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Building Your Volunteer Corps

It’s official: volunteering is on the rebound. In its latest report, the Corporation for National and Community Service reveals that volunteering in America hit a five-year high in 2011, jumping 1.5 million over 2010 for a total of 64.3 million volunteers—or more than one in four adults. Here in Georgia, that trend played out to the tune of a 3.7% increase in the volunteer rate, bringing it to the highest it’s been since before the recession. And yet, Georgia’s volunteer rate still ranks 34th in the nation, indicating opportunities to engage more of our state’s residents in community service.

Encouraging trends alone aren’t going to bring able volunteers in the door. Whatever the mission, your ability to recruit, retain, mobilize, and develop a volunteer corps is directly tied to your capacity to carry out your mission. Your nonprofit may lack the funds to invest in a full-time volunteer manager or the capacity to build out a robust volunteer program, but for the member nonprofits we talked to, the secret sauce isn’t a dedicated staffer or an elaborate organizational scheme: it’s a great volunteer experience, one that draws people in and keeps them coming back. If you make it easy for the people who find you to get in the door, connect with the mission, and feel the gratitude of the community—including (and especially!) your staff—they’ll quickly become regular volunteers, evangelists for your cause and, more often than not, donors and fundraisers—the latest report from Giving USA indicates that volunteers give up to 10 times more than non-volunteers.

Let’s Get Experiential

Volunteerism is a particularly American trait that has been codified as a serious civic duty; modern-day calls-to-action include the National Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and required community service hours for an increasing number of high school graduates. It’s obvious, however, that volunteers aren’t the same as they used to be.

Create a meaningful connection that hooks volunteers to your organization in a personal,
lasting way.

“In the past, volunteers were committed to the long term: 15, 20, 25-plus years of giving their time,” said Jenaila Hawkins, president of the Atlanta Council of Volunteer Administrators (COVA). “That has gone by the wayside.” Say hello to Volunteer 2.0. Today’s volunteer faces a crowded ecosystem of time- and energy-sapping opportunities—thousands of cable TV, online and on-demand entertainment options; the 24-hour demands of a mobile workplace; the multi-tasking expectations of the cult of productivity. Throw in a growing number of nonprofits, and a plethora of worthy missions, and it adds up to intensive competition for volunteer time.

The kind of experience that attracts volunteers is also shifting.

“Volunteers still have the compassion and passion for the organizations in which they volunteer, but they are committed on a short-term basis,” said Hawkins. “Today, more volunteers engage in technology-driven work: micro volunteering, virtual volunteering, pursuing a national service agenda through social media.” So how do you approach developing and executing a standout volunteer program in this “new normal,” making your nonprofit the chosen one? By paying attention to volunteers’ wants and needs and delivering a stellar experience from the moment they walk in that keeps them coming back for more.

“Nonprofits want dependable people who care about the cause the same way the org’s founder does. Unfortunately, no one starts out there,” said Angela Parker, co-founder and partner at Realized Worth, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm specializing in corporate volunteer program design. “We begin volunteering because we feel like we should, or our pastor told us to, or we want to be a good example to our kids. And that’s an appropriate place to start.”

Remember the Journey: The Importance of Understanding the Three Stages
by Angela Parker
 
Three reasons why it’s important for nonprofit leaders to understand the Volunteer Journey:
 
 
1. Not all volunteers are the same.

 
2. Everyone needs a chance to fall in love.

 
3. It’s a journey for everyone.

 
Read the 
full article.

The problem is that those motives only work for so long (see sidebar).

The trick for nonprofits is turning those extrinsic motivations inward—to create a meaningful connection that hooks volunteers to your organization in a personal, lasting way.

The way to do that, of course, is not by assigning tasks—it’s by creating a meaningful experience around those tasks. For a handy consumer analogy, think about Starbucks. Consumers don’t pay for coffee at Starbucks, they pay for a coffee experience: the atmosphere, the décor, the wi-fi, the familiar noises, and the friendly staff all contribute to a reliable, consistently satisfying experience. It’s a perfect example of the way our commodity-based economy is being replaced by an economy of experience. With that new economy comes a new mindset, and a new set of expectations.

