Home » How to Future-Proof Your Volunteer Program in 10 Steps
What does the future of volunteering look like? How can your organization prepare for a future that seems equal parts hopeful and uncertain?
In the spirit of growth and momentum, we’re focused on helping organizations like yours build sustainable volunteer programs poised for what the future has to offer.
Informed by research, we’re exploring the state of future volunteerism, plus ten ways to “future-proof” your volunteer program.
First, let’s look at what’s in store for volunteerism:
Plus 10 Steps to Future-Proof Your Volunteer Program
What will volunteerism look like in 2022? Is the way people volunteer fundamentally changing?
While the future is never certain, we can make predictions based on today’s truths and trends.
Traditionally, community organizations count on their core supporters—those who show up every week without fail or donate each year; they’re dependable and cost-effective. But as COVID took hold, many nonprofits found they could no longer rely on that small but mighty contingent of dedicated volunteers.
The pandemic has changed the way we work—and volunteer. As the gig economy grows, work-from-home becomes commonplace, and people are increasingly strapped for time, volunteers are looking for flexible options that sync up with their work lives.
The Rise of Micro-volunteering
Micro-volunteering—just a passing trend or a new approach to taking civic action? While the concept certainly took off in the past few years, we predict it won’t be going away any time soon.
What is micro-volunteering?
Micro-volunteering is the act of completing small tasks to aid a cause. Micro-volunteers don’t need to fill out an application, take part in onboarding, or even show up in person.
From logging wildlife to signing a petition, micro-volunteers can often complete tasks on their mobile phones. In fact, 80% of micro-volunteering occurs online (but there are plenty of offline opportunities, too).
Regardless of the task, micro-volunteering is a convenient and flexible option for over-stretched supporters.
While encouraging one-off volunteering seems counterintuitive to your long-term mission, experts predict an increase in demand for micro-volunteering; these ad-hoc volunteer tasks tend to suit the lifestyles of today’s workforce.
The digital age is upon us, perhaps exacerbated by the growing demand for distanced solutions. In fact, there’s a digital platform for nearly every stage of the nonprofit management cycle.
Nonprofit technology isn’t (and shouldn’t be) designed to replace face-time. Instead, organizations will benefit from using digital tools to increase operational efficiency, reach wider audiences, and increase community impact.
Keep reading for ways to focus your energy, evaluate your strategy, and embrace digital solutions.
Yes, micro-volunteers volunteerism is booming, and nonprofits will benefit from embracing ad-hoc volunteers. But committed, long-term volunteers are still your future.
That said, your volunteers, like most of us, are probably fatigued, even burnt out. So now, more than ever, it’s important to design an experience that is calm, manageable, and enjoyable for your volunteers—because volunteering should feel good.
Building a force of reliable, long-term volunteers is a process that requires nurturing.
Increased stress during the pandemic has led volunteers—as many of us—to feel fatigued. This fatigue leads to burnout and increasing volunteer turnover rates. Plus, as day-to-day lives become more unpredictable, volunteers may be less willing to make long-term commitments.
The solution? Be a place where people want to be. Focus on creating a welcoming community where participants can take refuge, make meaningful connections, and feel good about their contributions. Embrace every volunteer, whether they’ve been there for an hour or a decade.
The Volunteer Commitment Ladder
All volunteers, even your episodic ones, have the potential to become your most enthusiastic supporters. Start by nurturing new volunteers who will likely test the waters before deciding to commit to your organization consistently.
Think of volunteer commitment as a ladder:
Volunteers may move between steps and are more likely to move up the “commitment ladder” if they have a positive experience with your organization.
In unusual and trying times, volunteers may need to take a step down the ladder, too. And that’s okay!
The name of the game is empathy. While long-term volunteers increase your return on investment, a volunteer who feels supported and welcomed is more likely to return to and refer to your organization when they’re ready.
Do not ask new volunteers to commit to regular shifts. Instead, you can offer simple experiences that participants can accomplish in their own time, such as:
There are so many possibilities here!
After volunteers participate in a micro-opportunity, follow-up with a thank you, and invite them to register their details so you can keep in touch with new opportunities throughout the year. Managing ad-hoc volunteers can be tricky, so you’ll want a volunteer management platform to accomplish the time-consuming admin work for you.
One of the best ways to move your volunteers up the commitment ladder is to create an impactful, enjoyable experience from the start.
You want volunteers to remember the joy and sense of accomplishment they felt while participating. But those happy memories can easily become overshadowed by feelings of frustration if they felt any part of the process was disorganized or inefficient.
