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5 Things That Happened to Volunteer Programs in 2020 That Were Actually Good

2020 brought us a lot of things–a pandemic and resulting economic hardship to name a few. But for all the challenges that communities faced, some good emerged. The resilience of communities. The selfless work that healthcare professionals, essential workers, volunteer programs, and other community organizations put in to help strangers and friends alike. 

While we mustn’t forget about (nor do we intend to minimize) the hardships many faced, we can cautiously choose to find solace in, even grow from, the good that came out of 2020. Because we believe reflection should also lead to action, we also provide tips for harnessing the good to secure the future of your volunteer program

1. We Socially Distanced, But Stayed Connected

According to the Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego, more than 60% of nonprofits experienced a decrease in capacity due to COVID-19. Yet, despite the year’s precariousness, and strapped for resources, volunteer programs found ways to engage their volunteers to drive incredible change. 

And the proof is in the thousands of stories of people doing good, from small acts of kindness to incredible demonstrations of altruism. Take the incredible efforts of local food banks nationwide, which distributed an estimated 4.2 billion meals between March and October of 2020 with the help of volunteers. Or this New York nonprofit received a swell of volunteers to help students in special education programs get the support they need during COVID-19. 

The lesson? We like to think that, more often than not, humanity steps up. Even though a new year has begun, the work for volunteer programs doesn’t end. So, as you move forward, how can your organization continue to stay connected and engaged to your volunteers?

Keep reading for our top tips. 

Top Ways to Boost Your Volunteer Program in 2021 and Beyond

If you’re like us, you believe there’s a lot of good people out there. Sometimes you just need to ask for their support! Harness the good in people by considering these strategies for keeping well-intentioned individuals engaged with your cause. 

Reward and Recognize Your Volunteers

According to the Urban Institute’s most recent data, volunteers contribute about 8.8 billion hours annually. And they continue to fill critical gaps in services when COVID-19 hit our communities, even risking personal safety to help others.

Volunteer programs should continue to show their appreciation for volunteers’ dedication to your cause, especially after last year’s challenges. But your program can also benefit by implementing a documented volunteer recognition strategy. 

Why? Simply put, volunteer recognition is key to better engagement and retention. Long-term volunteers are more likely to donate to your organization, they’ve bought into your cause, and you’ll have a pool of trained volunteers you can rely on. 

Do you have a volunteer recognition strategy? Here are some impactful ways to recognize your volunteers: 

  • Communicate impact (regularly). Track each volunteer’s hours and participation history. Use this data to accurately demonstrate their impact and award them specifically and appropriately—reward volunteers for participation milestones. 
  • Spotlight volunteers. Highlight your most active volunteers each month on your website, in your newsletter, and on your social media accounts. Public recognition goes a long way in making volunteers feel valued. 
  • Make your recognition efforts personal. Maybe you have a volunteer who has never missed a week or another whose positivity is contagious. There are many ways volunteers are special to your organization. Replace blanket “thank yous” by recognizing the personal contributions your volunteers make.

Turn Volunteers Into Donors

Nearly 80% of volunteers donate to charity. The value of a volunteer who also donates to your program is about ten times greater than the value of donors alone (even before you account for volunteer time)!

Your organization can harness the philanthropic spirit of your volunteer pool by creating a strategy for turning volunteers into donors (and vice versa!). 

Here are our top tips for converting volunteers into donors:

  • Develop a process for asking. Many of your volunteers may not give because they weren’t asked. Outline a strategy for reaching out specifically to your volunteers. Document how you’ll deliver your ask (i.e., email, text, mailer), how often, and what you’ll say. 
  • Make a reasonable ask. Many find that multiple, smaller donations are more manageable than a larger, one-time contribution. Provide individual supporters with a “subscription” option so they can give smaller monthly sums. 
  • Simplify the donations process. Make giving quick and easy by adopting a mobile-friendly donation service. Take advantage of your volunteer management solution to segment your volunteers and ask for donations. Don’t forget to point directly to your donations page in your newsletter, social media, and text messages. 
  • Keep supporters engaged. Foster long-term relationships with your volunteers. Use our recognition tactics above, reach out to your volunteers regularly, and let them know how their contributions make a difference. 

