Volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofits. Their involvement can make or break your organization’s ability to make meaningful progress towards your mission. And like employee management, volunteer management is a tricky balancing act. Nonprofits need to empower people with appropriate volunteer opportunities while ensuring the work they do feels both meaningful and personally rewarding.
Recruiting a steady stream of volunteers is crucial, but volunteer retention is actually where the rubber meets the road for most nonprofits. Tapping into the passion people feel for an issue or concern can convert them into volunteers, but volunteer engagement is what helps your organization build a reliable team that’s in it for the long haul.
What is volunteer engagement and why does it matter?
Volunteer engagement is keeping your volunteers connected to your organization on an ongoing basis. And it can be a pretty tall order considering about 25% of adult Americans volunteer their time every year. Volunteer engagement strategies are an approach or plan that accomplishes engagement through keeping volunteers informed and involved.
Volunteer engagement strategies should span every step in the life cycle of a volunteer, from recruitment to advancement and leadership opportunities. Volunteer engagement ideas should also encourage communication and focus on developing a sense of community. Ultimately, your efforts to help volunteers thrive within your organization can pay dividends and create the kind of engagement that can be mobilized effectively to meet challenges.
6 effective volunteer engagement strategies
Great volunteer engagement doesn’t just happen. It’s an intentional act born out of thoughtful, well-executed volunteer engagement strategies. Consider using the following ideas to start laying the groundwork for better volunteer engagement in your nonprofit organization.
1. Mine volunteer data to develop personas
As part of your nonprofit marketing efforts, you’ve likely collected data not just on potential donors but also volunteers. Use it to create a dynamic recruitment strategy by determining who your volunteers are and what they care about. Build personas that capture the following volunteer data to help not only attract people to your nonprofit but keep them coming back.
- Demographics including education, career, age, and income level
- Insights on motivations and goals
- Location and timezone
- Special skills and qualifications
- Availability and preferences
This data can inform not only which volunteer engagement ideas will be most useful but how you match people with volunteer opportunities. Strive for experiences that fit their priorities and look for ways to leverage skills and connections that can be particularly valuable to your organization.
2. Create consistent, streamlined volunteer communication
Keeping volunteers in the loop is critical to volunteer engagement, but you can also create too much of a good thing. If you’re sending a flurry of emails or texts daily, volunteers will start to feel overwhelmed and tune out. Strive to streamline volunteer communication by segmenting your mailing lists, templatizing updates, and making sure what you send is relevant, timely, and helpful.
Don’t forget that communication is a two-way street. Give your volunteers plenty of opportunities to provide feedback. It’s also vital to report back on issues raised, so people know you’re listening and that their input is valued. Volunteer engagement strategies should take into account the fact that most of your team has limited time, so keep the surveys short and sweet.
3. Stay mission-focused
Your nonprofit has a mission that matters. Connecting volunteers to that collective “why” can supercharge your volunteer engagement. But it’s easy to lose focus or get bogged down in bureaucracy in the day-to-day work of running a nonprofit and miss the forest for the trees.
As often as you can, try to mine for connections to your cause and bring it to the forefront of what you do and how you engage with volunteers. In the same way that you keep donors informed of how their money makes a difference, let volunteers know the real-world results of their efforts. Provide status updates on special projects, broadcast volunteer achievements, and highlight volunteer success stories on your social media channels.
4. Show your appreciation
Volunteers have a lot of choices about how to donate their time. After all, there are millions of nonprofits across the country competing not just for donors but also for volunteers.
Thanking your volunteers for their loyalty is one of several volunteer engagement ideas that can pay off in volunteer retention. And showing your gratitude doesn’t have to involve extravagant gestures like parties or fancy galas. Even small gestures such as handwritten notes at the end of a shift or fresh baked cookies delivered to their doorstep can provide a personal touch that deepens connections.
5. Training and development is essential for volunteer engagement
Volunteer engagement strategies should also grapple with the practicalities of the work you do. It’s not just your staff that requires onboarding, training, and periodic professional development to be successful in their positions. Volunteers need the same guidance and investment throughout their experience with your nonprofit.
Conducting a thorough orientation and providing organized and professional training materials can get volunteer engagement off on the right foot. Volunteer management should also involve consistent check-ins and one-on-one meetings to ensure your volunteer engagement strategies are resulting in volunteer opportunities that feel meaningful and rewarding.
6. Keep volunteer opportunities flexible and fun
Your volunteers are busy people. So whatever volunteer engagement ideas you decide to utilize, keep it flexible and fun. Find not only plenty of times for volunteers to roll up their sleeves but a variety of ways to get involved. The more accessible the work is, the more likely volunteers will come back again. And maybe bring their friends and coworkers along.
It’s also worthwhile to point out that while volunteers may be pressed for time, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for more. The Census Bureau’s Current Population Study found that while the majority of volunteer hours were spent fundraising or distributing food or supplies, more than a quarter of volunteers engaged in more time-intensive activities such as mentoring youth or tutoring.
And last but not least, volunteer engagement strategies are only as effective as the tool you use to measure them. Decide what success in volunteer engagement looks like for your nonprofit organization. Whether that’s increasing recruitment or improving volunteer retention, set benchmarks and use volunteer data to help you chart a course towards better volunteer engagement.
Learn more about volunteer engagement strategies and how to amplify your organization’s mission with our free ebook.