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?


By James V. D’Ambrosio

Volunteers play vital roles in nonprofits — answering phones, providing administrative support, sending out mailings, assisting at special events, writing grants, and more. They deserve the same level of professionalism and respect you would extend to paid staff. This takes on greater importance when you consider that many fledgling nonprofits rely almost entirely on volunteers until funding is secured and, in this challenging economy, more nonprofits are likely to rely on volunteers to control costs.

A recent news article bears this out. In the June 24 edition of Long Island Business News, a feature focusing on the economic challenges facing nonprofits — “Marriages of Convenience: More Nonprofits are Considering Mergers and Other Collaborations” — reports that “Recruiting more volunteers has been a focus for some [nonprofits].” It is reported that Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares Inc. — The Harry Chapin Food Bank, recently saw a significant increase in volunteers after a full-time employee was assigned as volunteer coordinator.

One critical area of volunteer management is recruiting and placement — matching interests and aptitudes with appropriate roles in your organization. There should be a formal interview process, including a resume, reference checks, discussion of past experience, and requisite skills and abilities (at a large agency a volunteer coordinator might do this; at smaller agencies it will likely be the executive director). Also try to ascertain motivation: Are they retired and want to give back? A student looking to gain experience? Someone passionate about your mission for personal reasons? A job-seeker hoping to eventually be hired as a paid staffer? Armed with this information, you can now see where they might fit in. 

Another area of importance is how you view their work. Try looking at it from their perspective: freely giving their time and talent that could be used in many other ways, even at another nonprofit! So make sure their experience is positive. One way to do this is providing recognition: If your agency has many volunteers, consider holding an annual event recognizing their efforts; if you have just a few volunteers, recognize them in your newsletter, take them to lunch occasionally, and informally praise their efforts. Whatever you may do, it’s important they feel valued for their efforts and think well of your agency.

Conversely, the biggest mistake is taking volunteers for granted. Just because someone is enthusiastic, attends consistently and performs well doesn’t mean they’ll do it forever. So actively steward the relationship by a) asking what you can do to help; and b) telling them how their work contributes to your mission. Volunteers can be great ambassadors for your agency. Properly engaging them is time well spent.    


QUESTION TO READERS: How does your agency manage and recognize volunteers? What other thoughts do you have on the subject?

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