For many years, nonprofit organizations were bolstered by the hard work of loyal, recurring volunteers. People would dedicate significant amounts of time to an organization, week in and week out, typically for a single cause. Yet many organizations today are faced with the challenge of retaining a substantial base of committed volunteers. The “episodic volunteer” has catapulted to the forefront of the volunteer landscape. Episodic volunteers tend to serve in spurts, usually for four months or less, and sometimes only annually. While episodic volunteers play an important role, nonprofits tend to rely on the continued support of long-term volunteers.
Successful nonprofits focus their resources on building better relationships with new and episodic volunteers; this can go a long way toward converting prospects into long-term supporters. To help us develop a deeper understanding of volunteer management best practices, we spoke with Rachel Eldridge, Director of Volunteer Services at Habitat for Humanity Charlotte in North Carolina. Eldridge has been managing volunteers directly for the past twelve years and is currently overseeing Habitat’s program of 8,000 volunteers. She gave us significant insight into building and maintaining volunteer relationships, strengthened by emerging volunteer management systems and technology.
Why Invest in Volunteer Engagement?
Volunteer engagement can seem like a time-consuming “extra” for busy volunteer managers. But with the right tools to streamline your outreach, volunteer engagement is not only achievable, it becomes a necessary practice for a sustainable program. Here, we break down the top three reasons to consider investing more time and resources into a volunteer engagement strategy:
1. Organizations Perform Better Overall
According to this article by the National Center for Family Philanthropy, there is a strong connection between “organizations which operate with volunteer engagement as a core strategy for mission accomplishment, and the overall health and effectiveness of the organization.” Volunteers can fill necessary roles in the field and the office. In fact, many of the nation’s nonprofits are run entirely by volunteers, and even more rely on the regular contributions of volunteer time to sustain operations. In other words, organizations that empower and engage their volunteers effectively tend to manage better overall than the organizations that do not.
2. Improved Sustainability
Programs that “fundamentally leverage volunteers and their skills” are more sustainable over time. First-time volunteers become life-long supporters when they feel their work is both meaningful and impactful. Eldridge regularly puts this into practice, noting that “the more you get to know your volunteers, the more you can design or think of better volunteer roles for them, which will help them stay better engaged with your organization.” So while recruiting new volunteers may be necessary to grow your programs, it’s the loyal volunteers that keep them running.
3. Increased Return on Investment
Organizations that use volunteers are able to accomplish their mission at almost half the median budget of peers operating without volunteers. And effective volunteer engagement can lead to a $6 return on every dollar that an organization spends on managing its volunteers. Furthermore, volunteers donate up to 10 times more money than non-volunteers, and most donate to the organization in which they are involved. Keeping your volunteers returning and engaged with your mission can substantially increase your programs’ capacity and annual impact.
Overcoming the Challenges of Engaging Volunteers
According to the largest United Way affiliates in the country, United Way of King County, nonprofits’ most reported barrier to volunteer involvement is a lack of time to manage and engage volunteers. The national trend toward episodic volunteerism requires that more staff and resources be allocated towards engaging volunteers, but nonprofits are not always equipped to meet these needs.
Eldridge confirmed that engaging volunteers can be difficult, “Depending on the scale of your program […] you always feel like it’s never enough and you’re always being stretched in multiple directions. The challenge is taking the time to really get to know your volunteers–to get out of the office, to go see them, to spend some time on the phone with them, or to remember things from that initial interview.”
While the participation habits of volunteers have changed, so too have the tools available for nonprofit organizations and volunteer programs. Technology specifically designed for volunteer management and engagement has helped volunteer programs strapped for resources accomplish more in less time. Automating management and administrative practices can free up managers’ time, so they can spend it in more meaningful ways (like in-person site visits). So how, specifically, can organizations leverage technology to build better relationships with their volunteers?
How Do Successful Organizations Build Better Volunteer Relationships?
