Volunteer Engagement: 7 Strategies Smart Nonprofits Swear By
For nonprofits, volunteers are a special breed of supporters. These individuals generously donate their time, effort, and skills to push your mission forward and alleviate some of the burdens from your staff — and they don’t ask for anything in return!
While volunteer programs can be invaluable in what they offer an organization, the truth is that many nonprofits aren’t making the most of their volunteer management strategies.
When you don’t prioritize volunteer engagement or work to develop a positive volunteer experience, you run the risk of letting these invested constituents slip away for good.
So how do you guarantee that volunteers come back shift after shift and stay involved with your nonprofit in other ways? Here are 7 surefire strategies for more intentional volunteer engagement learned from some of Giveffect’s top clients:
- Develop a volunteer management plan.
- Find the right volunteer management software.
- Build a better volunteer application.
- Pay attention to volunteer preferences.
- Offer a variety of volunteer opportunities.
- Engage local businesses with volunteer campaigns.
- Turn volunteers into donors.
Volunteer engagement can take many forms, but the good news is that it doesn’t have to be a painful process. With a smart strategy and the right tools on hand, your nonprofit can effectively steward volunteers and keep them involved with all of your efforts long-term.<
Let’s get started with our favorite tips!
Volunteer Engagement Strategy #1: Develop a Volunteer Management Plan
Before you can begin engaging with volunteers, you’ll need to establish a clear strategy for volunteer management from start to finish.
Volunteer management is a broad term that encompasses every step of the volunteer cycle, including:
- Recruiting volunteers. Your nonprofit will conduct volunteer outreach through a variety of channels, including your website’s volunteer page, email newsletters, direct mailings, and social media posts.
- Processing volunteers. Once a prospect has completed your volunteer application, you’ll need to ensure all data is correctly transferred to your volunteer management system. Depending on the role, processing may also include a volunteer screening process, such as a background check or an interview.
- Onboarding volunteers. You’ll need to equip your volunteers with all the knowledge they need to effectively fill their role. Depending on the scope of their involvement, training might be a 15-minute session before the job starts, or it may entail a multi-week orientation process conducted by your staff.
- Communicating with volunteers. Keep volunteers in the loop by sending them volunteer sign-up confirmations, shift reminders, and details about their upcoming assignments. Most of this will be done via email, but you may also need to reach out on the phone.
- Supervising volunteers. During a volunteer’s shift, someone on your team should be onsite to monitor volunteers, answer questions, and ensure no problems arise. The more hands-on your team is, the more comfortable (and thus, successful) your volunteers will be.
- Recognizing volunteers. After each shift, you should express your gratitude to volunteers. A simple acknowledgment email is a great start, but take the time to follow up more personally with those individuals who went above and beyond to support your organization.
Each of these elements is vital to the success of your volunteer program, so you’ll need to consider how you’ll go about each step, including what software you’ll utilize and how you’ll delegate tasks across your team.
If your nonprofit doesn’t have a dedicated volunteer coordinator to take the lead on outlining your volunteer management plan, now might be the right time to hire one. This staff member can organize a strategy that responds to your nonprofit’s specific volunteer needs and ensures a great experience for your volunteers.
What to Know: The first step of volunteer engagement is developing a volunteer management plan for handling all aspects of the volunteer cycle, from recruitment all the way to recognition.
Volunteer Engagement Strategy #2: Find the Right Volunteer Management Software
Thankfully, much of the volunteer management process doesn’t have to be a manual effort. With the right software, your team can centralize your volunteer efforts and even automate many of your tasks.
As you search for the right software choice, keep in mind that your nonprofit doesn’t start and end at volunteer engagement. You also need to consider fundraising, donor stewardship, marketing, and much more to develop a truly comprehensive strategy for your organization.
To centralize all of those crucial elements, you need a fully integrated nonprofit solution that can offer you a 360° view of your operations and facilitate all of your most important tasks. You can store and manage all of your supporter data in one place, allowing you to see the full picture of your constituents as volunteers, donors, members, advocates, and much more.
After all, your volunteers may very well be prospective donors who will donate both time and money for years to come. Others may be able to expand your reach, help deepen ties within your community, and offer up services your organization has yet to articulate.
Volunteer engagement strategies conceived in complete isolation will inevitably miss hidden opportunities to cultivate greater impact, so make sure your volunteer management software works with your other systems!
In addition to integration, let’s examine a few specific volunteer management software features you’ll want to be on the lookout for:
- Online form-builder. From your general volunteer application to specific interest forms and waivers, your volunteer software should enable you to customize forms that integrate seamlessly with your nonprofit website. That way, all the data you collect will automatically flow into your volunteer database.
- Shift tracking. You can manage shifts paperlessly (and painlessly!) by storing job details within your software. Check volunteers in on a mobile device, log every minute they serve, and set up a calendar to get a comprehensive overview of your volunteer shifts.
- Automated communications. It’s unrealistic and inefficient to send out individual emails or place phone calls every time you need to confirm an upcoming shift. Stay on top of all communications by finding software that can automate shift confirmations, reminders, and follow-ups, as well as social media outreach or marketing emails.