Rather than focusing on the work that needs completing (the commodity), volunteer managers should focus on the conditions in which that work gets done (the experience).

Because they’re fundamental to the work you do, volunteer needs should be just as important as the needs of staff and beneficiaries. Late volunteerism guru Susan Ellis famously said that “volunteer” isn’t a job, “it is only a pay grade.” Jim Fruchterman, cofounder of technology-for-nonprofits firm Benetech, takes it a step further: for volunteers, “the pay is in meaning.” The better you can deliver that meaning, the more volunteers you’ll net.

Turn the page to find out what some GCN members are doing to build their volunteer corps.

Prepping for Entry

Before volunteers even walk in the door, there are already a number of things to think about. Most of those things come down to organization: there’s no way to deliver a great volunteer experience if your nonprofit isn’t prepared to welcome, orient, and assign your volunteers efficiently.

“One of the main things volunteers complain about is disorganization,” said Shawan Allen, volunteer coordinator at GCN member nonprofit Project Open Hand, where they depend on some 25,000 volunteers annually. “We make sure there’s no down time, that they’re doing something the whole time they’re here by engaging them right away.”

For an organization that packages and delivers 5,000 meals every day across Georgia, finding something for volunteers to do isn’t hard. The challenge is in finding enough people to fill seven volunteer sessions a week—Open Hand takes just two days off a year. That means making sure it’s as easy as possible for people to walk right in, learn the job, and connect with the mission.

Once they’re hooked on the meaning your volunteer experience delivers, they’ll take advantage of any opportunity to return.

A regularly recurring volunteer event can go a long way toward lowering barriers to entry: besides giving would-be volunteers an easy entry-point into the organization, recurring events give you the chance to standardize procedures and automate much of the volunteer management—making it more about facilitating a process than managing people. Between its two sites, one in Atlanta and the other outside San Francisco, GCN member MedShare welcomes 18,000 volunteers yearly, in three weekly three-hour shifts. During that time, volunteers sort and repackage donated medical supplies for shipment to needy communities in third-world countries.

“Among those volunteers, an overwhelming majority are volunteering for the first time and do not possess a medical background,” said Alvaro McCrae, MedShare’s volunteer programs manager, who handles the entirety of the volunteer corps with just three other staff members.

“A standardized volunteer management process is absolutely vital to ensuring that we maintain our gold standard for shipping medical supplies overseas.”

“While getting more volunteers in the door is important, the registration process is a delicate balance between scheduling as many groups as possible and recognizing that quality is more important than quantity,” McCrae continued. “To create the highest level of impact, our volunteer program leverages the power of individuals, families, civic groups, faith-based groups, corporations, and civil servants. They are the heartbeat of our operations.”

On Their Terms

MedShare’s 30-minute orientation consists of an intro, to thank volunteers for showing up and introduce the volunteer coordinators; a tour of the facility; a detailed explanation of the task at hand; and a telling of the MedShare Story, spelling out the need at specific sites in Niger and Uganda, the surplus here in America, and the way MedShare volunteers bridge the gap.

Pay attention to your most dedicated volunteers, and make sure you’re fostering an environment where their opinions are welcomed.

MedShare developed its orientation system through years of trial and error: “It’s constantly a work in progress,” said McCrae. “We began to ask ourselves, ‘What is going to be more likely to stick with a volunteer after they walk out of our doors? Lots of dry facts or tangible stories of impact?’ We try to balance our passion for the mission with the information a first-time volunteer really needs to know. The idea is that orientation fosters an experience that is both incredibly meaningful and an effective use of the volunteers’ time.”

