With greater demand and limited resources, nonprofit organizations and volunteer programs are consistently faced with the challenge of finding better ways to sustain, grow, and develop. A dedicated strategy for nonprofit capacity building will ensure your programs can continue to deliver their essential services.
Capacity building for nonprofits takes some planning, but with this toolkit, we’ll cover a few important ways you can build a sustainable, viable volunteer program.
- What is nonprofit capacity?
- What is capacity building in an organization?
- What are the key elements of building capacity in volunteer programs?
- Why should volunteer programs invest in capacity building?
- Conduct a Self-Assessment
- Leverage Community Partnerships
- Focus on Retention
- Diversify Resources
- Build Capacity with Technology
Capacity Building: FAQ
Before we jump into the how-to, let’s review these frequently asked questions about capacity building:
What is nonprofit capacity?
Capacity describes the capabilities, knowledge, and resources available to a nonprofit organization or that an organization needs to function and grow.
Common types of capacities in nonprofit organizations include:
- Leadership and management
- Program delivery
- Fund development
- Strategic relationships
- Communications and marketing
- Financial management
A sustainable nonprofit must remain both financially and operationally viable over time. As nonprofit organizations sustain and grow, they also need to develop a strategy for expanding–or building–available capacity.
What is capacity building?
The definition of capacity building is “an investment in the effectiveness and future sustainability of a nonprofit,” according to the National Council of Nonprofits.
Building capacity in nonprofit organizations enhances their mission, skills, and resources to serve community needs better.
Generally, a nonprofit’s capacity development objectives will include:
- Improving human resources departments and procedures
- Enhancing communications strategies and methods
- Boosting efficiency and reach through the adoption of new technology
What are the elements of building capacity in volunteer programs?
Volunteer professionals can apply the principles of nonprofit capacity building to their volunteer programs. By implementing capacity-building strategies, volunteer programs can boost efficiency and effectiveness, thereby pushing an organization’s mission forward.
To start, volunteer programs should focus on four key areas:
- Recruiting and managing volunteers
- Building community partnerships
- Volunteer engagement and retention
- Growth and diversification of volunteer program resources
Whether they operate independently or as a function of a larger nonprofit organization, volunteer programs can become viable and sustainable by improving these specific capacity areas.
Why should volunteer programs invest in capacity building?
Volunteers are the lifeblood of many community organizations. When well-managed, volunteers are a phenomenal resource that can:
- Aid in the effective and efficient delivery of services
- Increase an organization’s sustainability
- Improve an organization’s return on investment
- Boost donations
Capacity building is essential to the success of volunteer programs and nonprofit organizations to continue to meet community needs and deliver on their mission.
How Volunteer Programs Can Build Capacity
Volunteer programs should focus on activities that improve volunteer management efficiency and increase the resources available. The following tips can help volunteer programs to develop a capacity-building strategy:
Conduct a Self-Assessment
You may already conduct community needs assessments, but have you assessed your volunteer program recently? A critical component of capacity building is helping staff and stakeholders identify which core capacity areas require more attention and which areas are high-functioning.
Before you develop your capacity-building strategy, start by conducting a self-assessment of your program’s current capacity. Results of the assessment will help to direct available resources and inform key decision-making.
To conduct a self-assessment, you’ll want to review the volunteer program capacity areas above. Consider the following self-assessment questions to help you assess each capacity area:
Recruiting and Managing Volunteers:
- Do you currently have enough volunteers required to fulfill project duties?
- Do you currently have the staff required to fulfill administrative tasks associated with recruiting and managing volunteers?
- Are you recruiting volunteers using a range of marketing and outreach methods?
- Are you recruiting volunteers that represent the diversity of the community?
- What percentage of staff time is spent on recruiting and managing volunteers?
- What specific tasks in the recruitment and management process are current sticking points?
Building Community Partnerships:
- What current active partnerships are you nurturing?
- Do your current partnerships reflect the diversity of your community?
- What strategies are in place to develop and maintain diverse partnerships?
- Are you currently tapping into partners’ networks to grow your own?
Volunteer Engagement and Retention:
- Do you currently have the staff required to fill tasks associated with engagement and retention?
- What percentage of staff time is currently spent on volunteer engagement and retention activities?
- Do you currently have a strategy for collecting volunteer feedback?
- What volunteer engagement tools are you currently using?
- Do volunteers feel empowered and connected to your cause?
Growth and Diversification of Resources:
- What cost-effective tools and resources are available to streamline the recruitment and management process?
- What communication tools are you leveraging to engage community partners?
- What are untapped resources currently available to help streamline engagement and retention activities?
- Do you currently have a strategy for converting volunteers into donors?
- Are you utilizing a range of resources and tools to achieve volunteer program activities?
- These questions are just a starting point in helping you develop a self-assessment. The National Council of Nonprofits lists more organizational self-assessment tools to assist nonprofits in evaluating specific areas of interest.
Leverage Community Partnerships
Volunteer programs can get more done when they leverage partnerships and relationships with similar goals.
How can partnerships benefit your volunteer program?