Times of collective hardship can bring out the best in people. But even if we begin to feel fatigued, you’ll need to continue to inspire your supporters. First and foremost, thank your volunteers and donors for uplifting your program throughout COVID-19. Then, let your volunteers know how they can continue to help secure a brighter future for your community.

2. Many Volunteer Programs Adapted Quickly

In June 2020, the Independent Sector released a rather discouraging survey, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Large and Mid-Size Nonprofits.” The report highlights the challenges that many organizations faced in the first half of 2020. For instance, 83% of community-based organizations received a reduction in revenue–and that’s on top of the industry’s notoriously restricted resources. 

However, despite these setbacks, many community organizations found themselves called upon to help respond. We saw, and continue to see, volunteer programs at the forefront of COVID-19 response and recovery, with some even helping address vaccine distribution challenges

How did volunteer programs adapt to smaller budgets and even more pressing community needs? 

Community organizations had to find ways to become more efficient. With fewer staff and tighter budgets, many programs found that adapting time-saving technology was a cost-effective way to “get stuff done.”

While we are still in the throes of the pandemic, now is not the time to rewind progress. With this in mind, how can your organization continue to leverage technology? 

How to Maintain Momentum with Technology

With the help of web-based volunteer management systems and new communication methods, volunteer programs delivered many of their usual services safely. While human-power can’t be replaced, technology can help volunteer professionals re-prioritize management activities. 

Here’s how your program can leverage technology to maintain forward momentum:

Review Your Communications Tools

Intuitive communication tools were crucial for mobilizing volunteers fast in 2020. Take the time to review the tools that worked for you in 2020. Were you able to communicate with volunteers proactively, or were you inundated with questions from lost volunteers? If you think it’s time for a communications upgrade, consider these tools:

Text Messaging

With remote volunteerism and rapidly changing circumstances, 2020 introduced new communication challenges. That’s where text messaging comes in. Mass text messaging (or SMS) enables volunteer managers to get the word out quickly. And because SMS boasts a 99% open rate, text messaging also becomes a powerful marketing tool for any organization. 

Consider adopting a mass text messaging tool. Use text messaging to: 

  • Contact volunteers on the ground
  • Let available volunteers know you need their help
  • Highlight new volunteer opportunities
  • Ask for donations

Check out this list of SMS tools specifically curated for nonprofits. Note that a robust volunteer management system can integrate text messaging!

CRM

A CRM system is more than just a database. It uses data analysis about contacts’ history with your organization (like which emails contacts are reading and who is interacting with your donation page) to help users create more impactful experiences for their contacts. In other words, you can make sure you’re tailoring your communications to each volunteer without sending thousands of individual emails!

Bonus: CRM can compile data from various communication channels, like your website, email, and even social media channels, giving you a more comprehensive picture of engagement.

Adopt Systems for Better Volunteer Management

You’re no stranger to the many moving parts that make up volunteer management. From team scheduling to tracking volunteer time, there’s a lot that goes into keeping your program running. But 2020 taught us that volunteer managers need the tools to mobilize volunteers efficiently.

Many volunteer programs that successfully navigated 2020 were aided by time-saving technology, like a volunteer management system. With its help, they could quickly shift opportunities online, engage remote volunteers, and easily communicate with community partners and volunteers. 

But what system should volunteer professionals look for? There are various volunteer management tools for all budgets, but generally speaking, you get what you pay for. In fact, it may actually be more cost-effective to look for a system that has multiple functions. 

The best volunteer management solution will fulfill many of your technology needs in one system (again, we’re striving for efficiency). Not to mention, it should be easy to use for volunteers and their managers. 

We recommend you look for a web-based volunteer management software with integrated volunteer management, engagement, and communication features, including:

  • Shift scheduling
  • Volunteer registration
  • Volunteer hours tracking and reporting
  • Volunteer mobile app
  • Email, text, and automated notifications
  • Group and corporate engagement
  • Event management
  • Online donations

3. Volunteerism Went Virtual

2020 forced many volunteer programs to implement new systems that allowed people to volunteer virtually and from home. Organizations made creative adaptations to the usual volunteer process–like adding a virtual volunteer program–to boost engagement even when physically distanced.

