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How to Start a Volunteer Program: The Ultimate Guide

According to the most recent statistics, over 77 million Americans volunteer, and their time is worth $167 billion annually. The takeaway? Communities across the country rely on volunteers to provide necessary services.

All kinds of organizations–from nonprofits to businesses–employ volunteers to help make real change. And a volunteer program mobilizes volunteers to maximize impact.  

Starting a volunteer program is about more than taking on a few volunteers. It requires careful coordination and the right tools to make the best use of your volunteers’ time. 

But with the right tools and thoughtful planning, setting up a successful volunteer program becomes both achievable and rewarding. 

FREE DOWNLOAD: Get our easy, step-by-step guide to planning out your volunteer program

It's important to develop a clear volunteer program mission statement.

1. Create a Volunteer Program Mission Statement 

The first step in creating a successful volunteer program is to develop a mission statement. 

A strong mission statement helps steer the planning process and drive your efforts moving forward. What’s more, a clear mission station is one key component of winning grants

To develop an effective mission statement, you’ll want to have a clear sense of your volunteer program’s purpose. Start by addressing these questions to help inform your mission statement: 

What are you looking to achieve? 

Begin by brainstorming the purpose of your volunteer program, or what you hope to accomplish by starting a volunteer program. Once you’ve agreed upon your volunteer program’s mission, you can write a clear, well-directed mission statement

So, when starting a volunteer program, you may consider facilitating a discussion or brainstorming session in which you and your team zero in on your program’s overall purpose. 

Use these questions to help guide you:

  • What impact do we hope our volunteer program will have? 
  • What specific communities will our organization serve?
  • Where do we anticipate needing volunteers? 
  • How will volunteers align with our program’s aim?
 

Where do volunteers fit into your volunteer program? 

As a part of your program’s planning process, you’ll want to understand how your volunteers will help you achieve your mission. Consider these questions:

  • Where are your resources limited, and how can volunteers help fill these gaps? 
  • How many volunteers will you need to accomplish your goal? 
  • How many volunteer hours? 
  • How will you communicate your volunteer program’s mission to volunteers?
  • To get a clear sense of where your volunteers fit into your volunteer program, you may consider conducting a volunteer needs assessment.
 

What should you name the volunteer program?

Naming your volunteer program may be more important than you think. A memorable volunteer program name will catch supporters’ attention and help it stand out from the crowd. 

Check out our list of 50 creative volunteer program names for all types of volunteer programs and causes. 

What are the characteristics of an effective mission statement?

Now that you understand your program’s purpose, you’re ready to write your mission statement. Here are a few fundamental components of a successful mission statement: 

The mission statement addresses an unmet problem or need.

There’s a good chance you want to set up a volunteer program because you have identified or experienced a gap in service within your community. 

To identify these needs, you may consider conducting a community needs assessment. Having a sense of what is important to community members will help guide your volunteer program. 

Your community needs assessment should accomplish these two goals: 

  1. identify gaps in service in your community
  2. determine how volunteers can help to address these needs
 

> > > Learn more about how to assess your community’s needs.

The mission statement is focused and succinct.

The best mission statement focuses on the volunteer program’s purpose while placing your organization in a broader social context. 

You can accomplish this in just a few sentences. We like this short but sweet mission statement from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS):

  “[Our mission is] to create content that educates, informs, and inspires.”

The mission statement inspires stakeholders. 

Stakeholders (like your donors and volunteers) should feel connected with your mission and inspired to support your cause. Take this example, from the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It’s specific, articulate, and inspiring:

“Producing and presenting the greatest examples of music, dance, and theater; supporting artists in the creation of new work; and serving the nation as a leader in arts education.” 

Remember, the mission statement helps keep your volunteer program on track; revisit your mission statement frequently.

Set your program up for success with specific volunteer program goals.

2. Set Your Volunteer Program Goals

Once you have established your program’s purpose, you’ll want to plan how your program will carry out its mission.

Goal-setting gives your volunteer program direction; goals also drive your volunteer program forward. 

In addition to setting goals for your volunteer program, you should also set specific objectives for your volunteers. One of the best ways to show your volunteers that you value them is to help them set achievable goals and celebrate their successes. 

Setting SMART Goals for Volunteer Programs

Set SMART goals for your program and your volunteers. SMART is a common criterion used by businesses, nonprofits, and individuals during the goal-setting process. 

Your SMART goals should be:

Specific – Are your goals focused? Avoid vague, overly general statements. 

Measurable – Can you quantify program outcomes?

Attainable – Can you achieve these goals with the resources available? Your objectives can be ambitious, but should also be realistic based on your capacity. 

Relevant – Do your goals make sense for your organization? Do your goals align with your mission? Your goals must lead to useful, relevant outcomes for those you serve. 

Time-based – What is your timeframe for achieving these goals? Setting a deadline will help you develop a clear plan and motivate staff and volunteers. 

Who Should Set Volunteer Program Goals?

Your volunteer coordinators, staff, stakeholders, and volunteers should all be involved in the goal-setting process. Together, formulate overall program goals, as well as role-specific objectives. 

