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Growing and Developing Your Volunteer Program

Developing a volunteer program takes time, resources, and strategy. But with careful planning, your volunteer program can become an enduring force for good.

Keep reading to learn how to develop, grow, and scale your volunteer program so you can continue to make an impact and meet the needs of your community.

Article Contents:

Volunteer Program Development: The Nuts and Bolts

You’re tasked with setting up a volunteer program. Now what? Before we begin strategizing, let’s outline the basics:

Why Are Volunteer Programs Important?

When well-managed, volunteer programs are phenomenal resources that can:

  • Aid in the effective and efficient delivery of services
  • Increase an organization’s sustainability
  • Improve an organization’s return on investment
  • Increase donations

Why invest in volunteer programs?

Here’s what happens when we invest in volunteer and community engagement infrastructure:

  1. Volunteer programs have more resources, and volunteer managers are empowered through increased training and time.
  2. Staff is educated in best practices for recruiting, training, placing, and retaining volunteers.
  3. Volunteers are engaged in critical work that advances an organization’s mission.
  4. Organizations experience exponential growth of resources, including services, donations, and community advocates
  5. Communities benefit from engaged citizens and increased capacity for impact

Volunteer programs often operate as part of a larger organization. So while managing volunteers requires time and resources to sustain, volunteer programs can also bring resources into community organizations.

Strong volunteer program development creates a solid foundation for addressing community needs, resulting in increased impact and organization-wide growth.

How to Build a Strong Volunteer Program

Volunteers are the lifeblood of your program. Therefore, strong programs are rooted in good volunteer management. Note that volunteer management is about more than just supervising volunteers. Successful programs plan for all stages of the volunteer lifecycle:

Each step of the volunteer lifecycle requires careful consideration and strategy. To discover more and start building your volunteer management strategy, visit our comprehensive guide on volunteer management.

Key Considerations for Volunteer Program Development

In addition to planning for each step of the volunteer lifecycle, organizations must also consider the resources and strategies required to operate a sustainable volunteer program from the ground up.

How do you create a program that supports volunteers, serves the community, and furthers your organization’s mission?

Here’s what you need to know about volunteer program development:

How to Develop a Volunteer Program Strategy

Volunteer program development entails the planning, management, growth, and sustainability of volunteer programs.

If you want to build a viable program, you need to have a plan. A solid volunteer program strategy will help you stay mission-focused while inspiring stakeholders and funders.

What does volunteer program planning involve?

Your volunteer program should center around the activation and continued management of volunteers and the delivery of impactful volunteer services. Your strategy should include the following action steps:

  1. Assess Community Needs
  2. Define Your Mission
  3. Get Buy-In from Leadership and Key Stakeholders
  4. Outline Goals and Indicators of Success
  5. Research and Secure Funding Opportunities
  6. Define Staff and Volunteer Roles
  7. Develop a Volunteer Recruitment Plan
  8. Outline a Volunteer Engagement Plan
  9. Create Methodology for Measuring Program Data and Communicating Impact

Developing a volunteer program takes a lot of time and thought, but the resources spent during the planning stage lead to better outcomes upon implementation.

Funding is a common concern for many organizations. There’s a misconception that volunteers are free and, therefore, volunteer programs can operate with little cost. However, volunteer programs require leadership, tools, and resources to be impactful. Let’s dive deeper into program funding:

Funding Your Volunteer Program

For volunteer programs to be sustainable, they need to be well-funded. While volunteer programs hope to rely on grants to fund operations, grant funding is rarely earmarked just for volunteer services. There are, however, a few noteworthy exceptions: Volunteer Generation Fund, Leighty Foundation, and FEMA. Some communities and states will also offer to fund specific volunteer projects.

Most often, programs need to get creative when it comes to funding their programs. In this section, we outline a variety of funding options to help you develop a viable volunteer program.

The Volunteer Generation Fund

The Volunteer Generation Fund is a federally-sponsored program designed to strengthen the nation’s volunteer infrastructure by building the capacity of state and local volunteer organizations to recruit, manage and train volunteers.

