Four ways to create a more rewarding volunteer experience

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More than four in 10 Canadians volunteered in 2013, according to the latest General Social Survey released earlier this year. While that’s impressive, volunteering is down since 2010, the last time the survey was conducted. That’s not terribly surprising considering a Volunteer Canada report found that 62% of volunteers have had a negative experience. That draws the challenge for nonprofits into clear focus: How do you not only recruit volunteers, but keep them coming back?

The best way to engage volunteers is to make working with your organization a positive experience. Here are a few tips for achieving that:

1. Be professional.

This seems obvious, but volunteers who have a negative experience most often cite organizational issues as the main problem. Nonprofits should remember that providing a professional experience is in the details. When volunteers arrive, have name tags ready and know what the assignments are and where people should go. Ensure staff and signs are on hand to help direct people to the right place, and that instructions are ready so volunteers can get started right away. The tone you set is important: If people see that you’ve got your act together, they’re more likely to feel that this is a good use of their time and your organization is a good vehicle through which to make a difference.

2. Make the work meaningful.

Volunteers want to get involved with your organization because they want to help further your mission. Before you bring volunteers in, or before even starting a volunteer program, think carefully about exactly what you want them to do and why they need to do it. When possible, give volunteers work that very obviously connects to your organization’s goals. Think tree-planting for a conservation group, running with adoptable shelter dogs at your local humane society, or even accompanying your staff to elected officials’ offices to drop off petition letters or lobby for legislation.

We all know that nonprofit work isn’t always glamorous — sometimes it looks more like secretarial work rather than heroics. That doesn’t mean you should never ask volunteers to help with registration, filing or database management. What it does mean is that you need to make sure that you connect the work with your mission. Explain how the work helps you keep track of your ongoing projects, reach out to donors that allow you to keep the lights on, or even free up staff time to brainstorm great new ideas. We’ve all left volunteer experiences feeling like it was a waste of time. It’s the nonprofit’s duty to show why that’s not true.

3. Make the experience social.

Few people like asking for money, getting up early and running 20 miles. Yet, some of the most successful volunteer programs are peer-to-peer fundraising groups built around endurance sports. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program boasts 600,000 lifetime participants who’ve collectively raised $1 billion for blood cancer research. While participants believe in the mission of the organizations they fundraise for, what keeps volunteers returning year after year is the connections they build with fellow volunteers and staff, something these endurance programs — and all nonprofits — can and should take advantage of. Statistics Canada found that two-thirds of volunteers say they benefit from improved interpersonal skills and Volunteer Canada found that more than 40% of volunteers cited networking and meeting people as a motivation to volunteer.

4. Make it a long-term relationship.

Obviously, you want your supporters and especially your volunteers to stay engaged with your organization. And while we can hope and dream it’ll be love at first sight, relationships — even among volunteers and their organizations — take work and planning. Before your volunteers show up on the first day, you should already know how they can stay involved after the event or volunteer experience is over. Think about your upcoming events, ongoing projects and outstanding deadlines. How could volunteers help you achieve these goals or manage these activities more smoothly? Before your volunteers leave, make sure they know when they can come back.

This can be hard for organizations that don’t support a lot of ongoing volunteer work or have obvious roles and jobs to be filled by volunteers. But, at a bare minimum, make sure you get their contact information and add them to your email list. This will keep them aware of what’s going on with your organization as a whole. If you can, take it a step further and create a special communications vehicle for volunteers. These newsletters can be similar to what you send to your other supporters, but also give you a way to share future volunteer opportunities as they arise. That way, the moment an issue becomes hot, you’ve got an army of supporters primed and ready for action.

Most importantly, recognize the contribution your volunteers make. While there are lots of personal benefits to volunteering, these folks are giving your organization and cause their time for free. Recognition doesn’t have to mean handing out trophies or throwing banquets. All you have to do is thank your volunteers whenever you get the chance. The more you can do to make them feel needed and useful, the better chance you have to keep your volunteer program robust and move your mission forward.

Aaron Viles is a Senior Grassroots Organizer for Care2. He works with citizen authors on The Petition Site to create petitions that will win concrete victories for animals, the environment and other progressive causes. Prior to Care2 he spent decades working within the non-profit environmental advocacy field. Aaron honed his craft while working for Gulf Restoration Network, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and Faithful America. He began his career with Green Corps, the field school for environmental organizing. When not in front of a screen or on a conference call, Aaron can be found doting on his daughters, pedaling furiously to keep up with the peloton, and serving as a volunteer leader for the Sierra Club, Dogwood Alliance and his church.

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