It’s all part of meeting volunteers “where they’re at,” on their terms. That means hitting up traditional sources like civics clubs as well as new outlets like corporate volunteer programs and online social networks, where people are becoming increasingly comfortable keeping up with and advocating for causes. Though it’s dismissed as “slacktivism” by some, the Facebook- and Twitter-enabled virtual volunteer is just an opportunity away from becoming a volunteer IRL (“In Real Life” for those still building their online-acronym vocabulary). Opportunities posted on social networks can have a particularly dramatic reach among Millineals: one of the country’s biggest nonprofits, NPR, recently posted an internship opening solely on their Twitter feed, netting 140 applicants for 15 positions.

Ashley Henderson, volunteer coordinator at GCN member Camp Twin LakesWill-a-Way campus, reports that universities have been a great source: “Since Camp Twin Lakes’ expansion in 2009, we’ve been able to accommodate Alternative Spring Break groups,” a popular university program in which students spend Spring Break doing service projects across the country. “They’ve built an amphitheater for us, and a stage for our gym.” For the second year in a row, Henderson is welcoming a group from the University of Akron, Ohio.

“We’ve also been working really well with corporate groups,” said Henderson. “It’s been a real win-win situation: they do a project as a team in the morning, with team-building activities in the afternoon—maybe a zip-line—to really show them how our campers build camaraderie and overcome obstacles together.”

Office volunteer programs are becoming increasingly popular at corporations large and small; at MedShare, corporate volunteer groups make up more than 30 percent of the total volunteer force. “We partner with Hands On Atlanta, who can refer corporate groups our way,” said MedShare’s Barnett, “but the majority of our groups hear about us through word of mouth.”

McCrae agreed: “The experience and story volunteers carry away from MedShare, as a direct result of our volunteer management process, is our strongest tool in generating support and building a robust volunteer network.”

Making Room on Your Team

Prepping for volunteers also means getting your staff involved. COVA’s Hawkins considers staff engagement vital to volunteer maintenance, especially for nonprofits without a dedicated volunteer manager: “Understand the significance of volunteers and communicate that importance to your staff. Make sure someone is designated to welcome and orient the volunteer, and evaluate their skills against the needs of the organization.”

When volunteers are on a more equal footing, they’ll identify more closely with staff, and ultimately with your organization.

Realized Worth’s Parker agrees, urging nonprofits to “demote your staff” in order to get volunteers more deeply engaged, more quickly: “Staff make it possible for volunteers to do the work, not the other way around.” When volunteers are on a more equal footing, they’ll identify more closely with staff, and ultimately with your organization; they’ll receive more meaningful work, increasing their gratification; and they’ll free up staff for higher-level concerns. “The person who was ‘demoted’ comes out looking like a genius,” she said.

Parker also encourages some counterintuitive thinking in task design: sacrifice task-efficiency and instead assign “tiny, clear tasks: you take around the pepper, you take around the salt, you carry cups, you carry milk.” They call this “inefficiency” strategy “carry the milk.”

“A nonprofit that serves meals every Sunday to the homeless community by having guests stand in a line, hold out their plate, receive scoops of food from volunteers, and go find a seat is way too efficient,” said Parker. “That event can only handle 10 to 15 volunteers. A less efficient approach can welcome ten to a hundred or more volunteers, and offers a space for volunteers of every stage.”

“Carrying milk” may seem like the opposite of meaningful work, but only if you’re focused on the task: the experience of “carrying milk” puts your volunteers in direct contact with your clients, giving them the opportunity to feel the gratitude and make a real, one-on-one connection.

Another simple way to connect is by making sure staff learns and uses volunteers’ names. You can encourage everyone to put names to faces, while helping “demote your staff,” by putting photos of staff and volunteers together on a bulletin board. Another playfield-leveling, bond-strengthening strategy is to make your year-end volunteer recognition party a joint event celebrating both staff and volunteers.

Developing Volunteer Leaders

At the Atlanta BeltLine, another GCN member, Volunteer Programs Manager Sharrón Sylvain depends on more than 2,000 volunteers to man groundbreaking events and execute site cleanups, but also to spread word about the project throughout the 45 neighborhoods it affects. The BeltLine set up its Ambassador program in 2009 to handle communication, rounding up some 600 individuals to fill out a hierarchy of roles from Neighbohood Liaison to Distribution Officer to all-purpose team members. They’re all overseen by three regional Team Leaders, each of whom started out as regular volunteers, asked to take on the role because of their enthusiasm, passion, and dedication.” 

