By James D’Ambrosio

Some time ago I wrote about managing volunteers in a  general sense. Since this topic is so important to nonprofits — some established agencies have many volunteers as do some start-ups low on funds — it’s worth a closer look. There are specific steps you can take to build strong relationships with people  freely giving their time and talent.


Based on personal and professional experience, consider the following:

1) KEEP THE NUMBERS MANAGEABLE: This cannot be overstated. If you have a full- or part-time volunteer coordinator, gauge how much time they have to steward volunteers — meetings, scheduling, monitoring assignments, etc. Ensure they can properly manage ALL your volunteers. If you spread yourself too thin and can’t be available when people need you, you risk losing them. Better to have fewer dedicated volunteers than an army you can’t manage.

2) MATCH SKILLS & EXPERIENCE TO TASKS: Volunteers run the gamut from experienced, well-educated professionals to people with much less business experience and acumen. Make sure there’s a reasonable match between what needs to be done and what that person can do well. This is especially important with positions involving contact with the public or handling sensitive information.

3) PROVIDE GUIDANCE: When a volunteer first comes aboard, communicate often — providing guidance with assignments, answering questions, and helping them become acclimated to the office environment —much like you would a paid staffer. This will reduce how often they come to you with questions, freeing up time for other tasks.

4) SHOW APPRECIATION: This is very important, and it doesn’t have to be elaborate. While some agencies hold formal recognition ceremonies — a good thing, I was once honored — don’t wait for a major event to show your gratitude. A genuine “thank you” for a job well done, praise at a staff meeting where the volunteer is present, or free tickets to a special event will suffice. Simple gestures like these often mean a lot to people and help build goodwill. 

5) GIVE BACK WHEN POSSIBLE: Volunteers help increase organizational capacity without compensation. If you can reciprocate in a meaningful way, do so. For example, if a volunteer is job searching and consistently produces quality work, provide referrals to appropriate opportunities or a contact for networking. In today’s economy, more people volunteer to stay current. Lend them a hand.

6) THINK LONG-TERM: However long a volunteer is with you — whether it’s 10 days or 10 years — the relationship doesn’t have to end when they leave. If their experience is positive, they can be an ambassador for your agency — referring other volunteers, spreading word of your good work, making a donation, attending fund-raisers, etc. Be mindful of such things when working with volunteers. Taking the long view can reap rewards.



What do you think of these ideas? Anything else you’d like to add?

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