Virtual volunteerism allowed organizations to maintain their programs, even during stay-at-home orders and physical distancing. Another positive outcome? Virtual volunteering unlocked opportunities for people who were traditionally restricted by on-location volunteerism. 

Consider these ways for supporting your efforts to make volunteerism more accessible. 

How to Support Your Virtual Volunteer Program

Your organization capitalized on virtual volunteering in 2020. Now take your program a step further by making volunteerism even more accessible. The result? You’ll grow your volunteer pool in an impactful way.

Evaluate Your Current Training Methods

Do you still require all volunteers to attend in-person training? Is your training carried out only in English? It may be time to reconsider how you deliver your volunteer training. Here are a few suggestions for making sure all your volunteers are getting the most out of training:

  • Put training materials online. Even if you’re hosting in-person training, volunteers should be able to access and review documents and important information at home. 
  • Use a variety of media. Accommodate more learning styles and abilities by using various methods to deliver your training, whether virtually or in person. Create pre-recorded videos and attach a transcript. Supplement auditory training (any point where you have to do lots of talking) with a Powerpoint or visual aids.
  • Allow for electronic signatures. If your volunteers need to sign waivers or other agreements, collect signatures electronically. It’s super easy for remote volunteers–they won’t have to print, sign, and scan documents. 

By the way, you can check out our guide on virtual volunteering if your online program is still in the works!

Make Opportunities Even More Accessible

If you haven’t already, now is the time to make your volunteer opportunities more accessible so that everyone can get involved! Here are some considerations for creating opportunities for all abilities and availability:

  • Create search filters and labels. Make it easy for volunteers to find an opportunity that suits their abilities. Note whether opportunities are wheelchair accessible on your volunteer site. 
  • Be open to suggestions. A volunteer may be passionate about your cause but unable to perform the specific tasks you’re asking of them. Work with your volunteers to find ways they can help. No matter how grand or simple the task, every volunteer can make a difference. 
  • Review your website. Make sure your site is compatible with screen-reader technology and also accommodates those who may experience low vision. We recommend you start with these easy recommendations from UC Berkeley for making your website accessible to many. 
  • Translate important materials. Welcome multilingual and non-native English speakers by ensuring your online materials and opportunities can be translated by online translation services. Recruit multilingual volunteers to translate documents for your volunteers and clients. 

4. Volunteer Programs Took the Time to Review Their Processes

A year as unprecedented as 2020 taught us that there is enormous value in adaptability. That’s because, in many cases, adaptability meant sustainability. The need for an immediate response, plus a little more time for reflection, forced organizations to review the efficacy of their existing processes and strategies. 

As we move forward collectively, take the time to review your processes for securing a more sustainable future. 

How to Foster Sustainability 

How can your organization continue to grow while mitigating future risk? Reflect on your program’s response to the events of 2020. Review the systems and strategies that worked for your organization and those that fell short. The more you can plan, the better prepared you are for an unpredictable tomorrow. 

Make a Plan for Regularly Reviewing Your Mission

Your program may have shifted your mission to respond to immediate needs after COVID-19 reached your community. But as your organization begins to recover, you’ll want to reassess your mission and get back on track. 

Your assessment should include some of the following questions:

  • Does the need that our organization addresses still exist? 
  • Do supporters still understand our mission statement? 
  • Does our mission statement still inspire our supporters?
  • Are we focused on our original purpose? 
  • Are we still leveraging our strengths, partnerships, and available resources?
  • Are we maintaining a balance of interests between stakeholders?

After reviewing your mission, develop a strategy for regularly communicating your mission to stakeholders. Visit this article for more on how to make a plan for reviewing and communicating your mission. 

Mitigate Future Risk

While you can’t foresee every disaster (like a once-in-a-century pandemic), you can have a plan in place for safeguarding your volunteers and employees. That’s why every organization should evaluate their risk management and mitigation strategy. 

How do organizations mitigate risk? The key is to anticipate the likelihood of a hazard or risk and the scale of the consequence should an event occur. Understanding risk will help you prioritize planning and mitigation efforts. Check out these EPA resources and risk management tools to help organizations mitigate the harmful outcomes. 