According to America’s Service Commissions, the goals of the Volunteer Generation Fund, as described in the Serve America Act legislation, are to:

  • Assist nonprofit, faith-based, or other civic organizations by expanding and improving the capacity of these organizations to utilize volunteers
  • Spur innovation in volunteer recruitment and management practices, with the goal of increasing the number of volunteers
  • Enable the people of the U.S. to effect change by participating in active volunteer and citizen service

How to Apply for a Volunteer Generation Fund Grant:

  1. Identify a community need
  2. Design service activities to address this need
  3. Search current funding opportunities and determine eligibility
  4. Submit the application online through the eGrant portal or State Service Commission competition

FEMA Grants

Grant funds are available for pre and post-emergency or disaster-related projects. FEMA offers grants for the following types of programs and initiatives:

  • Emergency Food and Shelter Program - Funds to supplement work done by nonprofits and governmental social service organizations helping our nation's hungry and homeless. Examples: Community COVID relief, sheltering, food distribution, supportive services
  • Hazard Mitigation - Funds for reducing or removing risk before a disaster. Examples: Flood damage reduction, annual funds for planning and projects
  • Preparedness - Non-disaster funds to support citizens and first responders. Examples: Cybersecurity, firefighting, training, and meeting national-level preparedness standards.

Not sure if your volunteer program is eligible? FEMA has helpful tools to help you navigate the grant eligibility and application process.

Google Ad Grants

The Google Ad Grant is a fantastic way for any nonprofit organization to jumpstart its digital marketing efforts. Google Ads has sponsored links that appear at the top of any Google search. Usually, these are paid ads that companies bid on depending on keywords and competition.

One of the reasons why the Grant is so useful is that it is entirely flexible to suit the organization’s needs. So, a Google Ad Grant can be used to drive digital traffic to your website and the campaign of your choice. While some nonprofits may use these ads to increase donors or newsletter subscribers, others might use them to jumpstart their volunteer programs.

Discover how to use Google Ad Grants to fund your volunteer program.

Soliciting Donations from Individual Donors

Nearly 80% of charitable giving comes from individuals. So why not solicit donations from your community members to help fund your program?

Donations can come in many forms: money, expertise, services, and supplies. Some donors may not have the cash to spare but can offer their skills pro bono.

Your organization can also sell branded goods, like t-shirts and totes, to help support your program.

You’ll need to understand strategies for deepening donor relationships in order to create a consistent input of revenue. 

Volunteers as Donors

Your volunteers and donors are more connected than you think. Did you know that 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.

Corporate Philanthropy

Corporate partnerships are invaluable to volunteer programs. From employee volunteerism to workplace giving, leveraging corporate philanthropy can help you raise the funding you need to deliver critical services to your shared communities.

Managing Your Volunteer Program Data

Your data is powerful; it’s critical to unlocking funding opportunities and getting buy-in from stakeholders.

Robust data can also empower you to identify opportunities for growth and enact change. By leveraging your data, you can:

  • Target volunteer recruitment efforts
  • Boost volunteer retention and engagement
  • Direct resources
  • Secure and maintain funding

But collecting and managing your program data can be tricky. There are a lot of moving parts, and many volunteer programs simply aren’t aware of the time-saving tools available for tracking and reporting on their volunteer program.

If you’re not sure what data you need, consider performing a data audit. Data audits can help you uncover key insights, including data gaps and the accuracy and efficiency of your program’s data collection methods.

What kinds of volunteer program data should you be collecting? Here are some key data points that lead to better insights:

  • Volunteer Information. Gather identifying information like names, addresses, email, phone numbers, and demographics.
  • Volunteer Preferences. Record volunteer preferences, interests, skills, and feedback.
  • Volunteer Networks. Tap into your volunteers’ networks by gathering data on the company, church, universities, and community groups they belong to.
  • Hours. Track hours for each volunteer, service, and program.
  • Event Data. Capture attendance records for each event.
  • Donor Data. Track your volunteers’ monetary contributions in addition to their time.
  • Clients Served. Understand how your volunteer program impacts your clients and community by logging client information, such as the number of clients served and demographic data.
  • Program Outcomes. Record the qualitative and quantitative metrics that align with intended program outcomes. Your records may include client stories and surveys.
  • Digital Engagement. Leverage your social media and email tools to understand how your audiences interact with your digital content.

Once you determine your data needs, you’ll need a system for capturing and storing this data.

