It's an exhilarating experience to start a volunteer program from scratch. From big ideas and goodwill comes human power channeled to bring results. Some volunteer programs start from a group of people getting together to solve a problem. Others start when a nonprofit or governmental organization that has not utilized volunteers decides to tap into the $158 billion dollar estimated value of the time volunteers contribute annually in the US. Still other volunteer programs start when an organization that has an established volunteer program decides to start a new initiative to involve volunteers in new ways.
Whether your organization is big or small, here are fourteen action steps from the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) for developing a top-notch volunteer program.
1. Gather ideas and develop a case statement
The first step is to focus the energy for starting a volunteer program by developing a case statement for the program. Gather together interested people to articulate the reasons for starting a volunteer program.
- Identify the need for the program - why the program should be developed.
- Brainstorm the value you want the volunteer program to bring to the organization - what will change? Look broadly at the possible impacts, beyond just direct service value to other possible values such as increasing visibility for the organization or making connections to the broader community.
Action: Develop a case statement that presents the argument of why the volunteer program should be developed and the value that will come from it.
2. Get buy-in
A successful volunteer program requires buy-in from the entire organization. If it is to be a part of a large organization, top management will need to be in full support of the program for it to be positioned for success. If it is being launched by a smaller more informal organization, there needs to be support from leadership of the group.
Action: If the excitement for starting the volunteer program is just held by a few people, make a focused effort to talk with the rest of the organization to build support and find out if any changes in the initial idea might build a broader base of enthusiasm.
3. Do initial program design
The next step is to develop what volunteers will do and outline how the program will function. Have a brainstorming session with the people whose work relates to what volunteers will do.
Encourage ideas on how volunteers can be involved throughout the entire organization. Ask:
- "What are you currently doing that you would like to pass on to a volunteer?"
- "What dreams do we have for the organization that volunteers could help us realize?" Or, "What could volunteers do that would help us accomplish our strategic goals?"
Actions: Ask the group to identify volunteer positions that could accomplish the ideas they generated.
Also outline other basic aspects of the volunteer program: expected number of volunteers, who will recruit and supervise the volunteers, and what are the resources needed for the volunteer programs.
4. Develop the resources needed for the volunteer program
While volunteers likely will bring many resources to your organization, volunteers are not free. Someone (paid or volunteer) needs to be in the position to lead the volunteers. Resources are also needed for recognition and other expenses such as mileage.
Actions: Before going further, determine the financial resources that are needed to cover volunteers. If resources are not currently available, it is better to take the time to fundraise for the program before starting a volunteer program that does not have the financial resources to be successful.
5. Find training for the person who will lead the volunteer program
Volunteer management has evolved into a field with a knowledge base of best practices. Look for workshops offered by volunteer centers and associations of volunteer administrators. Access web resources and the excellent books on the subject. Find out if there is a group of volunteer administrators that meet in your area as a way to learn from others in the field. The more the person who is leading the program knows about volunteer management, the easier the set-up of the new volunteer program will be and the greater the potential for success.
Action: Plan for training needs for the volunteer program manager.
6. Keep up on trends in volunteerism and design your program to capitalize on them
We are in an exciting time in volunteer management. The Baby Boomers and generations that follow are showing an interest in taking on meaty, high impact volunteer projects and being in leadership roles. They are less inclined to stay with one agency for long periods of time or do routine tasks. They want to have impact and be able to see that impact.
Youth are volunteering in record-breaking numbers. Most colleges and many high schools have service-learning programs that are looking for connections with volunteer programs.
Action: Using resources identified in step 5, study up on trends to see how your program can capitalize on them.
7. Determine the structure of the volunteer program
At this point, you have a case statement for the volunteer program and a general understanding of what the volunteers will do and how the program will function. You have obtained buy-in from the organization, have figured out how to financially support the program, and have built knowledge on volunteer management. Now it's time to develop the specifics of how the volunteer program will work such as how you will interview, train, and supervise volunteers.
- Take the initial ideas for volunteer positions and draft position descriptions.
- Develop interview questions to learn what a volunteer has to offer the organization.
- Outline the training that volunteers will need.
- Decide on policies that need to be in place.
- Figure out what supervision and support volunteers will need and who will do that.
