. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) lists some of the benefits of volunteering as reduced risk of depression, reduction of stress and an increased sense of self-confidence. Communities with strong volunteer programs experience economic benefits, safety and cohesiveness, and enhanced civic engagement as well. Volunteerism can also connect organizations with different levels of government and business, leading to a higher community profile and increased stakeholder engagement.
8. Connect with companies offering employer-supported programs
Employer-supported volunteer programs encourage staff to get involved in community causes supported by company resources. Some of the leaders of employer-supported volunteer programs, as identified by Volunteer Canada in Leading with Intention: Employer-supported volunteering in Canada include Cenovus Energy, Deloitte, Investor’s Group, Keurig Green Mountain, Meridian, PWC, RBC and The Home Depot. Encourage volunteers to speak to company leadership about volunteerism and the difference it has made in their lives.
9. Train your team to work with volunteers
In Challenges in Volunteer Management, author Jill Levicitus discusses some challenges of working with volunteers. “Problems between staff members and volunteers can make you question the value of your volunteer program,” writes Levicitus. “Particularly if you are called upon to referee an argument. Resentment, whether it’s from staff or volunteers, can doom the success of your program.” To avoid these conflicts, ensure there are clear volunteer roles and expectations and that these are communicated to staff. See tip #1 and avoid confusion by creating a clear and concise volunteer management program.
10. Create multigenerational volunteerism
We have all heard or read information on millennials and how to create rewarding professional experiences to retain this generation. It is important to consider how to recruit volunteers from different generations while offering opportunities for them to work together on projects.
Although we know that volunteers aged 55 and older are the largest group to volunteer, we still need to be recruiting other generations to ensure the longevity of volunteer programs. In When Volunteering is All in the Family, Chris Farrell explains the benefits of multigenerational volunteerism: “At a time when the popular narrative about relations between the generations suggests there’s a brewing conflict over scarce resources, multigenerational volunteering is a heartening sign.” Encourage volunteers to introduce family members and friends to the organization. They are often your ambassadors to the next generation.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that volunteers want to help our organizations deliver vital programs and services. They want to be engaged in the incredible work being done throughout the nonprofit sector in Canada and we are privileged to work alongside them.
About the Author
Patti Lauzon, APR, CFRE, is the Director of Alumni Affairs and Donor Communications at the University of Windsor. Throughout her career, Patti has worked in communications, fundraising, volunteer management and community engagement at a variety of Canadian nonprofits, including the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Canadian Red Cross.
Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.