Historically, organizations relied on paper attendance forms, spreadsheets, and time-consuming input methods to capture and store data. These methods often resulted in inaccuracies or missing data. Fortunately, there are plenty of cost-effective ways to get key insights efficiently.

The best, most cost-effective tools centralize and integrate multiple systems and touchpoints. That’s where volunteer management software comes in. Volunteer management software can actually take the place of many disparate volunteer management and data tracking tools, including email platforms, online sign-up tools, and survey forms.

Tools like Get Connected or Shift empower volunteers with multiple data tracking pathways, like a free mobile app and unique volunteer profiles. Meanwhile, volunteer leaders can access real-time, automated reporting and insights with a few clicks.  

Having the right tools to capture your data will save you time and improve the quality and accuracy of your data, ultimately resulting in better outcomes for your volunteer program.

Making the Case for Your Volunteer Program

Unfortunately, many volunteer leaders find themselves continuously having to justify their volunteer program. Some nonprofit boards see volunteer programs as a cost rather than an investment. We know, however, that volunteer programs can actually increase revenue organization-wide.

The benefits of volunteer programs are plentiful. In some cases, you may simply need to communicate these benefits to stakeholders. Here are a few data-based strategies for justifying your volunteer program:

Return on Investment

Businesses, nonprofits, and investors measure return on investment (ROI) to justify costs and make more informed decisions about allocating resources.

Return on Investment (ROI) is the ratio between the cost of an investment and the return on the money invested (also referred to as “net income” in the financial world). An organization can measure ROI to evaluate the performance or efficiency of an investment, in this case, your volunteer program.

The basic formula for return on investment is:

Return On Investment = (Volunteer Value – Program Cost) / Program Cost

The above calculation will yield the Return on Investment per $1 of the program cost. In other words:

For every $1 invested in your program, x dollars were returned to the community.

A positive ROI calculation indicates that you are getting more out of a program than you’re putting in. The output is greater than the cost—the greater the positive result, the larger your return on investment.

Your volunteer program ROI can give you a clue into the impact of your efforts, and also win stakeholders’ confidence by demonstrating that your program is well-managed and financially sound.

When you work to increase your volunteer programs’ return on investment and demonstrate the viability of your program, you can make a clear case for more resource investment.

Check our article on all things volunteer program return on investment to learn more.

Volunteer Program Report

Another way to get buy-in from your program is to communicate the impact (or intended impact) of your volunteer program. Many organizations choose to compose an impact report. These reports are usually composed and distributed once per year.

The annual report is a review of an organization’s impact, financial standing, and big-picture plans. The best annual reports combine numerical data and anecdotes to create an honest and compelling picture of the program each year.

You can use your impact report to appeal to your organization’s board, funders, and other stakeholders. Therefore, you need to give readers the information they need to feel confident in directing resources toward your volunteer program.

Your report should include the following information:

  • Mission Statement
  • Compelling Data (volunteer hours, volunteer donations received, clients served, impact value of volunteer efforts)
  • Success Stories
  • Summary of Fiscal Year Finances (revenue, expenses, net assets)
  • Next Steps and Plans for the Future
  • Thank You Message for Supporters

How to Grow Your Volunteer Program

You’ve developed a solid framework for your program, and you have a pool of reliable volunteers delivering your services. But now, you want to make an even greater impact in your community. How do you grow your program in a way that’s sustainable and effective?

Program growth goes beyond maintenance. Growth can mean different things to each program, depending on its goals. Here are some indicators of volunteer program growth:

  • Expanding program reach in the community or serving more clients
  • Increasing the number of volunteers
  • Improving the quality or efficiency of services delivered
  • Offering additional programming
  • Increasing volunteer program return on investment

How Do Volunteer Programs Grow Their Programs?

Volunteer programs should focus on activities that improve volunteer management efficiency and increase the resources available. For many volunteer programs, growth stems from four key operational areas:

  1. Recruiting and managing volunteers
  2. Building community partnerships
  3. Volunteer engagement and retention
  4. 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.

Growing Your Volunteer Network

One of the best ways to grow your program is to diversify your resources. Expanding your network of contacts and partners can, in turn, diversify the resources (like volunteers and donors) available to you.