Though this is just a sampling of the features your software might offer, the main benefit of a volunteer management tool is that it makes it easier to get to know your volunteers and engage with them over time.
When you store relevant details — from contact information to engagement history, interests, and more — in your database, you can use that insight to inform your volunteer engagement strategy.
What to Know: Your volunteer management software can centralize constituent data to make it easier to cultivate relationships with your supporters. Make sure you find software with the right specifications for your needs, including robust tools and integrated features.
Volunteer Engagement Strategy #3: Build a Better Volunteer Application
Engagement should be your nonprofit’s priority from the very beginning of the volunteer experience. That means creating an online application that starts your volunteer relationship on the right foot.
When you have accurate, useful data on file from the start, you’ll have a better understanding of who your volunteers are and what they can offer your organization — and what you can offer them.
Of course, any volunteer application should adhere to a standard template so that you can collect the information that’s vital to your volunteer profiles. Make sure you don’t forget to collect the most important details!
In addition to following our checklist, consider these next-level tips for a well-crafted volunteer application:
- Let applicants share their skills, experience, and interests so that you can send them the most relevant (and exciting) opportunities.
- Keep some fields optional so that you have the opportunity to collect as much data as possible without overwhelming applicants.
- Detail the rest of the application process, including any additional screening that the applicants will need to undergo.
- Ask how your applicants heard about your organization to assess your marketing strategy and send a thank-you to any current volunteers who made a referral.
The more data you capture now, the easier it will be to build detailed constituent profiles that allow you to get to know your volunteers as well-rounded individuals and supporters of your nonprofit.
For example, Habitat for Humanity of East Central Ohio designed a custom volunteer application form to ask for every volunteer’s skills, interests, certifications, and availability from the get-go. The next time their volunteer coordinator needs to identify volunteers with specific skills, a simple query will generate a comprehensive list of search results.
What to Know: The volunteer application is often the first brush a potential volunteer has with your nonprofit, so make it count by following a strategic template and asking the right questions.
Volunteer Engagement Strategy #4: Pay Attention to Volunteer Preferences
Once you’ve collected all of that valuable volunteer data, you need to know what to do with it. The short answer? Use your newfound volunteer intel to inform your engagement plan!
We know that might sound easier said than done, so let’s break this strategy down into a few actionable tips that any nonprofit can follow:
- Reach out using the right channels. You may have volunteers who open every email you send, but you may also have volunteers who only respond when you call them on the phone. They’re both happy to engage with you but in very different ways. Find out how your supporters want to be contacted and use that channel exclusively.
- Promote tailored volunteer opportunities. Create segments in your volunteer software so you can easily send out batch communications that correspond to specific interests or skills. That way, you won’t inundate every single prospective volunteer with tasks they can’t perform (or aren’t interested in performing).
- Ask for volunteer feedback. How can you know what’s working and what isn’t if you don’t ask? You can send out a survey to your entire volunteer base or specific segments to find out which marketing, engagement, and volunteer management tactics are working and which are falling short.
Giveffect clients like Ronald McDonald House of Greater Hudson Valley and Goodwill of Southern and Western Colorado have used their volunteer data to send targeted emails alerting volunteers of opportunities that are the closest match to their expressed areas of expertise and interest.
Not only do volunteers appreciate this degree of personalization, the close matching also ensures that volunteers are more likely to click on every email they receive rather than grow desensitized to a high volume of generic emails.
What to Know: Use your application, surveys, and other forms of communication to find out what your volunteers want from your nonprofit. Then, do your best to tailor your strategies to meet their preferences and needs.
Volunteer Engagement Strategy #5: Offer a Variety of Volunteer Opportunities
Providing a diverse array of volunteer opportunities is truly a win-win scenario: your volunteers get to contribute to a cause they care about in a way that’s convenient (and fun) for them, and your nonprofit gets to receive assistance in different areas of your organization.
The most engaging volunteer programs offer a plethora of opportunities that allow as many volunteers as possible to lend a hand.
You may be thinking, “But my nonprofit just doesn’t have that many available options for volunteers.” We’ll let you in on a secret — nonprofits with that mentality are missing out on a wealth of virtually free resources and are selling their supporters short at the same time! (Talk about a lose-lose scenario.)
For that reason, your nonprofit should keep these points in mind when putting together all the opportunities you can think of:
- Assess your organization’s needs. You might think volunteers only come in handy when you’re organizing community service or hosting a fundraising event, but that’s not the case! Volunteers can offer administrative support, skilled labor (think: professional pro bono services, from legal work to financial advice), and much more!
- Offer multiple shift times for each role. Whether you’re looking for stock assistance at your thrift store or dog walkers at your shelter, make sure you’re offering a variety of time slots so that you can cater to your supporters’ schedules. Depending on the role, we suggest 3-4 hour shifts — one for the morning and one for the afternoon.
- Write strategic job descriptions. Like all internet users, your prospects are likely just going to scan your volunteer job descriptions. To make them as impactful as possible, use descriptive language and keywords that will catch a reader’s eye. Make sure to give each position a title, too, so that readers can get the gist of the role in just a glance.
