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How to Build a Healthy Volunteer Culture at Your Organization

Use this guide to nurture a sustainable and community-focused culture of volunteerism

Free volunteer survey templates

Picture a volunteer walking through your organization’s doors for the first time.

What is the immediate feeling they get when they take it all in? Is your organization’s culture inviting and friendly? Bustling and energized? Stressed and resentful? 

If you want to attract volunteers who are enthusiastic about the work that they do, you’ll need to pay attention to the volunteer culture at your organization. If your program lacks a healthy volunteer culture, your volunteers are much more likely to quit and share negative opinions about your organization.

A healthy volunteer culture is not created overnight, and must be mindfully cultivated throughout the volunteer lifecycle. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into how to nurture a healthy, sustainable volunteer culture that empowers your volunteers, your organization, and your community.

What is a Volunteering Culture?

An organization’s volunteer culture refers to its values, goals, beliefs, and behaviors that shape the volunteer experience. Your volunteer culture is communicated in the way your program addresses difficulties, how volunteers and staff interact with one another, and in the things that your organization finds important.

Volunteering culture shouldn’t be thought of as an extra item on the ‘to do’ list; rather, it’s something your organization will slowly build and grow over time.

An organization’s volunteering culture can shift and change, and can even turn from healthy to unhealthy and vice versa. Therefore, it’s best to think of a volunteering culture as something intentional and evolving, rather than fixed.

Why is Volunteer Culture Important? 

Volunteer culture plays a supportive role in helping you reach program goals and fulfill your mission; it also has one of the largest impacts on volunteer retention and turnover.

When your organization embodies a positive volunteer culture, your volunteers will be engaged, invite their friends and families to join, and turn into recurring donors and supporters.

On the other hand, a negative volunteer culture breeds dissatisfaction, volunteer burnout, and conflict. A negative volunteer culture can be the result of one or more difficult volunteers, or it could be a larger, systemic problem within your organization that requires careful undoing. 

Characteristics of A Healthy Volunteer Culture

Healthy volunteer cultures are characterized by well-communicated values and practices that create a welcoming, motivating, and empowering environment for volunteers. 

When you have a healthy organizational culture, volunteers are drawn to your mission, their collective efforts are bolstered by strong leadership, and they receive the guidance and resources they need to perform well in their roles.

A healthy volunteer culture will not only enhance your organization’s ability to achieve its mission, but it will lay the foundation for sustainable volunteer engagement. This will make your organization stronger and more resilient as it works to achieve its mission.

Here are some characteristics of a healthy volunteer culture:

Open communication

Open communication with volunteers is a hallmark of healthy volunteer cultures; in these environments, volunteers feel safe to express their feedback, ideas, and issues. 

Strong volunteer leadership

Your volunteers will look to program leaders to set the tone of their experience. Volunteer leaders who are skilled at providing guidance, empowerment, and encouragement can positively influence the program’s culture.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

Healthy volunteer cultures enthusiastically embrace diversity and inclusion. They design volunteer experiences for a diverse volunteer base, and fully believe that a variety of perspectives (particularly those that differ from their own) is best for achieving community goals. For practical resources on embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion, visit the Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement website.

A focus on ethics

The healthiest organizations have a documented Code of Ethics that  promotes a safe environment for all volunteers. These ethical guidelines cover the behaviors that your organization finds acceptable and safe; by removing ambiguity from the volunteer experience, your organization can be more accountable to its volunteers and the community.

Volunteer recognition

 Volunteers are not dispensable. Recognizing volunteers for their time and contributions is a cornerstone of a healthy volunteer culture.

Mutual respect

Volunteers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity during their time with your organization. Creating a culture of mutual respect involves a framework for healthy two-way communication.

Emphasis on safety

When an organization prioritizes the safety and well-being of their volunteers, they are reinforcing their commitment to their volunteers and the community. This can include anything from purchasing volunteer insurance to an emphasis on thorough volunteer training.

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Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Volunteer Culture

When your organization’s volunteer culture turns unhealthy, you’ll notice reduced engagement, a decrease in volunteer satisfaction, and an overall negativity surrounding the volunteer experience.

It’s essential for organizations to recognize the warning signs to prevent a toxic culture from taking hold in your volunteer program.

Here are the hallmarks of an unhealthy volunteer culture:

Volunteers are quitting

High volunteer churn indicates that your organization is not meeting volunteer expectations, and could be an indicator of issues in the organization.

