If you’ve been in the nonprofit business for any length of time, you’re familiar with the countless individuals that learn, or experience firsthand, the plight of the marginalized, feel convicted to take action and look for ways to meet a tangible need. “Pulled heartstrings” tend to be most prevalent around the holiday season. During this time, millions of people around the country will contact local organizations for the first time to get involved.
Sadly, many of these volunteers will serve once during the holidays only to walk out the door and return to their normal routines for the rest of the year. What does it take for a nonprofit leader to keep these one-time volunteers engaged? How does a nonprofit transform occasional volunteers into committed partners?
FIGHT FOR INTENTIONALITY – FROM THE VERY BEGINNING
In many ways, producing recurring volunteers starts before the volunteer ever fills out an interest form or walks through the front door. Volunteers want to feel like more than a number or a warm body filling a role anyone could do. Putting a heartfelt, personal touch on your first interactions with potential volunteers will engender goodwill and improve the likelihood the volunteer has a favorable disposition toward the organization.
What does it look like to practice intentionality and make each volunteer feel special?
- Avoid sending one-line responses with a link to your website: A one-line email will come across as curt and rude. The potential volunteer may even feel insulted if the link’s presence in the email suggests, “You just didn’t look hard enough on the website, and you’re wasting my time.”
- Make sure the website provides all of the necessary information: A prospective volunteer will need to access all pertinent information in an intuitive way. This should include the serving location, time commitment, supplies needed, and activity details. If similar organizations are also offering service opportunities volunteers will take the path of least resistance and serve with the organization that makes it easiest.
- Take time to pre-write email templates that feel personal and warm. As author Kathryn Pauley describes, “A little human flare goes a long way. Strive to make your connection feel less like a business interaction and more like the start of a friendship.
GIVE VOLUNTEERS VALUABLE WORK TO DO
Okay, so this may sound reductionistic, but this is a MUCH bigger problem than most nonprofit leaders realize. Even the brightest-eyed, most passionate volunteers will throw in the towel and find somewhere else to serve if they feel like they’re being underutilized or their time is being wasted.
How can your nonprofit make sure volunteers have a rewarding experience?
- Do a realistic assessment of how much work will need to be done prior to issuing a call for volunteers. Do not use more volunteers than necessary and make sure that every person that shows up will have substantive work to accomplish. The WORST outcome is for a volunteer to walk away having sacrificed their valuable time feeling like they have nothing to show for it.
- Leverage the skills your volunteers have. If at all possible, don’t pair individuals with highly desired and valuable skill sets with the simplest of opportunities. Challenging work is often the most rewarding work.
SHOW VOLUNTEERS THE VALUE OF THEIR WORK
Small wins aren’t always possible, but allowing volunteers to see fruit from their labor is a huge boost to their morale and will incentivize them to continue building upon the work that they’ve started. This is especially crucial when people are asked to perform more mundane tasks after which the results are not as obvious (e.g., tutoring a child in math for an afternoon).
How can your leadership show volunteers the impact of their work?
It may be hard to quantify the impact of some one-time events, but consider using the average value of a volunteer hour in your state and sharing the cumulative total with those that served. You could also use metrics like number of acres cleaned or pounds of trash collected, patients/clients served, or meals prepared/delivered. While metrics are important, make sure to highlight the long-term impact that these numbers will have on the lives of real people. After a meal serve day, for example, discuss how students that go to school with food have better academic outcomes and are more likely to escape the cycle of generational poverty. Sharing how mundane acts of service play a role in a bigger picture casts vision and compels volunteers to serve longterm by accomplishing a larger vision through regular acts of service.
While people may find their way to your organization through a shared passion for the people you serve, many will stay for the community. People are inherently social creatures and want to build relationships with those they serve and serve with. If the one-time volunteer is trying to decide where to donate their time, odds are they’ll go where they feel a greater sense of belonging.
How can your organization create this sense of community for one-time or occasional volunteers?
- Create a space for shared meals together. After a day of service or event, purchase food for all of the volunteers to eat together. Encourage veteran volunteers to sit down with new volunteers to get to know them and share more information about the organization’s cultures and traditions.
- Host fun activities for volunteers after serving like outdoor movie screenings or days on the lake/beach. This not only signals your gratitude for their service but serves as a reminder that they are part of a family and not simply tools for a community project.
- Follow up with volunteers that serve once, even if they don’t come back for the next event. This is why it’s important to understand the interests and motivations of each volunteer – if you have a pulse on what they value, you will be able to send them opportunities down the road that may better fit their interests or work better with their schedules.
The American social sector is experiencing a turnover crisis – approximately a third of individuals that volunteer this year will not volunteer again next year. This shoulders nonprofits with the additional costs associated with identifying, recruiting, and training thousands of new volunteers every few months. Organizations must fight to build a “family” culture that empowers volunteers, celebrates their contributions, matches passions with responsibilities, and fosters a true sense of belonging in order to see true community transformation take shape.
I am the lead data and research analyst with The For the City Network and joined the team in February 2018. I help volunteers, pastors, nonprofit leaders, and business professionals better understand the characteristics and dynamics of their communities so that they can more effectively pursue human flourishing together. I earned my master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Texas - Austin and continue to live in North Austin.