Effective community partnerships allow volunteer programs to maximize resources and explore new strategies for developing better solutions to social problems. That’s why many volunteer programs partner with local businesses, campuses, and other affinity groups with their own volunteer programs.
Partnering with these community groups can help volunteer programs and nonprofits access new volunteers, donors, revenue, and resources while increasing visibility in the community. Partners can also serve as consultants and stakeholders to ensure the program meets the community’s needs.
What does a successful partnership look like?
A successful partnership should contain the following pillars:
- Mutually beneficial – The relationship should benefit both parties. These benefits should be communicated initially.
- Alignment of values – Does the partner represent the values of your program? Are they bought into your mission? Both partners must operate in a way that respects each organization’s values and the community members served.
- Open and regular communication – Each party should communicate and agree upon the expectations of the partnership. Partners should continue to check-in to ensure that the partnership continues to benefit both parties and the community.
Leveraging community partnerships can boost capacity. But how can volunteer programs nurture these relationships?
Here are some actions volunteer programs can take to cultivate partnership interest and involvement:
Construct communication networks among stakeholders. The volunteer program should create a strategy for communicating with volunteers, partners, community leaders, and other programs. This communication will vary in nature, from marketing your program to reporting on outcomes for maintaining interest.
Communication should be documented and well-organized. Volunteer managers may consider adopting a CRM or volunteer management system to streamline this process.
Gather input from community partners. Your partners each hold unique perspectives on solutions for addressing a community’s needs. What’s more, each program mustn’t exist in a silo. By welcoming feedback and input from partners, you foster more profound engagement with your cause, which in turn leads to more sustainable relationships.
Continuously seek potential partnerships. Relationships can stagnate or run their course. Volunteer programs should therefore develop an outreach strategy for regularly developing new partnerships. What’s perhaps most important, volunteer programs should strive to engage a diverse group of stakeholders. Sustainable volunteer programs represent the diverse makeup and voices of their community members. To welcome new voices, reach out to leadership at community institutions such as:
- Houses of worship
- Elected offices
- Civic and cultural organizations
- Neighborhood associations
- University clubs and Greek life organizations
- Small business owners
Focus on Volunteer Retention
A key component of the capacity-building process is developing strategies to improve volunteer retention. Research into the relationship between organizational capacity and volunteer management practices indicates that well-managed volunteers are more likely to feel satisfied. In turn, satisfied volunteers are more likely to renew commitments and recruit new volunteers.
When your volunteer participation and retention grow, your capacity to serve the community grows!
Here are the top actions volunteer programs can implement to improve volunteer retention:
Volunteers are more likely to become lifelong supporters of your cause when they feel appreciated. Volunteer appreciation and recognition should become a component of any volunteer management strategy. At the very least, volunteer programs should develop a system for thanking volunteers regularly and often.
The most successful volunteers are passionate about your cause and have the knowledge necessary to carry out the tasks that meet your objectives. Regardless of skill level, most recruits will require some level of volunteer training to make the most impact. Plus, when volunteers feel prepared for their work, they perform better and feel more satisfied with their role. Your volunteer training should accomplish the following:
- Outline role expectations, responsibilities, and tasks
- Establish volunteer objectives
- Acquaint volunteers with tools and procedures they’ll encounter on the job
- Assess any knowledge and skills gaps, then work to fill these gaps
- Create a framework for further evaluation
Cultivate Better Volunteer Experiences
Volunteers are more likely to buy into your cause when they have a positive first volunteer experience. Here are some ways to cultivate positive experiences for volunteers:
- Match volunteer skills and interests. Pairing volunteers with the right opportunity is one way to ensure volunteers are satisfied with the work. A volunteer management system can help automate this process for greater operational efficiency.
- Many volunteers choose to participate in part due to the social benefits. Consider welcoming groups, teams, friends, and families. Have a simple system in place for easy team registration, and make sure participants can quickly locate family-friendly activities on your volunteer site.
- Be flexible. Volunteers have busy lives outside of your organization. Offer various flexible opportunities and shifts, so volunteers feel empowered to create their own manageable schedules. Choose a volunteer scheduling tool that enables volunteers to self-schedule and manage their shifts online.
Volunteers like to know how their efforts are making a difference. Regularly communicate volunteer impact for each individual and your program as a whole. Therefore, you’ll need a system in place for efficiently tracking and reporting on volunteer impact.
Collecting volunteer feedback is necessary for understanding what keeps your volunteers motivated and happy. Invite constructive discussion by asking thoughtful, volunteer-centered questions like these:
- How do you feel about your volunteer work?
- Do you feel your volunteer work is important?
- Do you feel your role has changed? In what ways?
- How are you managing your volunteer schedule? Are we asking too much from you? Too little?
Because engaged, long-term volunteers yield a higher return on investment than episodic volunteers, a retention strategy that includes the above components can help build your program’s volunteer capacity.
Diversify Volunteer Program Resources
When a volunteer program taps into a variety of resources and tools, they increase its sustainability. Just as a nonprofit will diversify its revenue sources, volunteer programs should also work to diversify the tools available to them.
