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Volunteer Management for Understaffed Nonprofits

The Covid pandemic has created a situation in which already understaffed nonprofits are working tirelessly with even fewer resources and murkier futures. Burnout was a major issue in the nonprofit sector prior to the pandemic, and it will only continue to worsen. The same can be said for low retention in nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit leaders, especially in small to mid-size nonprofits are seeking ways to preserve the mental health of their full-time nonprofit employees.

There are numerous benefits of utilizing volunteers to the nonprofit and its staff Fundraisers use volunteers for their own strategies, as many funders often come from Nonprofit volunteer managementvolunteers. People are also more likely to donate to an organization if someone they know and trust is involved with that organization. Program departments in healthcare nonprofits, professional associations, social services or human services, child welfare, etc. rely on volunteers to fill vital roles such as greeting services, wellness checks, reading programs, desk and now zoom registration check-ins, and much much more.

Volunteerism isn’t just great for the staff members within the nonprofit, it also is great for the well-being of the volunteer. People are looking to expand their skills while engaging with nonprofit missions that align with their own value systems. GVI lists some of the numerous benefits of volunteering, with some of the most important being that volunteerism is good for a person’s health, it can help boost their career, they build on their own network or experiences, and they help a cause they care about.

Combining the benefits to both the nonprofit and the volunteer, a strong volunteer program is a great way to engage stakeholders while also addressing burnout in the nonprofit’s workplace.

The Importance of Volunteer Work for Public Service

Nonprofit leaders rely on the volunteer work of short-term and long-term skilled volunteers. Volunteers make great champions for the nonprofit with fundraising and advocacy on behalf of the nonprofit. Typically, volunteers provide their time because they have a personal interest in the health of the nonprofit or in helping that nonprofit be able to serve its mission. Volunteer programs also help with staffing issues for smaller to mid-sized nonprofits by matching the different skillsets of engaged stakeholders to volunteer opportunities.

Not many people realize  board members are nonprofit volunteers providing their expertise and services as volunteer time. As the governing and fiduciary role for the nonprofit, board members are absolutely vital for the health of service organizations. A key part of what makes nonprofits “not-for-profit” is that their revenue goes directly into serving their organization’s mission and not to any type of shareholder. Having board members volunteer their service to provide that oversight is necessary for the health and transparency of any public service organization.

Volunteers are also vital for fundraising. Volunteers care enough about the mission of the organization that they use their own time to serve that mission. By volunteering with the organization, they also become more intimate with the nonprofit, its staff, and its long term goals and strategies. Nonprofit leaders understand that these components make for a great funder pipeline, and many volunteers become donors and eventually are great prospects for major gifts.

Volunteer Management as part of Human Resources Management

Nonprofit executive directors understand that an effective volunteer betters program outcomes. Human resources are one of the biggest parts of nonprofit management, and identifying skill sets that make a great match for volunteer work is one part of a nonprofit’s human resources management strategy.

There are several different motivations behind why a person might be looking for community service. Positive Force Consulting listed twelve reasons for volunteering most of those reasons fell into the following themes:

  1. The volunteer has a personal tie to the organization through peers or family or is looking to expand their network of peers.
  2. The volunteer wishes to contribute to the community and “do good”.
  3. The volunteer believes in the mission of the organization.
  4. The volunteer is looking to add to their resume or expand on their skills in a way they cannot get from their education or place of work.
  5. Volunteering is often very healthy for a person’s physical and mental well-being.
  6. The volunteer is required to complete community service hours for various reasons.

Understanding these different motivations behind why a volunteer might be providing their time and skills helps nonprofit executive directors in decision making for which volunteers to hire or roles to fill. For example, say there is a heavy need for social media work to be done, and that skill is lacking in the nonprofit’s current human resources pool and there is not enough social media work needed for it to make sense to hire someone. This is an ideal role that a volunteer can fill. When hiring the volunteer, the nonprofit executive, their Human Resources manager or director, or their volunteer manager (or a combination of all) should ask why someone wants to fill that volunteer role so they can better fit motivation to the role for long term success. A person looking to expand on skills that believe in the mission of the organization will more likely be able to communicate the mission of the organization on social media better than someone simply looking for community service hours that heard of the opportunity through a friend or family.

On the other side, there are several volunteer roles that do not rely on more continuous work and are great opportunities to get the organization’s mission in front of more people, while also helping to lessen staff burnout. There are project-based volunteer roles to help with big projects started prior to the pandemic at nonprofits that are currently stretched thin. Volunteer roles such as an article on a particular project or helping to move a database or website over, are a great fit for this type of need. This is an example of where it is better to to find people looking for volunteer hours or more immediate and temporary volunteer roles to fill that gap.

The number of volunteers is really high in the United States. The Nonprofits Source claims that about 25% of adult Americans volunteer their “time, talents, and energy” to causes they care about. This number has dipped a little since COVID, but nonprofits are getting creative in making volunteer opportunities safely available for people. Some volunteer roles have moved completely online, while some nonprofits are shifting their management strategies completely. However, with that many individuals out there looking to donate their time and get involved, nonprofit leaders should incorporate a volunteer management strategy into their overall strategic human resources management strategies.