How can you expand your network? Start by leveraging the contacts you already have. Your board, volunteers, donors, and clients are already invested in your cause. Likewise, they make great champions of your program.

Word-of-Mouth Recruitment

One of the most powerful ways to grow is by leveraging word-of-mouth. Word-of-mouth recruitment is a cost-effective marketing strategy that organizations can use to increase brand recognition and recruit more supporters.

How does word-of-mouth recruitment work, you ask?

Think about when you’re looking for a new restaurant recommendation. Sure, some of us will ask Google, but more often, we rely on our trusted relationships, like friends, family, and coworkers. Generally, people are more willing to trust the opinions of people they know over traditional advertising.

You can apply this same concept to your volunteer program. The goal is to get the supporters you already have talking about your organization. To get people talking, you need to present a memorable experience (in a good way!). Focus on building personal relationships with your supporters, make it easy to get involved and bring friends, thank your volunteers regularly, and simply ask your network to spread the word! Before you know it, you’re watching your program grow.

Community Partnerships

Your volunteer program development plan should involve thoughtful outreach with the goal of forming a network of community partnerships. Community partnerships are efficient for both parties, and this network can be critical to an organization’s growth and overall success.

Tap into networks like these to generate more revenue, supply vetted volunteers on a consistent basis, and improve visibility in your community:

  • Schools and campuses
  • Local businesses
  • Other nonprofits or community agencies
  • Faith-based institutions

Fruitful partnerships are mutually beneficial and based on an alignment of values. Before you commit to a partnership, take the time to talk through your goals, vision, and costs (either financial or otherwise).

Social Media

Social media is, at its core, a networking tool. Many organizations have a social media presence, but few have an actionable strategy. By implementing a social media strategy, programs can gain exposure, increase funding, and bolster recruitment efforts.

These are the top five reasons community organizations employ social media:

  1. Share news about their organization
  2. Drive brand recognition
  3. Share news about a cause
  4. Fundraise
  5. Recruit volunteers

Technology for Building a Scalable Volunteer Program

If you want to grow your volunteer program, you need to make it scalable.

Scalability describes an organization's capacity to adapt to increased workload or market demands (in this case, your community’s increased demand for services). A scalable program model is able to quickly ramp up efforts to meet demand while benefiting from economies of scale.

The COVID pandemic demonstrated the importance of scalability: the demand for volunteer services seemed to increase exponentially overnight. Organizations were left wondering how they would meet the demand with limited resources.

Fortunately, scalability is becoming increasingly relevant with the introduction of new technologies designed with volunteer services in mind.

Technology makes it easier for programs to recruit and manage more volunteers while expanding services.

Technology can help volunteer managers do their jobs more efficiently. It certainly should not replace people but rather allow programs to redistribute resources in a more impactful way.

For example, a volunteer manager is charged with scheduling, vetting, and training volunteers, among other responsibilities. Traditional management methods rely on manual scheduling, data entry, and lots of back-and-forth communication. This kind of analog management model is inefficient and not scalable.

However, advances in volunteer management tools allow volunteers to self-schedule and automate communication and data tracking. When volunteers can manage their own schedules and track their own hours, volunteer programs can take on more volunteers. This model is scalable to meet our communities’ increasing demand for volunteer services.

Planning for the Future

It can feel like you’re just trying to stay afloat, but in order to grow, you need to consider the future of your program.

How do you prepare for the future of volunteerism?

There are lots of ways to futureproof your volunteer program. The key to sustaining momentum is to plan ahead.

For one, you can stay up to date on trends in volunteerism, from microvolunteering to best practices in virtual volunteer management. Set aside time each month to research best practices, subscribe to your favorite blogs and resource centers, or take a training course.

Next, prepare your volunteer website and tools by making them mobile-friendly. Check your website’s performance on mobile devices, consider a volunteer mobile app, get familiar with text messaging en masse, and upgrade your donations platform. We’re spending more time on our smartphones than ever before, and your volunteers are no exception.

Finally, safeguard your organization by mitigating future risks. Strengthen your organization’s cybersecurity and, if you haven’t already, come up with a risk management plan.

While developing your program requires time and resources, these volunteer program ideas will set you up for success now and in the future.

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