Set your program up for future success by reducing pain points and barriers to getting involved.
Here are some ways to make volunteering with your organization easier, so that doing good feels like respite from daily stress—not an obligation:
Don’t forget about the volunteers you already have! A consistently energized volunteer base will set your nonprofit up for success for years to come. Re-energize fatigued or forgotten supporters and get them excited for the future.
Here are a few ways to remind your supporters why they were drawn to your cause in the first place:
Make an Emotional Appeal
Send an email, record a video and post it to your website, write a letter. However you choose to reconnect with your volunteers, find a way to reach your volunteers’ emotional sensibilities. Make your message personal, hopeful, and genuine. Remind your supporters why you still need their help. Discuss your organization’s goals and plans for the future. Talk about the campaigns you’re still working through and upcoming initiatives you’re particularly excited about.
Send a Survey
Some organizations work with volunteers for years before truly understanding why they get involved. Reach out to current volunteers to understand their motivations for serving. Send a survey inviting supporters to answer open-ended questions like these:
“I choose to serve because…”
“I’ll never forget the time…”
Take the time to read over each response. Then, gather your team and other volunteers and brainstorm ways to encourage more energizing, powerful moments that keep volunteers returning.
These “stay” surveys are much more informative and impactful than your typical exit survey.
Showing your appreciation is critical to retaining volunteers. Thank your volunteers after each event and throughout the year.
When expressing your gratitude, either in writing or in person, keep your supporters at the center of your message. You may begin your statement with, “because of you…” or “together, we accomplished…”
Those who know how their contributions make a difference are more likely to volunteer or donate again.
Planning for an unpredictable future can seem daunting, especially when many are hesitant to commit to obligations months in advance. However, developing a plan for the year ahead provides much-needed direction and structure for staff and supporters alike.
Don’t be afraid to get a head start on planning and scheduling big-ticket items for the entire year, like major events and meetings.
Internal Planning and Scheduling
Schedule important meetings for the year. Use a digital calendar tool (Google Calendar works just fine) to send invitations and reminders so that busy staff, board members, and stakeholders can easily keep track of commitments.
Planning Volunteer Opportunities and Events
While we can’t be sure what volunteerism will look like in 2022, you’re probably getting the hang of managing distanced and virtual volunteers at this point. So, plan your major events, campaigns, and initiatives now.
You’ll want to have a virtual or hybrid backup plan in case in-person activities are canceled. Check out these resources for planning virtual and hybrid volunteer opportunities and events:
Give volunteers a preview of what’s in store on your website and in your newsletter. Even those who are busy now can get excited about what your organization has to offer throughout the year.
Representation matters. That’s why we think the future is bright for volunteer programs that embrace diversity. By working to engage a diverse group of volunteers, you’ll also welcome new perspectives. So while you may rely on a core crew of loyal helpers, find ways to include fresh voices.
Take these actions to foster a more inclusive volunteering environment:
Reach Out to Community Leaders
Community leaders are invested in the future of their communities and can influence those they represent. Reach out to community leaders, share your mission, and communicate how they can make a difference to your program.
Start by contacting leadership at community institutions, such as:
Work on Your Long-Term Relationships
To truly welcome new volunteers, you’ll need to foster a sense of trust with your organization and its mission. Developing this trust takes time and effort.
Reach out to organizations like those listed above and begin by inviting dialogue; what do community members want to see in terms of change and progress? What motivates them to volunteer? What can your organization offer in return?
Once you’ve established a foundation of understanding, prospects may feel more comfortable offering their time and ideas. Most importantly, continue to communicate. Your sustained partnership can inspire volunteerism that works for both parties.
Welcome Volunteers with Technology
The future of your volunteer program is today’s young volunteers. Invite volunteers of all ages to help shape your program.
Engage teens and young adults by meeting them where they are: online! These online engagement strategies will help your program encourage the next generation:
When disaster strikes, it can feel as though businesses and community organizations alike seem to have only two options: sink or swim. But as 2021 offers hindsight, volunteer programs can work to prepare for future challenges.
To better mitigate disasters or risks, you’ll need to imagine what a sustainable future looks like for your volunteer program.
Reflect and Evaluate
Here are some questions to help you anticipate changes to your community’s needs and your program’s adaptations to these changes:
Your response to the COVID crisis likely involved short-term adaptations to programming. On the other hand, mitigation should deal with the long-term sustainability of your community programming.
