How much are your volunteers worth? Nonprofit advocacy group Independent Sector has estimated the value of the average American volunteer at $23.56 an hour. Volunteers who perform specialized services — for example, an accountant who volunteers to prepare your nonprofit’s tax return — are, arguably, even more valuable.

Whether your entire workforce is unpaid (as is the case with 85% of U.S. nonprofits, according to the IRS), or you rely on a few dedicated volunteers to support your robust paid staff, you can’t afford to lose these treasures. So make the happiness of your volunteers a priority that ranks up there with safeguarding donations and your other financial assets.

Create a professional program

When you consider the value of volunteers, it’s easy to see that they’re similar to paid employees. So why not “professionalize” your volunteer program? A well-run program can provide participants with a sense of ownership and “job” satisfaction.

Volunteers entering your program should receive a formal orientation and participate in one or more training sessions (depending on the complexity of the work they’ll be performing). Even if they’ll be contributing only a couple of hours a week or month, ask them to commit to at least a loose schedule. And as with your paid staffers, volunteers should set annual performance goals. For example, a volunteer might decide to redesign your website, learn enough about your mission to be able to speak publicly on the subject or work a total of 100 hours.

If volunteers accomplish their goals, you must recognize and reward them. Publicizing the fact that volunteers have achieved certain objectives is important, but don’t stop there. Also “promote” volunteers who have proved they’re capable of assuming greater responsibility. For example, award the job of volunteer coordinator to someone who has exhibited strong communication and organization skills.

Keep them engaged

A formal program won’t keep volunteers engaged if it doesn’t take advantage of their talents or acknowledge their interests. What’s more, most volunteers want to know that the work they do matters. So even if they must occasionally perform menial tasks such as cleaning up after a fundraiser, help them understand how every activity contributes to your nonprofit’s success.

To the extent you can, give volunteers assignments they want in areas where they can make a difference. During the training process, inventory each volunteer’s experience, education, skills and interests and be sure to ask if there’s a particular project that attracts them. It’s important that you don’t just assume that they want to use the skills they already have. Many people volunteer to learn something new.

Make it fun

Although most people volunteer with the understanding that you’ll put them to work, they also expect to enjoy the process and even have fun. So be careful not to make the same demands on volunteers that you would on employees. Obviously, you don’t want to waste time on high-maintenance individuals, but try to be flexible when it comes to such issues as scheduling. Professional and family demands sometimes prevent volunteers from showing up when scheduled and you should try to accommodate them cheerfully.

Because many volunteers are motivated by the opportunity to meet like-minded people, include socializing in your program. Newbies should be introduced to other volunteers and assigned to work alongside someone who knows the ropes — at least in the beginning. Also schedule on- and off-site social activities so volunteers can get to know one another outside “work” hours.

Remember to say “thank you”

No volunteer program can be successful without frequent and effusive “thank-yous.” Verbal appreciation will do, but consider holding a volunteer thank-you event to celebrate the valuable contributions of your unpaid workforce.

Building a better volunteer survey

Traditionally, nonprofit volunteer surveys ask questions like these: Was your orientation session informative? Do you enjoy your assignments? Are staff members supportive? These are all legitimate queries because they directly address volunteer satisfaction and can help you to isolate potential problems that may cause volunteer attrition.

But volunteer surveys should have another purpose as well: to measure the impact of volunteers on your organization and the community it serves. To make this second type of assessment, consider including questions such as:

  • What feedback have you received from clients and other stakeholders about the value of your work?
  • Were you able to meet the goals you set for this year? If not, what prevented you from meeting them?
  • What can we do to help you be a more impactful volunteer?

Structured formats, such as multiple-choice questions, are easier to tabulate, but questions such as these elicit more informative answers. Compiling the results may take more work, but the insights they provide will be worth the effort.

© 2017

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