The hidden strategic value of your volunteer program

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Volunteers. If you run a nonprofit organization, they are very likely mission critical. In Canada, over 19 million volunteers contribute more than 2 billion hours of volunteer time each year, equivalent to over 1 million full time jobs.

Ninety-three percent of volunteers help to directly deliver programs and services, or are actively engaged in fundraising and campaigning activities. Collectively, these volunteers account for 91% of volunteer hours across Canada. (Cornerstones of Community: Highlights from the National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations 2003).

With this much activity, it is easy to focus on the direct value of volunteers to an organization, and ignore the less visible impacts volunteers have.

Volunteers: Your donors

Myth: volunteers donate their time instead of donating their cash. Truth? You would need to cross-reference your donor database with your volunteer database to find out. One of our key recommendations to Coordinators of Volunteers is to make it their business to know how often and how much their volunteers donate financially. None of those donations would happen if that volunteer did not feel appreciated, supported and well managed. The extent to which your volunteers also donate can be a key indicator of the health of your volunteer program.

Volunteers: Your next employees

Finding qualified employees is a challenge for nonprofits. According to an HR Council 2008 survey of nonprofit employers, 47.1% reported recruitment difficulties; of those who reported difficulties 57% identified applicants’ lack of appropriate skills/work experience as the key problem.

We do not have statistics on the rate of volunteers becoming paid staff in the nonprofit sector, a lack of knowledge which is telling in and of itself. Based on anecdotal evidence, volunteers are a de facto hiring pool in many organizations. They are often the first to apply to work for you, and come already well versed in agency beliefs, values and culture.

Volunteers: Your community ambassadors

The most effective form of marketing is peer-to-peer and word-of-mouth. Volunteers are your most vocal supporters. If you have any kind of social media policy at your organization, a big part of it involves training volunteers what not to say, in order to ensure client privacy is protected and everyone stays on a common message.

Corporations would love to have the same kind of loyal and enthusiastic following as nonprofits enjoy with their volunteers. Why not leverage this to turn your frontline volunteers into honed and compelling spokespeople for your mission?

Volunteers: A strategic resource for your whole community

Cross-pollinating your volunteer programs with your talent development, fund development and marketing teams is key to unlocking the hidden organizational strengths embedded in your volunteers.

Going beyond your organization to the community as a whole is the message of Reimagining Service, a US-based movement to bring together nonprofits, corporations, education and government around a common vision of volunteerism.

The four principles of Reimagining Service are:

Principle 1: The volunteer ecosystem is more effective when all sectors participate in its evolution.
Principle 2: Make volunteering a core strategic function, not an add-on.
Principle 3: Focus volunteer engagement on true community needs.
Principle 4: In order to get a return, you have to invest.

Taking a community level approach to volunteer engagement unlocks even more opportunities to benefit your organization by building values-based relationships with local business and potential funders.

Want to learn more on this topic? We partnered with the author for a free webinar - watch the recording here.

Stacy Ashton is the executive director of Community Volunteer Connections and vice-president of Volunteer BC. She is passionate about the role volunteers play in society, and constantly marvels at how they are seen as magic helping elves instead of the powerful strategic resource they really are. Stacy has a Masters in Counselling from Simon Fraser University and has won awards from the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce for the CVC Flying Squad, an innovative way to engage youth in volunteering early and often.

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