Assess the Risks
In the event of a disaster, you’ll want to have a plan in place for safeguarding your volunteers and employees.
The idea here is to anticipate the likelihood of a hazard or risk, and the scale of the consequence should an event occur. Understanding risk will help organizations prioritize planning and mitigation efforts.
Check out these EPA resources and risk management tools to help organizations mitigate the harmful outcomes.
Get Your Finances in Order
Disaster and economic hardship can leave organizations vulnerable and scrambling to recover, not to mention the barrage of paperwork that’s likely to ensue.
One of the best ways to mitigate financial strain is to get your program’s finances in order. While program finances might not be in your wheelhouse, there are items and data you can gather to help financial personnel.
Take these financial actions:
Plan for Recovery
Even with mitigation strategies in place, disasters can result in unpredictable outcomes. You can still reduce irreparable damage to your program by planning for recovery. We created this recovery guide to help volunteer programs prepare for recovery from COVID-19. These recommendations can also direct your recovery plan for other economic hardships.
Many programs adapted to a shifting volunteer landscape by creating virtual volunteering opportunities. You may have discovered that many of your volunteers enjoyed the flexibility of helping from home. And we’re predicting that virtual volunteerism will endure in the future. After all, the new year is your chance to reimagine the future of your volunteer program.
You may have already developed a framework for your virtual volunteer program, making it a sustainable addition to your in-person volunteer opportunities. If you haven’t embraced virtual volunteerism yet, it’s never too late to add dimension and flexibility to your programming!
Consider these recommendations for creating a virtual volunteer program that is sustainable for years to come.
Assess Your Community’s Needs
What gaps in service are you currently prepared to address? What virtual volunteer roles can help your organization fulfill its mission? To get the most return for your investment in a virtual volunteer program, you’ll want to make sure it addresses real organizational or community needs.
Compose a List of Virtual Volunteer Opportunities
Once you’ve developed a sense of where virtual volunteers fit into your program, you can create a list of virtual volunteer opportunities and role descriptions. Need a little inspiration? Here are some great virtual volunteer opportunities to inspire yours:
Recruit Virtual Volunteers
You already have a recruitment strategy in place for your in-person volunteers, but you’ll also need to think about how you’ll recruit virtual volunteers. Start by making your virtual volunteer opportunities easy to find; create a section on your volunteer opportunities page specifically for virtual options. Highlight virtual opportunities in your email newsletter, and follow these steps for promoting volunteering at home.
Keep Virtual Volunteers Engaged
Without the benefits of in-person interaction, remote volunteers may begin to feel disconnected from your cause over time. To keep virtual volunteers excited about getting involved, you’ll want to develop an engagement strategy that targets your virtual volunteers.
Some ways to keep remote volunteers engaged include:
Measure the Program’s Impact
As with any volunteering initiative, it’s essential to communicate the impact of volunteer contributions. Gather stories from virtual volunteers and clients. How is each party benefiting from the virtual volunteer program? Collect volunteer data specific to your virtual volunteer opportunities and report the value of their time to your community.
By 2022, smartphone users are predicted to reach 271 million in the U.S. alone. And tech users are increasingly relying on smartphones to perform web-based activities. There’s a good chance many visitors are using their smartphones to interact with your volunteer program.
Is your website mobile-friendly?
Mobile-friendly websites perform well on smartphones and scale automatically to smartphone screen dimensions, improving the users’ experience. While not all websites come mobile-friendly, most sites can become mobile-friendly (with a web provider or developer).
Ready your site for tomorrow by making it mobile-friendly today. Here are some ways:
Check Your Website’s Performance
Before making any changes to your website, check its performance by entering the URL into Google’s Mobile Test tool. Don’t forget to test any newsletters, emails, videos, and downloads on a smartphone before sending (look for font changes, strange formatting, and slow download speeds).
Update Your Donations Tool
Can your supporters donate to your organization on their phones? If not, it may be time for an upgrade. Look for a system that enables Apple Pay or another mobile-friendly payment system.
From disaster relief efforts to remote volunteer management, organizations find text messaging (also called SMS) increasingly important to mobilize volunteers efficiently and reliably. Your communications or volunteer management platform should enable mass texting (similar to how you’re currently using email segments) for quick circulation.
Get Familiar with QR Codes
QR codes are simple to produce and even easier to use. QR is a type of barcode that individuals can scan with their smartphones. By scanning the QR code users can reach virtually any web address on the internet.