12 ways to Connect with Volunteers
by Rick Lynch
  
1. Seek their input.

Because they are often new to the agency, volunteers are uniquely suited to recognizing opportunities to enhance services or internal systems. Be sincere in trying to understand volunteers’ point of view.
 
2. Create a mutually validating climate.

Praise goes a long way, as long as it’s honest and specific.
 
3. Communicate their contributions.

Leaders at all levels in the agency should spread the word about positive volunteer achievements. Have volunteers write newsletter articles or blog posts about their experiences. When other volunteers read these articles, it reminds them why they are involved as well.
 
Read the full article.

One of those volunteers was Shantae Robinson, an environmental lawyer who has served as the South/Southwest Ambassador Team Leader for the past four months, and currently oversees more than a dozen ambassador volunteers.

A lifelong volunteer, Robinson found herself taking on a leadership role even though she already works full-time at Trees Atlanta. She first heard about the project from the BeltLine’s speaker bureau, which visited a campus organization she belonged to at Spellman College. ”I was completely impressed, amazed, excited about the program,” Robinson said. “I love anything that’s going to help bring communities together, and connects them back to the environment. That’s exactly what the BeltLine does.”

Robinson’s first experience with the BeltLine was volunteering for a cleanup session near her home. “Once I did the cleanup, I stayed in tune with what was going on,” she said. An email blast alerted her to the different levels of volunteer involvement offered at the BeltLine. “Because it was something that was completely in line with what I was interested in academically and personally, I decided to go ahead and try for everything.”

After a meeting with Program Director Rob Brawner, he suggested that Robinson’s passion would go to best use in the ambassador program. “He said, since you have that connection with the community, we would love for you to share your enthusiasm with others. And I said, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what I want to do!’ And here I am, an ambassador.”

Make it a priority to identify and develop those volunteers with passion for the organization and leadership potential, and be sure to match their skills to the right opportunity. The kinds of volunteers you’re looking for don’t just have good work habits—showing up regularly and on time—but strong opinions about the organization and the work. They may be know-it-alls, or they may have a million questions, but they’re sending clear signals that they’d like to be more involved. Recognize them, make the time and space to address their needs, and they’ll find a way to better meet yours. (See sidebar.)

Show me the meaning

Advocates for Bartow’s Children, a Cartersville-based GCN member, runs the local chapter of the national

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a demanding program that trains volunteers to help abused and neglected children through the court system. It’s a role that requires weeks of training, with more than 30 hours of classes and 10 hours of in-court observation, covering everything from juvenile law to developmental psychology, and perhaps years of commitment. CASAs are required to see a case through from start to finish, gathering information about the child in their care, and making recommendations vital to the court’s decisions about that child’s future.

As such, these volunteers are compensated with highly meaningful work, lots of recognition from staff and government officials, and a significant role in the organization itself: “In our Peer Meetings, we ask volunteers what topics they would like to hear about, and we locate speakers on those topics,” said Ava Lipscomb, program director of Bartow CASA. “They are also invited to attend the Georgia CASA conference, which is held annually. We also share any free or low-cost training that is in our area that they may want to attend.”

Currently, the Bartow chapter serves 294 children with 86 volunteer CASAs—20 of whom have been on the job more than five years. Recognizing volunteer accomplishments with training opportunities and increased responsibility is vital to keeping them coming back.

Soliciting feedback is another great way to recognize volunteers, while gaining insight into the parts of the volunteer experience that aren’t working. In 2004, Georgia CASA, the organization that oversees the state’s 47 CASA programs, began a system-wide recruitment and training overhaul to address overlap and provide more comprehensive training (an effort that won them a 2012 Nonprofit IMPACT Award from The Home Depot Foundation).