Your volunteer coordinator goals will differ from the goals you set for your volunteers. 

Volunteer Coordinator Goals [Examples]:

  • Create a safe space for youth to explore the visual arts.
  • Improve the safety of town parks through trash clean-up and tree-planting weekends. 
  • Provide 300 underserved children with backpacks and learning supplies by August 30th.
 

Volunteer Goals [Examples]:

  • Help improve students’ algebra skills. 
  • Plant five trees at the Greenway Improvement weekend event. 
  • Visit senior citizens three times per month. 
 

How to Achieve Your Goals

What actions will you take to achieve your goals? With every goal, identify your staff or volunteers’ actions to accomplish the intended outcomes. 

Assigning actions or activities will help you focus efforts and make sure you, staff, and volunteers consistently meet these goals. You’ll also want to identify indicators of success and strategies to measure goal attainment. 

The following table illustrates one method  in which goal-setting can lead to an actionable plan:

GoalActivitiesIndicatorMeans of Measurement  
Support at-risk students to better prepare them for further education

Identify-at risk students

Train volunteers to provide academic support and guidance

Volunteer meets with assigned student once per week. Follow up regularly.

Improvement in student’s gradesTrack changes in report card over time
Increase in student attendanceCollect attendance data from school 
Student demonstrates improvement in academic and social confidenceObserve changes in behavior, interview student and guidance counsellor  
Learning how to make a strategic plan for your volunteer program is essential.

3. Formulate a Volunteer Program Strategic Plan

How do you create a successful volunteer program? Have a plan. Your plan should outline your approach to setting up the following key components of a volunteer program:

  • Resource Allocation
  • Volunteer Recruitment
  • Volunteer Engagement
  • Volunteer Communication
  • Volunteer Recognition 
 

Now, let’s have a more detailed look at each of these components: 

Resource Allocation

What resources are available to your organization? Here are some resources you’ll want to consider:

  • Funding: What are your predicted program expenses? How will you fund the program? What available grants and fundraising strategies will you employ to support program costs?
  • People Power: What is your program’s staffing budget? Will you require administrative volunteers to help manage the program? 
  • Training: What training do volunteers need? How extensive should the training program be? Who will train volunteers? What materials do you need to train volunteers?
  • Technology: What systems are needed to coordinate volunteers and volunteer opportunities successfully?
 

Once you have determined the available resources, you’ll have a better sense of the assets you need to acquire and your program’s scope. 

As you work to expand your volunteer base (which builds capacity and impact), think about how your resource allocation may change.

Volunteer Recruitment

Volunteer recruitment is essential when starting a volunteer program. So, you’ll need to have a recruitment strategy in place from the outset. 

Volunteer recruitment involves (1) advertising your opportunities, (2) managing new volunteer registration, and (3) screening incoming volunteers. 

Look for ways to streamline your registration and screening process by employing a volunteer management software. That way, you can spend more time on creative processes like marketing your program to potential volunteers. 

Remember, you’re looking for volunteers committed to your cause, so striving for a few committed volunteers rather than many disengaged volunteers may be a more valuable use of your resources. 

Volunteer Engagement

Your volunteer program plan should also include a strategy for engaging volunteers. 

Active volunteers are the backbone of your program. They invest in your volunteer program, and you can count on them to uphold your mission. So, your strategy should address questions like these: 

How will you foster an engaged group of volunteers? How will you engage different types of volunteer groups, like families or teen volunteers? 

Volunteer engagement starts by cultivating a positive experience for each volunteer. Here are some more strategies for better engagement:  

  • Match your volunteers: Opportunity matching ensures your volunteers are best utilized based on their passions, skills, and expertise. 
  • Vary your opportunities: Short-term projects with high-impact are great for new volunteers, as they tend to be more manageable. Once volunteers have experienced success, they’re more likely to commit to long-term volunteer opportunities. 
  • Welcome new volunteers: Welcome new volunteers with a personal email. A volunteer orientation will provide an opportunity for new members to get acquainted with–and invested in– your organization. 
  • Set clear expectations: Involve participants in setting goals and expectations for the volunteer role. Provide adequate volunteer training so that your volunteers feel prepared and invested. Supervise volunteers during their shifts and offer constructive feedback and recognition.
  • Thank your volunteers: Always thank your volunteers for their service. When volunteers feel useful, prepared, and appreciated, they’re more likely to engage in your cause and become committed volunteers and donors. 
 

Volunteer Communication

Establish a simple system of communication between volunteer managers and volunteers. Your plan should allow you to share important information effectively and respond to volunteer queries efficiently. 

A robust volunteer management software will help centralize your communications and automate much of your outreach. 

Volunteer Recognition

Acknowledging your volunteers’ efforts should be an essential component of your program plan. Successful volunteer coordinators consistently thank their volunteers. 

From a simple thank you note to an annual volunteer banquet, there are many creative ways to show your appreciation. 