QR codes are a great contact-free option for check-in and logging hours if you use an online tool or management system. Print the QR code and post in high-traffic areas.
Embed Your Videos
Today, people consume more video content on their phones than ever before. And mobile video consumption increases by 100% each year. So, make sure smartphone users can view any videos on your site without a hitch. We recommend you upload videos to a video streaming site like Youtube or Vimeo, then embed the video into your webpage for smooth viewing.
Review Your Web-Based Volunteer Management Software
Can volunteers search, register for, and check in to opportunities on their phones? Can they log hours on their phones without a hassle? Does your current volunteer management system offer a mobile app that improves the volunteer experience? If the answer is no to any of these questions, it may be time to upgrade your volunteer management software!
As cyber risks become more sophisticated, so do the safety measures in place to protect your website. Safeguard the future of your website’s data by bolstering your cybersecurity measures.
Why is it important to address your organization’s cybersecurity?
If your organization’s website performs any of the following activities, you’ll want to review its cybersecurity measures:
If your website engages in any of these activities, you could put site users at risk if their personal information fell into the wrong hands (also referred to as a “data breach”).
The National Council of Nonprofits outlines the following recommendations geared toward nonprofit organizations:
Take Inventory of Collected Data
Use this data inventory tool from the Nonprofit Technology Network to take stock of the types of information your website collects from its users. You’ll need to know (1) what data you collect from people, (2) what you do with the data, and (3) where it’s stored.
Understand Your Risk
Consider adopting the Cybersecurity Framework from the National Institute of Standards and Security. The framework will help you assess the likelihood of a security breach.
Many volunteer organizations rely on third-party vendors, such as payroll service providers and IT consultants. If these third parties do not have adequate data protection measures in place, your organization is also at risk of a cyber event. You’ll want to work with each vendor to understand their strategies for data security.
Learn How to Protect Personally Identifiable Information
Train staff and all website administrators on how to collect, store, and protect Personally Identifiable Information. Most states require organizations to inform people whose information is disclosed in a security breach.
Familiarize yourself and staff with these steps from the National Council of Nonprofits to protect your data’s future. Many of these steps are simple preventative measures.
Invest in Additional Security
In addition to heeding preventative measures, you may decide to invest in a few additional options to protect your organization and website users. If your team has determined that your organization is at risk of a security breach, you may want to consider cyber liability insurance.
Before you buy insurance, research what is and isn’t covered by cyber liability insurance. Your state’s association of nonprofits can help you identify a provider that makes sense for your organization.
A simple and relatively cost-effective way to add security to your website is to purchase an SSL certificate. SSL (Transport Layer Security) encrypts data to help protect your website and online tools (such as your volunteer management software).
Many websites and web-based tools now come standard with an SSL certificate. To check if your website has a valid SSL certificate, click the padlock in the URL address bar’s left-hand corner. You should be able to view the “valid” certification, issuer, and issue date.
One prediction we’re willing to put money on: the need for community funding will likely continue into the future. But your program can prepare for many months to come by finding creative ways to boost fundraising efficiency (and, therefore, the return on your time).
Efficient 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.
Why focus on converting volunteers into donors?
Volunteers make great donors. They’re already engaged with your cause, and they’re more likely to make recurring donations. The value of a volunteer who also donates to your program is about ten times greater than the value of donors–and that’s before you account for volunteers’ time!
So in the same breath that you ask for volunteer time, it’s also worth plugging your next fundraiser. There’s a good chance your loyal base is already willing to contribute both their time and money.
Volunteers already demonstrate philanthropic behavior. More often than not, converting volunteers into donors is about asking thoughtfully. Follow these strategies for boosting donorship among your volunteers:
Foster Meaningful Experiences
If you want volunteers to continue to support your cause, you’ll need to create powerful experiences for each volunteer.
Offer more meaningful volunteering experiences with ideas like these:
Keep Supporters Engaged
Engagement doesn’t end after a person volunteers. Continue to nurture volunteer relationships by reaching out after they’ve served. Ask volunteers to stay up-to-date by joining your newsletter. Don’t forget to highlight your next fundraiser–include a call for donations.
Make a Reasonable Ask
Many find that multiple, smaller donations are more meaningful than a large, one-time contribution. Provide individual supporters with a “subscription” option in which they can give smaller monthly sums.
Know your volunteers and supporters and request a reasonable donation; ask too much, and you may deter prospects. In other words, we don’t recommend you send the same fundraising email to your volunteers and corporate partners.
