Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The secret to a good volunteer program

What is the secret to a good volunteer program? Well, what is the difference between organizations that have 20 volunteers and organizations that have 1,000? And, how do those all-volunteer nonprofits exist?

Here it comes, the secret to a good volunteer program is....


Yes, I know that there is no one single thing that will turn an ineffective or inefficient volunteer program into a machine over night. But over the years I have seen the one thing that rock star volunteer programs have in common and that is structure. I serve on the board of of an animal rescue. It has a decent sized budget, takes in hundreds (yes, hundreds) of animals each year. It also has hundreds of volunteers. The organization's last event raised over $25,000 and it was the second year the event had been in existence. Oh, and it is all-volunteer. There are no paid staff. In the last 3 years the organization had undergone some fundamental changes, which included incorporating more structure into all facets of the organization. By bring more structure into their volunteer program, they doubled if not tripled the number of volunteers they have and have begun several new initiatives as a result of this influx.

So, what do I mean by structure and what does it look like?

  • There is someone in charge, one person that a volunteer reports to. The person in charge does not have to be a paid staff member.
  • There are always tasks that volunteers can do. Volunteers don't wait weeks to get a task.
  • Volunteers are incorporated in every aspect of an organization - development, communications, etc.
  • Volunteers are involved in important decisions. They aren't given the crap work. They do both crap work and important jobs too.
  • There are job descriptions for key volunteers.
  • There are volunteer trainings.
  • Volunteers are thanked and there are appreciation events.

These are just a few suggestions. I think bringing structure into a volunteer program is a fundamental shift to operating more like a business - which isn't a bad thing. See my post from last summer: "Should nonprofits act more business-like?"