Assess Yourself as a Leader

2020 taught us that positive leadership was imperative to the sustainability of nonprofits. No matter how many you manage or lead, take the time to review your leadership style. Consider these leadership questions for a more meaningful introspective evaluation: 

  • Am I taking the necessary steps to foster equity and inclusivity among staff and volunteers and through our services? 
  • Do I regularly demonstrate empathy and authenticity? 
  • Where and how can I become more transparent? 
  • How can I grow as a communicator? 

It may not be easy to evaluate yourself honestly, but this inward-looking activity can help you grow both professionally and personally. 

Leverage Your Data

Successful programs make informed decisions based on insights from actual data. One of the keys to creating a sustainable volunteer program is ensuring your volunteers are happy and regularly engaged. Here are some data insights that can help you make better decisions about the future of your program:

  • Collect feedback with volunteer satisfaction surveys. Compile your insights to detect themes and make directed improvements to the volunteer experience. 
  • Learn about your volunteers’ interests and skills. Understanding what your volunteers are passionate about can help you better match them to opportunities they’ll love. Create a profile for each volunteer to store individualized data. 
  • Measure program impact. Learn the impact of each program or initiative you run. This will help you make informed decisions about allocating resources. 
  • Gather volunteer donation data. Determine where, when, and how much your volunteers donate. Volunteers may contribute more than you think to your organization, and you may decide to bolster your volunteer donorship campaigns. 

How can you collect volunteer data? 

The challenge with data collection is that you have to store it somewhere. You also want easy access to your data without combing through pages of spreadsheets. 

A volunteer management software stores and centralizes all your volunteer data, from contact information to skills and interests to impact data. Look for a system that automates the tracking and reporting process to save time on manual data entry. 

5. Volunteer Programs Grew Their Networks

In 2020, we learned (or relearned) that relationships matter. For many communities, addressing its most pressing needs required a collaborative effort. 

When resources were tight, community organizations, leaders, and stakeholders relied on each other to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Your organization may also have developed new partnerships in 2020 to respond to your community’s immediate needs. Now is the time to nurture your network and continue to grow for good. 

How to Nurture Your Expanding Networks

It’ll take some effort on your part, but nurturing your partnerships leads to better outcomes. 

Why nurture your network? Whether you’re a small single-cause organization or a county-wide volunteer center, partnerships help your organization to have more impact. 

The Benefits of Well-Nurtured Community Partnerships:

  • Reach new (and more) clients
  • Share resources for larger impact
  • Grow your volunteer pool
  • Access more supporters through local businesses

Here are some ways to maintain mutually-beneficial partnerships:

Create Regular and Personalized Correspondence

Of course, if you want to nurture your network, you need to remind them that you still exist. Just as you regularly engage volunteers, you also need to engage community partners regularly. 

But nurturing these partnerships requires more than a generic email. Put time aside each week to engage with your partners by reaching out in a way that feels more personal. For example, if you’re working with a corporate partner, share their employee impact data each quarter (which becomes much easier to collect using a robust volunteer management system). Or feature a partner organization on your social media channel. Show stakeholders that you’re invested in their ideas by inviting them to participate in a virtual symposium.

There are plenty of creative ways to keep your network engaged. Whichever way you choose to communicate with your stakeholders, make sure you do so regularly and genuinely. 

Communicate the Benefits

Partnerships should benefit both parties. When you first establish a new relationship, whether it’s with a corporate partner or volunteer, you’ll want to communicate the benefits of working with your organization. Outline these benefits in writing and, most importantly, make sure you deliver on your promises. 

Foster Trust

Forming long-term partnerships requires mutual trust, and you need to establish a foundation of understanding between parties for the partnership to proceed successfully. One of the best ways to foster trust is by listening. Invite dialogue within your network; 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? 

You’ll get more out of your relationships when you establish an environment of mutual trust and communication. 

Why focus on the good? It would be appropriate to continue to report on the challenges that many faced in 2020. But as we start planning for the future, let’s also review the things that were actually good. That is, the adaptations your volunteer program made, the resilience of your community, and the new partnerships you formed. We can all use “the good stuff” as learning experiences–and motivation–for planning a better tomorrow.