- Develop initial ideas for volunteer recognition.
- Determine the impact of the program and how it will be evaluated.
- Develop systems to track and evaluate volunteer hours and other data.
8. Address risk management issues
It's important to assess the risks to the organization from having volunteers, as well as risks to volunteers from their volunteering duties.
Action: Decide how those risks can be addressed through the volunteer job description, volunteer screening, training, background checks, insurance, and polices. A good resource is a book by Linda Graff, Better Safe…Risk Management in Volunteer Programs & Community Service.
9. Determine if there are legal issues to address
There are no overarching legal requirements when a group of people gets together to do good work. However, depending on your organizational structure or the focus of what volunteers will do, there may be some legal requirements. Examples of possible legal requirements are state laws regarding background checks for volunteers in certain situations, vulnerable adult laws, or fundraising report requirements.
Actions: If you are starting a volunteer program as part of a nonprofit organization, consult with your legal counsel to see if the risk management issues are addressed adequately and if there are other legal issues to consider.
If you are starting a volunteer program as an informal civic effort or grassroots effort without a formal nonprofit structure, find a local resource to advise you when your effort has grown to the point of needing to incorporate as a nonprofit and about any legal issues relevant to the work you plan to do.
10. Design volunteer recruitment
Think about the benefits volunteers will get from their investment with your organization. What will they learn? What impact they will have? Are there training, career, or any other benefits from volunteering? List these benefits in the position description and use them for developing the recruitment messages and plan.
Actions: Draft a recruitment message that states the need the volunteer will address, how they will make an impact, and the benefits they will receive from volunteering.
Then, develop your recruitment plan:
- Identify the profile of a volunteer who would be ideal for each position and think about where you might come into contact with people that match the profile. The more you can target your volunteer recruitment, the greater the likelihood of finding the right fit for the position.
- Identify "recruiters" who can ask their friends and contacts to volunteer. The number one way volunteers get involved is from being personally asked. Ask other staff and board members to work their networks to find volunteers. Once you have volunteers, ask them to help recruit more volunteers.
- Make a list of places to post the volunteer positions. Find places on the web such as your local volunteer center, www.VolunteerMatch.org, www.Idealist.org and specific web sources that would be used by your target volunteer population.
- Look for opportunities for speaking engagements and media attention for your volunteer needs.
11. Dive in and start
It's time to get going and start recruiting volunteers. You may want to start slow with just a few volunteers at a time or you may want to jump in full force. Keep monitoring your systems and plans and be ready to adjust. Document what happens, so you can learn from your experiences.
Action: Set milestones with what you want to accomplish by when.
12. Recognize volunteers and design strategies to retain them
The number one practice that leads to retention of volunteers is recognition. Build a culture of recognition that includes regular personal thank you's and sincerely letting the volunteers know the difference they make.
Volunteer retention is important for continuity and saves the effort it takes to recruit and train new volunteers. About one-third of volunteers do not continue after one year. Through recognition and using the best practices of volunteer management you can increase volunteer retention.
Actions: Study resources on volunteer recognition and figure out low cost ways to recognize your volunteers.
13. Let stakeholders know what happened
Keep your Board of Directors, staff, and other leaders informed of early volunteer results. Communicate successes as well as puzzlements. The more key stakeholders are involved in the start-up, the more they will share in the excitement of the program and increase their investment in it.
Action: Aim to have evaluation data by the end of the first year - or sooner - to quantify results. Share stories of what happened.
14. Plan what's next
Now that the program is launched, decide if you want to grow it or expand it into a new area that needs volunteers. If you do continue the program, seek advanced training for the volunteer program leaders so you are prepared for complexities and opportunities that may come your way.
Action: Step back and evaluate your volunteer program. Make adjustments as necessary and plan the next phase.
Mary Quirk is the Volunteer Resources Leadership Project Manager for the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). She has 18 years experiences directing volunteer-based nonprofits and has had articles on volunteer resources leadership and nonprofit management published in Nonprofit World and e-Volunteerism.
Copyright Fieldstone Alliance. www.FieldstoneAlliance.org. This article first appeared in the February 2009 edition of Fieldstone's Tools You Can Use e-newsletter and is reprinted with permission.