In other words, volunteer programs benefit from placing eggs in many baskets. An organization should avoid relying on a single method of sourcing volunteers, donors, and stakeholders. Instead, your volunteer program can become more viable and sustainable by leveraging a variety of partnerships, volunteer management tools, and resources.
Here are some examples of how volunteer programs can diversify their resources:
Adapt Early and Often
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, many community organizations faced unprecedented challenges; decreased funding, greater demand for services, and new safety restrictions meant that many volunteer programs found that their traditional tools and resources were no longer viable. They survived by adopting new systems to continue to meet the public’s needs and even grow their volunteer network.
The emergence of virtual volunteering is just one example of why volunteer programs must consistently adapt to survive and thrive. For example, the way supporters engage with community organizations has evolved and will continue to grow. Donors want to give with a click, volunteers want to find opportunities on their phones, and stakeholders want to know that they’re supporting an organization that fosters equity and inclusivity. Volunteer programs that adapt to the shifting attitudes of their supporters ultimately become more sustainable over time.
Is your organization ahead of the curve or falling behind?
Institute a Volunteer Donorship Strategy
Efficient and sustainable volunteer programs rely on a core group of volunteers who are also donors. Nearly 80% of volunteers donate to charity. Without an engagement strategy to convert volunteers to donors, organizations risk missing out on key revenue.
Volunteer programs can boost volunteer donorship by:
- Personalizing the volunteer-donor experience – Create a personalized volunteer experience that focuses on their preferences. Send personalized volunteer emails and notifications based on how, when, and why they contribute. Survey volunteers to better understand their motivations. Record volunteers’ interests, favorite causes, and skills to send targeted communication and tailor your “ask” better.
- Acknowledging individual accomplishments – Track and acknowledge each volunteer’s participation so you can thank them accordingly. A volunteer management system can track volunteer impact, as well as the types of opportunities and causes they prefer, so you can personally recognize the contributions of each volunteer.
- Making a reasonable ask – Your volunteers are already donating their time. You don’t want to turn them away by asking for too much. Many find that multiple, smaller donations are more meaningful than a large, one-time contribution. Make an initial suggested donation. Track each volunteer’s contribution so you can tailor your “ask” next time around.
- Providing rewarding experiences – Again, the best way to keep volunteers bought into your cause is to give them a meaningful volunteering experience continuously. Bring your volunteers in on decision-making processes, regularly communicate and incorporate your program’s mission throughout the volunteering experience, work to uphold transparency in your everyday practices and welcome fun!
Build Capacity with Technology
Building capacity requires an investment of time, energy, and resources in volunteer management tools and strategies. However, adopting effective capacity-building tools and strategies will yield greater empowerment and growth and will ultimately ensure the sustainability of your organization in the future.
To build capacity, volunteer programs must accomplish more with less. But how can volunteer programs become more efficient?
Technology can help your volunteer program become more efficient in your core capacity areas:
Technology for Volunteer Recruitment and Management
Without the right tools, recruiting and managing volunteers requires substantial time and effort. Traditional volunteer recruitment required volunteer managers to regularly source and contact prospects manually. But successful volunteer programs reverse this process by laying the groundwork so that volunteers consistently seek them out.
Here are some ways you can build capacity using recruitment and management tools:
- Volunteer programs can increase visibility by leveraging a smart social media strategy.
- Utilize text messaging (also called SMS) to mobilize volunteers efficiently and reliably. Your communications or volunteer management platform should enable mass texting for quick circulation.
- Make sure your website and volunteer management tools are mobile-friendly for a streamlined twenty-first-century volunteer experience. Consider adopting a mobile app so volunteers can check in and log their activities on their phones.
Finally, a robust volunteer management system can streamline nearly every step of the recruitment and management process. From painless volunteer registration to automated volunteer hour tracking, volunteer management software can yield a significant return on investment.
Technology for Engagement and Retention
Volunteer, donor, and stakeholder engagement and retention require a consistent effort. That’s why it’s especially important to have tools in place to simplify these processes.
One critical component of community engagement is email marketing. While the term “email marketing” tends to conjure up for-profit connotations, nonprofits find considerable success in adopting email marketing tools and strategies like these to engage volunteers, donors, and stakeholders.
Because engagement requires consistent communication, nonprofits often find that CRM helps them become more efficient in delivering effective communication. CRM tools should provide valuable data insights into how supporters engage with your various communication channels and automate targeted communication and outreach. Read about how adopting CRM can help improve volunteer relations.
Did you know that a volunteer management system can also aid volunteer engagement and retention efforts? Volunteer management tools can automatically track and report on impact and even automate volunteer recognition. And, whether you have 100 volunteers or 100,000, your volunteer management system can track each volunteer’s interests and favorite causes for better insights and personalized recommendations.
With the right tools in place, volunteer leaders can develop quicker and simpler ways to manage their volunteers. With the help of smarter systems, volunteer programs can spend less time on administrative tasks, and more on the critical engagement and networking activities critical to building capacity.