Nonprofit Volunteer Management Strategy

To get started with a solid volunteer management strategy, a nonprofit leader should look at all of the work necessary to keep the mission strong and compare that to current staffing roles and responsibilities to identify current staffing gaps. Once those gaps are identified, evaluate whether those gaps can be filled with a volunteer via leveraging board roles, committee structures, or individual volunteers. Sometimes micro-volunteering, or “a way for people to give small amounts of their time, at times and places that are convenient.” according to the balance small business, can also be a volunteer strategy used to address very specific parts of staffing gaps.

Another more administrative piece to the overall volunteer management strategy is using a volunteer manual and role descriptions for each specific volunteer role and its duties. This is part of setting the volunteer up for success and enabling the work they do is quality work for the organization. A volunteer is most successful when they understand how to do their role and the expectations for their work, very similar to paid staff members. A volunteer that clearly understands their role also completes that role with little assistance or burden to the staff. It still is a good idea to give as much face time as possible between volunteers and paid staff members.

Bigger nonprofits with more money and resources have volunteer managers, volunteer coordinators, or other types of paid staff to help grow and maintain a more formal volunteer program. Volunteer recruitment, training new volunteers, hiring and firing volunteers, evaluations, and monitoring, all take a lot of time and effort. Smaller and mid-sized volunteers might not have the same money and resources to expand on a volunteer program. They can lean on online resources such as VolunteerMatch for recruitment and free online training manuals or handbooks to help get the administrative components started. NonprofitReady has plenty of free volunteer engagement courses for different techniques on how to “recruit, onboard, develop, and retain your nonprofit volunteers”.

One strategy some nonprofits use is more formal volunteer committee structures. This allows nonprofits to leverage board members and long-term volunteer roles to help build out volunteer capacity. Committee structures lessen volunteer expectations on single, individual volunteers and instead allow for a whole group to tackle staffing gaps or shortages. Formal committees are also a great conduit for allowing volunteers to become key parts of decision-making practices.

Whether it is a nonprofit with an existing volunteer program or one just now looking to bring volunteers on, a crucial nonprofit volunteer management strategy is conducting a volunteer role audit. Have leaders serve in those volunteer roles and record their experiences. If they are overwhelmed or underwhelmed, confused, frustrated or anything else negative while volunteering in that role, chances are that the unpaid volunteers might be as well. Unhappy volunteers and low volunteer retention adds more work to everyone’s plate and so volunteer role audits are one piece of the volunteer management strategy to maintain a healthy volunteer program.

The Nonprofit Volunteer Pipeline

The next step after establishing the volunteer program is to set in place pipelines that are beneficial to the organization’s long-term sustainability. One such pipeline is to move volunteers as fundraisers into major funders. Another potential pipeline to set in place is a potential mechanism to recruit future paid staff members from the organization’s volunteer pool. The most important pipeline to establish is movement from smaller volunteer roles to board member positions.

Establishing these pipelines for longer, more loyal volunteers is important for retaining and utilizing the institutional knowledge gained by working with an organization and its mission over a longer period of time. It takes money and resources to attract, train, and retain volunteers. Creating pipelines to turn that training and engagement into something bigger long-term via major gift, future staff member, or engaged board member can really either save time and money in the future or help grow the organization in key ways.

Training and feedback strategies are key to creating pipelines. Training can be conducted via handbooks and written materials, but also in person and through observations. Constant in person and online surveys are both great avenues for gathering and evaluating critical feedback from volunteers with possible next steps identified to engage with the respondents.

For volunteer fundraisers, if their feedback is constantly gathered and incorporated they will feel more comfortable and trusting with their own dollars as a donor. If volunteers or well trained in their tasks, that is less training necessary if they are hired in the future as a staff member and the nonprofit leader has already observed their capabilities with work necessary for the role.  Well trained volunteers that feel like their feedback is necessary for the health of the organization are also much more likely to be very active if chosen as board members and could potentially then also take on multiple roles and projects as a board member.

Volunteers and Staff are Critical for Nonprofit Success

Nonprofit employees and volunteers from New York on the east coast all the way to the places like California on the west coast alike are the backbone of the charitable industry. Nonprofit leaders need to manage both successfully to achieve their organization’s mission. With a strong volunteer program in place, the nonprofit creates a potential staffing or funder recruitment pipeline, addresses workload gaps, and encourages different stakeholders to become more intimately engaged with their nonprofit.

In such unprecedented times, already overworked and underpaid nonprofit employees are stretched thin trying to serve organizations they care about. If a nonprofit can tap into the 25% of adults in America looking to volunteer their time by making volunteer roles easily accessible and joyful, then they can address their staffing needs while also growing a successful nonprofit volunteer program.

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