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Volunteers are the ultimate donor.

They are giving a resource more precious than money: They are giving their time. And the beauty of their contribution is in how mutually-rewarding it can be. Volunteers bring value to the organization and can feel of service at the same time.

Volunteers have been at the core of any movement that has made an impact. When times are tight, and resources are stretched thin, they are often the first to step up to the plate. Some community benefit organizations rely entirely on them. And as challenges arise and needs become greater, they are more important than ever.

Yet so often, we hear about how difficult it can be to run a volunteer program and to keep volunteers engaged.

From the mouths of volunteers, here is how we can do just that.

Affirmation

Give your volunteers a clear sense of how their role fits into the big picture of the mission and how the work they do for the organization is integral to its success.

Guidance

All too often, volunteers are asked to do jobs with little or no training. They may be working with unfamiliar technology or dropped into situations that they are unprepared for. It helps to have an onboarding process for new volunteers, along with job descriptions fleshed out for the various volunteer roles your organization needs to be filled.

Step-by-step documentation of how to do things, particularly for anything tech-related, is always helpful.

And of course, don’t train them, then abandon them completely! Be present and available to work alongside them and answer any questions.

Coordination

Recruiting and managing volunteers can be confusing with all of the various schedules, tasks, and personalities to coordinate.

Begin with a simple application form for each volunteer to fill out so you can learn not only about their availability, but also their talents, skills, strengths and, in particular, why they want to volunteer. This will make it easier for you to position them in a role where they can give and receive the most benefit.

Then take the time to map out your programming calendar and volunteer needs before scheduling your volunteers. One of the chief complaints from volunteers is being asked to show up, but then having nothing to do once they arrive. Try to plan ahead to avoid wasting their time (or they might not come back!)

Positivity

Here’s the thing: People volunteer for the cause, but they stick around for the people.

Make sure the person who is coordinating the volunteers is upbeat and possesses a positive attitude. One of the easiest ways to lose volunteers is to have their primary point of contact with the organization be a grouch (… or rude, curt, a total &%*#. You get the idea).

Your volunteers are giving you their most precious resource: their time. They shouldn’t be treated poorly, ever.

Appreciation

Always thank your volunteers. It seems like this should go without saying, but it bears reminding. Unfortunately, volunteers don’t always get a simple expression of gratitude.

There’s also nothing like a good, old-fashioned party to show appreciation for your volunteers. Bring everyone together to celebrate their service (good music is naturally a must.)

You could also surprise them with small thank you gifts or meaningful gesture, and be sure to save some of the good swag for them.

Recognition

Beyond gratitude, publicly acknowledge your volunteers for their service in some way. It could be a mention to the team of how much better something, in particular, has gotten since their help.

You could also showcase one of them in your newsletter and social media. Shining the spotlight on them takes gratitude that much further.

Communication

Regularly share good news with volunteers. It could be a recent win for the organization, an uplifting moment in your programming, a compliment from the public or an enthusiastic press review. Share any little nugget of gold that will make their day in some small way.

Also, engage your volunteers by having regular debriefs after an intense bout of programming. Ask for their feedback and let them know when you incorporate their suggestions.

Ambassadors

Volunteers are often the best ambassadors to share your work and spread the word about your accomplishments. Provide them with material that they can easily share with the friends and networks. If you don’t know what type of material would be best, ask them.

Reciprocity

Follow your volunteers on social media and amplify their passion projects. Also, extend the invitation to any community opportunities that your volunteers may enjoy. Perhaps there are free workshops that align with your volunteers’ needs or interests or special events related to your cause.

Empowerment

Transition the volunteers who are truly gems into leadership roles within your organization, whether it be a seat your board, a member of an advisory committee or a role with greater responsibility.

Leadership

Have a clear chain of command and a protocol for any issues or complaints that involve volunteers.
Volunteers drop off if they feel like their not being heard or if they feel like the organization is falling apart. And be as transparent as possible about significant changes in the organization.

Inclusion

Your volunteers should feel as though they belong. Nip any outsider syndrome in the bud and be explicitly clear in how you communicate your code of ethics and your organizational policies on racism, discrimination, and harassment.

If this has been helpful to you, please consider making a donation! Your contribution is deeply appreciated and supports all of the free programming at Open Rivers.

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