Volunteers are experiencing burn out

Burnout happens when volunteers experience disproportional work-related stress, impossible demands, and too little support from program leaders. Burnt-out volunteers will usually make the decision to quit. Combat this by setting accurate expectations and providing adequate support from the beginning.

Volunteers are disconnected from your mission

If your volunteers are showing little enthusiasm or understanding of your goals, they may be detached from your core mission. They may also feel unclear or lack an understanding of how their work is impacting the organization and the community. This is why sharing impact with your volunteers is important in promoting a healthy volunteer culture. 

Low volunteer morale

When your volunteers appear disengaged, disheartened, and unmotivated, these signs can point towards low volunteer morale. Volunteers may show disdain for tasks or stop taking initiative. 

You receive negative volunteer feedback and reviews

Pay attention to both the formal and informal volunteer feedback you are receiving. This may be shared with the organization, online, or amongst each other during their shifts. If the overwhelming majority of this feedback is negative, then the health of your organization might be to blame.

Download these free Volunteer Survey Templates

How to Build a Healthy Volunteer Culture

A healthy culture is essential for the success of your volunteer program. If you want a vibrant program infused with the spirit of engagement, camaraderie, and commitment, then a focus on positive culture is the way to go. By building a healthy volunteer culture, you can even boost program productivity and longevity!

Here are the 6 steps to building a healthy volunteer culture:

1. Assess Your Current Culture

Begin by taking stock of your existing volunteer culture. You might do this by reviewing your volunteer turnover rates, surveying your volunteers, conducting exit interviews or focus groups, or otherwise gathering feedback to understand how your volunteers have experienced and perceived their time with your organization. You should also assess whether your current culture is a true reflection of your organization’s values and goals. This baseline assessment will reveal where your program currently stands and can help you pinpoint specific areas for improvement.

2. Define the Kind of Volunteer Culture You Want

After assessing your current culture, you should clearly outline the specific characteristics and attributes you want to have in your volunteering culture. You might highlight factors like inclusivity, collaboration, passion, and celebration. By defining your ideal culture, you can create a clear goal for your organization and program leaders to work towards.

3. Develop a Volunteer Handbook

Next, you’ll want to draft (or revise) a comprehensive volunteer handbook. This will serve as a reference guide for both program leaders and volunteers. It should include all essential information such as your organization’s mission statement, code of conduct and ethical principles, volunteer role and responsibilities, volunteer training, policies and procedures, and processes for effective communication. A thorough volunteer handbook ensures that all volunteers are receiving the same information and can help maintain consistency and clarity in your volunteer program. 

4. Choose Leaders Who Embody Program Values

Do not underestimate the effect of poor leadership on volunteer culture; this is one of the single greatest causes of low morale and volunteer turnover. When appointing someone to a leadership position, make sure that you are prioritizing people who not only possess the necessary hard skills (such as organizational skills, experience, or the “correct” educational background), but also search for a person who truly embodies the soft skills (i.e., empathy, compassion, and problem-solving) that support the values and mission of your organization. Volunteer leaders are the face of your organization, and will serve as role models and mentors to volunteers. Their actions create and reinforce the volunteer culture, so make sure you choose volunteer leadership wisely. 

5. Create a Volunteer Communications Plan

Create a volunteer communications plan that outlines how you will communicate with your volunteers. This should include the channels of appropriate communication, such as social media, your volunteer management software, email, or text messaging. Your communications plan should be aimed towards keeping volunteers informed, engaged, and invested in the organization’s mission and programs. 

6. Focus on Volunteer Recognition

One of the best ways to retain happy, engaged volunteers is through a formalized volunteer recognition program. But remember, not all accomplishments are quantitative. It’s also a good idea to recognize dedication, teamwork, and innovation as part of your volunteer culture-building efforts. By appreciating and celebrating the achievements of your volunteers, you are encouraging them to stay committed to and supportive of your cause.

In conclusion, growing and cultivating a healthy volunteer culture is not just best practice, but it’s a key indicator for the longevity of a volunteer program. By understanding the characteristics of a healthy volunteer culture and why it’s important, you can more easily identify the warning signs of a toxic culture and turn it around. Remember, building a healthy volunteer culture is an ongoing process that does not happen overnight. Rather, it requires dedication and ongoing improvement. But if your organization makes a commitment to fostering a healthy culture of volunteerism, then the result will be a healthy, sustainable volunteer culture that empowers your volunteers, your organization, and your community!

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