Simplify the Donation Process
The next generation of volunteers is more likely to donate from their smartphones. Make giving quick and easy by adopting a mobile-friendly donation service. If you’ve ever donated through popular crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, you’ll understand just how simple it is.
Donation management tools have become experts at reducing barriers to giving. Choose an option that is mobile-friendly and simple to use. Leverage your newsletter, social media, and notifications by pointing directly to your donations page, and watch the gifts come in!
Use Technology That Integrates Management Processes
Meet volunteers where they are. Ensure your volunteer management platform or volunteer site also incorporates a donation capability. An integrated volunteer management and donations tool allows volunteers to sign-up for opportunities and donate in just a few clicks. You’ll also be able to identify which volunteers are contributing and target your communications accordingly.
A lot can change in just a few months. Community-based organizations are often asked to pivot quickly to address the changing needs of their clients. That’s why it’s essential to revisit your volunteer program’s mission and prepare for what’s next.
Review these steps for re-centering your mission to ensure your program continuously meets community needs:
Reflect and Evaluate
Times change, and so do the needs of your community. That’s why it’s important to regularly reassess and reevaluate your mission. Assess how your mission shifted over the year and how you adapted your operations to change your community’s needs.
Your assessment should answer some of the following questions:
Review Your Mission Statement
Your mission statement holds your organization together; it guides all organizational decision-making and communicates desired outcomes to stakeholders. So make sure your mission statement still reflects your current work and your intentions for growth.
Your mission statement should:
Set Long-Term Goals
Don’t be afraid to set your sights on the future. In addition to your measurable, short-term goals, set goals for several years down the road. These goals should speak to the long-term change you want to see in your community. So, for example, instead of focusing on the number of volunteers you hope to recruit, focus on quantitative and qualitative impact goals.
Keep Your Beneficiaries at the Forefront
Your nonprofit serves the members of your community using the unique skills and resources available to you. To stay mission-focused for the future, consider your programs’ beneficiaries or the community members receiving your services. Even when exciting opportunities come your way, you’ll want to weigh the impacts that this decision will have on those you serve.
Future-proof your volunteer program by increasing operational efficiency. Become more efficient, and you can take on more volunteers and donors, save time and money, and affect more change.
One of the most effective ways to increase efficiency and boost your return on investment is to adopt time-saving technology.
Which technology should volunteer programs prioritize?
Keep reading our take on the best technology to invest in for the future.
These tools help simplify collaboration and management so that you spend less time on administrative tasks and more time developing relationships with the people that matter most to your organization.
Cloud Storage and File Sharing
Working remotely has taught many of us that the streamlined storing and sharing of digital materials is more important than ever—future-proof your program’s files by using a cloud storage and file sharing solution.
Cloud storage provides a place to store digital files in the “cloud” rather than on your hard drive. You’ll no longer have to worry about losing files to crashed computers or running out of storage space.
Many of the cloud storage solutions also offer file sharing. File sharing enables users to send digital files like documents and videos to any device using the web. File sharing simplifies collaboration with coworkers, whether their desk is across the office or around the world.
Fortunately, there are several secure, free cloud storage options available. Programs like Google Drive will integrate with your existing Google Workspace applications (like Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar), making storing and sharing simple.
A donations management tool will help programs track donations and interactions with donors. An effective donation management system will help to improve the donations experience by streamlining the process for the donors and those who manage donations.
Customer Relationship Management System (CRM)
CRM is software that allows organizations and businesses to manage relationships and technologies. They tend to look a lot like an email platform, as most companies and nonprofits use email as their primary avenue of communication.
A CRM system is handy for organizations with lots of contacts, from volunteers to donors to community partners. Fortunately, many CRM systems offer pricing tiers, so you’re only paying for what you need.
Volunteer Management Software
For most volunteer programs, volunteer management software is a must. However, not all volunteer management systems are created equal. Your options vary in price and capability, ranging from a basic shift-scheduling tool to a robust multi-functional solution.
The best volunteer management software will fulfill many of your program’s technology needs. Not to mention, it should be easy to use for volunteers and their managers.
Generally, we recommend you look for a web-based volunteer management software with integrated volunteer management, engagement, and communication features, including:
If you’re not sure where to start, make a list of your program’s must-haves. Use a comparison site to read real reviews and compare features. Many software companies offer free demonstrations so you can make an informed investment.
Learn more about the trends that are driving volunteer programs into the future.
Author: Addison Waters
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