Take a look at this example of how Habitat for Humanity uses Giveffect’s volunteer scheduling tool to offer shift opportunities. Check out their compelling description, too.
Offering engaging volunteer opportunities don’t just help you build relationships with volunteers — it can also be a valuable way to steward donors as well!
For example, you can offer VIP volunteer opportunities for your major donors, such as volunteering their professional expertise or cutting a ribbon on the new building your capital campaign funded.
Of course, in order to know whom to target for these special opportunities, you’ll need to make sure your volunteer strategy is connected to your fundraising efforts and larger nonprofit strategy. (Just another example of how you can use integrated volunteer management software to your advantage!)
What to Know: The more volunteer options you provide, the more likely your supporters are to find a time and job that works for them. That means more volunteers — and more importantly, happier volunteers — from the start!
Volunteer Engagement Strategy #6: Engage Local Businesses with Volunteer Campaigns
Corporations and community organizations like schools and churches can offer more than financial contributions. Oftentimes, their employees and members are seeking meaningful ways to give back, and volunteering with a nonprofit like yours can be just the solution!
Consider partnering with generous companies and organizations in your community through volunteer campaigns. Not only will you reap the benefits of new volunteers and a boost of awareness for your organization, but you’ll also open up a world of long-term partnership opportunities with businesses who share an interest in your cause.
For example, The Community Food Bank of Central Alabama uses Giveffect to enable corporations, local businesses, and fellow community organizations to host their own volunteer campaigns.
Their partners — from FedEx to Americorps to United Healthcare — can create their own volunteer pages, recruit volunteers, and track volunteer activity themselves, without taking up the time of food bank staff.
To follow a similar strategy and begin your outreach to local businesses and organizations, start with existing supporters that can give you a foot in the door:
- Identify which of your existing volunteers and donors are employees at businesses that encourage volunteerism. (Hint: your volunteer management software should allow you to easily track this information.)
- Invite the most committed volunteers to serve as team captains to recruit fellow employees to take a shift at your organization.
- Collect your new volunteers’ complete contact information so you can continue to cultivate the relationship well after a volunteer campaign has ended.
Plus, you can combine your volunteer and fundraising efforts by paying special attention to corporations and local businesses that offer volunteer grants. Through these corporate giving programs, companies provide a monetary grant for eligible nonprofits where their employees volunteer regularly.
No matter how you go about it, affiliating your nonprofit with businesses and other organizations is only beneficial. You’ll develop relationships that you can leverage for years to come, and you’ll promote a sense of philanthropy in your community!
What to Know: Using volunteer campaigns to develop local (or even national or international) partnerships is an excellent way to gain exposure to new volunteers who can become lifelong supporters.
Volunteer Engagement Strategy #7: Turn Volunteers into Donors
If your nonprofit’s volunteer engagement strategy ends after the volunteer shift, you’re missing out on a powerful opportunity to impact your mission in other ways and engage with supporters over the course a lifetime.
Think of it this way: if a volunteer cares enough about your cause to give their time, energy, and skills to it, they’re likely to show that devotion in other ways too. That’s why it’s crucial that you map out a plan to show volunteers how (and why) they can support your nonprofit as a donor, too!
Every volunteer who walks through the door to pledge their time is the beginning of a relationship that could grow into lifelong giving, major giving, and deeper connections with your community. However, when volunteer activity is managed in isolation from donor activity, their overlap is entirely lost!
To convert your volunteers into donors, focus on building a volunteer engagement strategy that’s connected to your nonprofit’s other efforts. To do this, you’ll need to:
- Start with robust nonprofit software. As we’ve already mentioned, the best volunteer management software isn’t just volunteer management software. You should be able to see volunteer data in conjunction with all of your fundraising and donor stewardship efforts to plan a comprehensive strategy that encompasses all areas of your nonprofit.
- Regularly recognize volunteers. By providing a rewarding volunteer experience, you’ll show your volunteers how much you value their effort. When your volunteers feel good about their involvement, they’re much more likely to seek out other ways to show their support — like making a donation!
- Make giving easy. The more channels you have for giving, the easier it will be for volunteers (and all other supporters) to conveniently make a donation. Your best bet is to work with fundraising software that offers plenty of options, from online donation forms to mobile giving and even peer-to-peer fundraising.
Ultimately, the only foolproof way to turn volunteers into donors is to ask them! You’ll need to craft a compelling appeal, whether that means sending them an email with a link to your donation form or calling them up on the phone.
A great time to encourage volunteers to extend their impact through making a donation is during your year-end fundraising campaign. Since you’ll already be kicking your donation solicitation into high-gear, reach out to volunteers to thank them again for their support and show them easy ways to make even more of a difference.
What to Know: To create a truly successful volunteer engagement strategy, you’ll need to have a plan in place for turning your volunteers into donors. The more ways they can show their support, the more engaged they’ll be now and for years to come.
Volunteer engagement looks a little different for every organization, but as long as you’re connecting with your dedicated volunteers, you’re bound to be successful.