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. But experts have expressed that the long-term volunteer is disappearing at an alarming rate.
Now the “episodic volunteer” has catapulted to the forefront of the volunteer landscape; this change marks one of the most significant shifts of our time. These episodic volunteers serve in spurts, usually for four months or less, and sometimes only annually. While episodic volunteers play an important role, nonprofits are facing a dearth of the long-term volunteers it takes to truly support their organizations.
Nonprofits would be wise to focus their attention on building and maintaining relationships with episodic volunteers; this can go a long way toward converting those individuals into long-term supporters. We discussed building volunteer relationships at length with Rachel Eldridge, the Volunteer Services Manager at Habitat for Humanity Charlotte in North Carolina. Rachel has been managing volunteers directly for the past eleven years and is currently overseeing Habitat’s program of 8,000 volunteers. She gave us significant insight into building and maintaining volunteer relationships, which we think will be helpful to other nonprofits.
Overcoming the Challenges of Engaging Volunteers
A survey by one of our clients, United Way of King County, found that a nonprofit’s largest reported barrier to volunteer involvement is a lack of time to manage 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.
Rachel 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.”
A 1994 Points of Light survey found that the most effective volunteer-engagement programs not only employ a designated volunteer manager, but also encourage the entire staff to participate in engagement activities. Rachel echoed this when she said, “[while] it’s easy to feel overburdened, […] you also need to delegate and have other people be a part of your team and a part of your resource.” She 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 [them].”
What is Habitat for Humanity Doing to Build Volunteer Relationships?
Habitat for Humanity Charlotte tries to cultivate personalized relationships in an effort to turn episodic volunteers into long-term supporters. Rachel mentioned the following tactics to build volunteer relationships:
- Visit volunteers. One way that Habitat for Humanity is bolstering volunteer relationships is by visiting volunteers at the construction sites and at ReStore, their donation center. This gives volunteers the chance to see and interact with program leaders, and ask to questions about the organization.
- Consider a volunteer’s strengths. You can also increase volunteer engagement by considering your volunteers’ strengths. Rachel says 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.”
- Show appreciation. Rachel also suggested holding an appreciation event for your volunteers. These events acknowledge their hard work and can go a long way in creating relationships. If you do not have the budget for an event, simply spend time writing thank-you notes or emails.
How You Can Use Technology to Your Advantage
Especially in larger programs, it is difficult to keep track of a volunteer’s information. Rachel described a decentralized process where “you’re doing one thing in your database, one thing in your email, and one thing someplace else.” This can make maintaining volunteer relationships cumbersome, as their information is scattered throughout several different databases and isn’t easily retrievable as a whole.
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.
Habitat started using volunteer management software to facilitate volunteer relationships. She said, in general, “software [can] really can save you a lot of time,” especially in cultivating and sustaining these relationships. This is because software helps you personalize correspondence, as well as store information about 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. Automation that allows you to to auto-fill first names inside of emails, trigger thank-you notes, 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.
Converting Corporate Volunteers into Long-Term Supporters
Rachel mentioned that she encounters a lot of corporate volunteers in her organization. Corporate volunteers, or those who serve with their company, are almost always episodic volunteers. They come to your organization one day a year for something like a Day of Impact, and then you won’t see them until the next year. So what can you do to turn these episodic, corporate volunteers into those with a long-term commitment to your nonprofit?
Rachel says a great opportunity to foster long-term commitment is the “goodbye moment.” When you’re wrapping up a volunteer opportunity, thank your volunteers for what they did. Talk about next steps in helping your organization. Communicate in-kind opportunities, ask them to follow you on social media, and share individual opportunities in the hopes that a person from the corporate group was intrigued enough by that first volunteer experience that they want to come back as an individual volunteer.
One of Rachel’s goals is to reach out to more corporate volunteers to thank them individually, instead of just thanking the group leader. Because Habitat is using automation, it’s easier to generate a list of email addresses for everyone who worked on a specific house. They can then use their software to follow up with each corporate volunteer after the initial opportunity. These points of contact help Habitat build personal relationships with their corporate volunteers, which may well convert them into the loyal, long-term volunteers Habitat needs.
As the long-term volunteer continues to decline, nonprofits must try harder to engage their episodic volunteers. Habitat for Humanity is working diligently to engage both their individual and corporate volunteers to deepen their commitment to Habitat’s cause. One tool they use is volunteer management software, which can be an excellent resource for any nonprofit. Not only can this kind of software help you track and manage volunteerism, but it can be a great tool for personalizing communications and keeping track of your volunteers’ interests. By using a similar tool and following some of the advice Rachel Eldridge shared with us, your nonprofit can begin strengthening your long-term volunteer programs as well!
A special thank you to Habitat for Humanity Charlotte and Rachel Eldridge for their contributions.