Volunteer incentive programs are a fun way to engage volunteers and recognize their efforts. Create hours benchmarks and motivate volunteers by creating incentives, like leadership opportunities for your top volunteers (ice cream socials or pizza parties are popular among young participants). 

The important thing is that you establish a consistent, genuine system for letting your volunteers know they’re valued.

Strong volunteer programs are built on strong volunteer relationships.

4. Develop and Manage Your Relationships

Developing a volunteer program requires you to establish good relationships with incoming volunteers. Having an organized system to gather and store volunteer contact information is critical to maintaining these relationships.

How to Organize Volunteers at a Nonprofit

A successful volunteer program is well-organized and attentively managed. In many cases, nonprofits may not have the resources to hire a team of full-time staff to coordinate volunteers. 

With thoughtful processes and a robust volunteer management software in place, the designated volunteer coordinator can manage volunteers and needs with greater ease. 

When putting the groundwork for your volunteer program, keep in mind that a streamlined volunteer process, from registration to check-in, can both foster deeper engagement and substantially reduce administration time. 

How to Start a Volunteer Program Database

A volunteer database quickly becomes the volunteer coordinator’s most essential tool. Generally, the most effective volunteer database is web-based so that all your volunteer contact information is stored online and accessible anywhere. 

Besides storing volunteer contact information, your volunteer program database can also house detailed records on potential volunteers, like their skills, interests, and availability. 

Gathering volunteer information doesn’t have to be complicated! Many volunteer programs use volunteer management software to help manage a growing volunteer base. 

A robust platform optimizes your registration and engagement capabilities, eliminating the need for manual data entry. So, the process of developing and maintaining a volunteer database is easy and automated. 

Review this is of volunteer program FAQs.

Now that you know how to start a volunteer program, let’s review some frequently asked questions to build upon your volunteer program foundational knowledge: 

What is a Volunteer Program?

A volunteer program utilizes volunteers to help address a community need or solve a problem. From nonprofits to businesses, all kinds of organizations rely on volunteers to help make their communities safer, healthier, and happier places. 

How Volunteers Support Your Organization

Many organizations rely on the contributions of unpaid volunteers to:

  • Provide direct services to clients
  • Support vital services by offering skills and expertise
  • Aid fundraising efforts
  • and so much more!
 

During the volunteer program planning process, your organization will determine how it will tap into volunteer time and skills to help achieve your mission. 

What Makes a Volunteer Program Successful?

Successful volunteer programs generally strive to:

  • Address real needs in the community.
  • Forge meaningful relationships with community members in need.
  • Connect volunteers with opportunities that match their passions and skills.
  • Regularly evaluate mission, goals, and processes.
 

To build a successful volunteer program, you’ll want to develop meaningful relationships with volunteers and the community members you serve. Likewise, organizations interested in starting a volunteer program should consider the community’s diverse voices; this will ensure the program’s mission truly addresses a community need. 

What does successful volunteer management look like? 

Effective volunteer management is essential to a well-functioning volunteer program. Volunteer managers should strive to address four main management areas:

  1. volunteer recruitment
  2. volunteer engagement
  3. volunteer scheduling
  4. volunteer recognition
 

By managing each area well, your volunteer program can better support active, long-term volunteers. 

What Tools Can You Use to Manage Volunteer Programs?

There are plenty of tools to help volunteer program professionals–and their volunteers–succeed in their roles. Your tools should help you perform each management area (listed above) effectively and efficiently. 

Here are the top tools for managing a volunteer program:

Communication

A communications tool, like a CRM or email platform, is vital for effective volunteer management. You will use this tool to:

  • store volunteer contact information
  • communicate necessary information
  • engage volunteers with email newsletters, texts, and marketing materials
 

Some volunteer management software options offer an integrated communications tool that allows coordinators to filter and sort contacts already registered in the system. They also provide automated messaging, which helps to streamline communication and save time. 

Registration and Scheduling

Online registration and scheduling can save volunteer program managers hours per week. We found that the best registration and scheduling options integrate with your existing website or volunteer management platform and also allows volunteers to:

  • Register themselves quickly using their contact information
  • Create a profile easily to house contact details, waivers, hours, and interests 
  • Self-select volunteer shifts
 

Hours Tracking and Reporting

Successful volunteer programs track and communicate impact to generate enthusiasm and sustain support from stakeholders. Plus, effective tracking and reporting can help to boost your volunteer program’s return on investment

Look for a volunteer hours tracking tool that allows volunteers and program managers to log hours in multiple ways, such as on-site check-in and flexible hours submission forms. 

Finally, volunteer program coordinators rely on robust reporting tools to quickly pull together the data needed to inspire donors and win grants. 

Check out this list of the most valuable volunteer management technology features, according to volunteer managers. 

Creating a volunteer program doesn’t have to be rocket science. But it should be intuitive. Your program exists because you have identified a gap in service, and volunteers are the change-makers your community needs. 

If you’re learning how to start a volunteer program, take the time to plan each stage of the volunteer management process to address your community’s needs.

Learn more about how to start a volunteer program and the importance of volunteer management software – Get Started