Take every opportunity to tell volunteers how their time, energy, and talent contribute
to the success of the organization, and make sure your staff does too.

Volunteer feedback was an important part of the overhaul: for the first time, Georgia CASA began recording feedback from its volunteers in a way that allowed them to analyze and act on it. By listening to volunteers and focusing on their unmet needs, rather than the perceived shortcomings of individual programs, the collaborative avoided finger-pointing and helped defuse resistance to change. Diana Waters, manager of the project, said that they key was “to follow the data, see what was missing and where it was going. We did not want collaborative members to feel like we were going to put more work on them or tell them they were doing something wrong.”

At the BeltLine, Sharrón Sylvain meets bi-weekly with the lead Ambassador volunteers, a lead festival volunteer, and a speakers bureau scheduling volunteer, “to discuss upcoming events and how we can improve our processes.” At Open Hand, Shawan Allen reports that they’re in the early stages of putting together a Volunteer Council “who will be active in many of the decision making processes for volunteer services.”

Pay attention to your most dedicated volunteers, and make sure you’re fostering an environment in which their opinions are welcomed. And because those volunteer leaders are on the ground with your rank-and-file volunteers, they can easily judge the effectiveness of your recruitment and retention efforts.

Overcoming Poverty, Building Capacity: The AmeriCorps VISTA Program at GCN
by Breauna Hagan
 
In 1964, the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) initiative was launched to “Fight Poverty with Passion” in the U.S., utilizing a young volunteer corps eager to give back to the community while developing the leadership skills needed for their future. Incorporated into the AmeriCorps network in 1993, VISTA recruits more than 7,000 individuals, most fresh out of college, each year for a one-year, full-time term of service working with a sponsor in the nonprofit sector, public school system, or local government agency.
 
With over 1,000 project sponsors in the U.S., VISTAs are heavily involved in new sustainable projects centered on improving education, strengthening anti-poverty groups, and, in the case of GCN, providing vital capacity-building support...
 
Continue reading this article.

Bonus Pay: The Follow-Up Effect

If you want your volunteers to come back, the experience shouldn’t end when their shift is done. Not only should you take every on-site opportunity to tell volunteers how their time, energy, and talent contribute to the success of the organization—you should keep telling them even after they leave, ideally by delivering more of the meaning they crave.

For that, MedShare and Camp Twin Lakes both send follow-up emails highlighting the real-world impact of a day’s volunteering. MedShare’s email reads like a work receipt, with concrete measures and outcomes: “Collectively, [your] team helped prevent 917 pounds of much-needed medical supplies from going to waste in a landfill and made it possible for 61 boxes of life-saving medical supplies to be provided in upcoming shipments.”

It also includes easy next steps, with links: donate (“Sponsor a box of hope”), spread the word online (“Like us on Facebook, stay in touch on Twitter, or write us a review on Yelp”), or come back for another session (“Join us with friends, family, or as an individual for a 3-hour session on a Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday”). The approach seems to work: MedShare’s Yelp page has 26 reviews, every one of them rating the experience five out of five stars.

Corps Competency

Though the latest volunteer numbers are encouraging, and the economy looking rosier, it’s still a challenge to find the volunteer talent you need to carry out the mission. To attract and keep more volunteers, you’ll need to look critically at your volunteer program and the experience you are delivering.

When you prepare your staff to embrace volunteers and facilitate their growth; when you share stories of the organization’s impact and effectiveness; when you recognize volunteer needs by soliciting and responding to feedback, you create an environment in which volunteers can connect, learn, and grow, a space for belonging and fulfillment. Once they’re hooked on the meaning your volunteer experience delivers, they’ll take advantage of any opportunity to return. That includes the opportunity to work hard, communicate your organization’s solution, and pledge financially.

Remember: “The pay is in meaning.” Take advantage of every chance to deliver that meaning to your volunteers, and the payback for your nonprofit will be a corps of supporters eager to do whatever it takes to make your mission a success.

Marc Schultz is contributing editor at Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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