Like Habitat for Humanity Charlotte, your organization can cultivate more meaningful relationships in an effort to turn episodic volunteers into long-term supporters. Fortunately, there are tested tools designed for volunteer management and engagement that can help nonprofits build the capacity to harness the important work of volunteers. Here are some actionable ways nonprofits can build better relationships with their volunteers with a focus on technology:
Harness Volunteer Skills and Interests
One of the most effective engagement strategies is ensuring that your volunteers feel their work is important. Increase recurring volunteerism by leveraging their strengths, skills, and interests through volunteer matching. A streamlined registration process—and the right technology—can help organizations capture important volunteer data during sign-up, like the causes they’re passionate about. A volunteer database will allow you to keep this data organized; some options will automatically recommend opportunities. The benefits are two-fold: (1) understanding your volunteers will allow you to better match them to the right opportunity, and (2) the process of getting to know what your volunteers care about will help you build better relationships with your volunteers, key to improving the overall performance of a nonprofit.
Track Volunteer Data Effectively and Efficiently
Volunteers are more likely to become long-term supporters of your cause when you can provide proof of impact. However, it’s difficult to keep track of volunteer data manually, especially in larger programs. Technology that features automated hours tracking, easy check-in on site, and a volunteer app can automatically capture, store, and assign hours to your volunteers. When you give your volunteers the power to view their own accrued hours, register for opportunities, and search for new ones they’ll love, they’re more likely to stay engaged. Plus, tools like these will save you (the volunteer coordinator) hours on data entry and management.
Decentralized databases can also make maintaining volunteer relationships cumbersome, as information is scattered and tricky to locate. Habitat for Humanity Charlotte started using volunteer management software to facilitate volunteer relationships, “Software really can save you a lot of time,” Elidrige says, because it helps you personalize correspondence, as well as store information about volunteers. Platforms with communication tools can make it easy to sort through volunteers based on their level of involvement, special skills, or passions, so you can tailor your messaging appropriately and quickly.
Convert Corporate Partners
Nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity Charlotte encounter a lot of corporate volunteers throughout the year. Corporate volunteers, or those who serve with their company, are typically episodic volunteers. They come to your organization one day a year for an event like Day of Impact. So what can you do to turn these episodic, corporate volunteers into those with a long-term commitment to your nonprofit?
One of Eldridge’s goals is to reach out to more corporate volunteers to thank them individually, instead of just thanking the group leader. Because Habitat for Humanity Charlotte has automated their systems, it’s easier to generate a list of email addresses for everyone who worked on a specific house. These points of contact help Habitat build personal relationships with their corporate volunteers, which may well convert them into the loyal, long-term volunteers that nonprofits need.
Don’t Underestimate Face Time
It’s important to remember that technology should make administrative tasks and data tracking more manageable. It should not, however, replace people. The best way to build meaningful relationships with your volunteers is to meet them in person. Eldrige makes sure to visit her volunteers regularly at construction sites and their donation store. This gives volunteers the chance to see and interact with program leaders and ask questions about the organization. Eldridge also suggests “reminding your staff that they’re all volunteer coordinators and it’s up to everyone to make volunteers feel welcome at your agency and to engage.” Most importantly, acknowledge the hard work of your volunteers and thank them for their contribution. If you do not have the budget for an appreciation event, simply spend time writing thank-you notes or emails.
As the long-term volunteer continues to decline, nonprofits must try harder to engage their episodic volunteers. Traditional, time-consuming methods of volunteer engagement (such as in-person check-ins, mailed thank-you letters, reminder phone calls, etc.) can be expedited by volunteer management software. But the existence of new technology creates a huge opportunity for organizations to connect with volunteers in new ways. Thus, technology has become a critical tool of volunteer management. Automation that allows you to trigger follow-up emails, send a happy-birthday greeting, update the check-in process, and collect information about causes and interests, can be harnessed to make a volunteer feel valued. These new communication technologies also provide an excellent way to keep in touch with volunteers off-site and in remote locations. All of these touches work to cultivate a sense of loyalty to your organization. Thus, software can actually go a long way in recruiting a long-term volunteer.
A special thank you to Habitat for Humanity Charlotte and Rachel Eldridge for their contributions.