How to Start a Volunteer Program in 4 Steps

Starting a volunteer program is rewarding and integral in fostering thriving communities. But it can feel like a daunting task, and you may not be sure where to begin. Nevertheless, with the right tools and some planning, setting up a successful volunteer program is achievable. We’ve outlined the four essential steps to help you learn how to start a volunteer program. 

First, before you begin developing a volunteer program, it’s important to understand what makes a volunteer program successful. 

FREE DOWNLOAD: Increase the impact of your programs with our Volunteer Program Planning Worksheet

What makes a great volunteer program? 

Successful volunteer programs should 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

In order to build a successful volunteer program, you’ll want to develop meaningful relationships with volunteers and the community members you serve. Building volunteer programs from the ground up is about gathering community voices to ensure your mission is relevant. Once you’ve recruited and engaged volunteers who are passionate about your cause, you’ll want to evaluate your program and celebrate its successes. 

Whether you want to learn how to set up a volunteer program or simply how to start a volunteer group, this volunteer program guide will help you grow your impact in four essential steps:

1. Create a Volunteer Program Mission Statement

The first step in creating a 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 important part of winning grants. When brainstorming your volunteer program mission statement, it may be helpful to consider a few fundamental questions: 

What problem are you looking to address?

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. This assessment should (1) identify gaps in service in your community and (2) determine how volunteers can help to address these needs. 

What are you looking to achieve? 

When starting a volunteer program, ask yourself vital questions that will help you and your team develop a sense of your program’s overall purpose: 

  • 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? 

Once you have an idea of the purpose of your program, you can write a clear, well-directed mission statement. The best mission statements focus on the purpose in just a sentence or two, while placing your organization in a wider social context. Check out these examples of mission statements for volunteer programs.

Where do volunteers fit in? 

As a part of your program’s planning process, you’ll want to understand how your volunteers  will help you achieve your mission. 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 program’s mission to volunteers? To get a clear sense of where your volunteers fit into your program, you may consider conducting a volunteer needs assessment

Naming your program

A note about volunteer program names: Creative names for volunteer programs will draw volunteers to your initiative. For example, United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County hosts an annual “Backpack to the Future” school supply drive. It’s an important cause with a fun, memorable name, and community members look forward to the program each year!

2. Establish Your Volunteer Program Goals

Now that you have a clear sense of the purpose of your program, you’ll want to establish a plan on how your program will address this need. Goals not only give your program direction, they drive it forward. Keep in mind that goals vary by organization; for example, your goals for volunteering at a hospital may differ from a food bank’s volunteer program goals. Consider setting goals that speak to your program’s overall intent, as well as specific volunteer objectives and goals to ensure that both your organization and your volunteers are on the same page. Volunteers want to play an important role in facilitating change. One of the best ways to show your volunteers that you value them is to set achievable goals and celebrate their successes. When thinking about how to start a volunteer program, you may want to consider SMART goals for your program and your volunteers. 

Setting SMART goals for volunteer programs

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? It’s most important that your goals will 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 of action, and motivate staff and volunteers. 

Who should set goals?

Your volunteer coordinators, staff, stakeholders, and volunteers should all be involved in the goal-setting process. As a group, formulate overall program goals, as well as role specific objectives. So volunteer manager goals will differ from the goals you set for your volunteers. 

Volunteer manager/coordinator goals examples:

  • Create a safe space for youth to explore the visual arts.
  • Improve 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. 

Planning for success

What makes a volunteer project successful? Planning project activities! With every goal, you should identify the actions your staff or volunteers will carry out in order to achieve intended outcomes. Planning your actions, or activities, will help you focus efforts, and to make sure you, staff, and volunteers are consistently working to meet thee goals. You’ll also want to identify indicators of success and strategies to measure goal attainment. The following table illustrates one way 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  

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 these key components of a volunteer program:

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

Let’s have a deeper look at each of these areas:

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? Will the program require funding? 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 successfully coordinate volunteers and volunteer opportunities?

Once you have determined the resources that are available, you’ll have a better sense of the assets you need to acquire, as well as the scope of your program. Expanding your volunteer base will build capacity and ultimately lead to greater impact. But keep in mind that growing a volunteer program can take time. 

Volunteer Recruitment

Volunteer recruitment is essential when starting a volunteer program. You’ll want to have a recruitment strategy in place from the outset. Volunteer recruitment involves advertising your opportunities, managing new volunteer registration, and 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 that are 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 plan should include a strategy for engaging volunteers. Engaged volunteers are the backbone of your program. They are invested in your program and you can count on them to uphold your mission. How will you foster an engaged group of volunteers? How will you recruit different types of volunteer groups, like families or teen volunteers? It all starts with a positive experience even before they volunteer. Opportunity matching ensures your volunteers are best utilized based on their passions, skills, and expertise. Short-term projects with high-impact are great for new volunteers. They tend to be more manageable, and once volunteers have experienced success, they’re more likely to commit to long term volunteer programs. Set clear expectations and provide adequate training so they feel prepared and invested–you many consider conducting a volunteer orientation. Supervise volunteers during their shifts and offer constructive feedback and recognition. And 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, clear system of communication between volunteer managers and volunteers. You’ll want to develop a plan that allows you to share important information effectively and respond to volunteer queries efficiently. A good 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. You should consistently thank your volunteers for their time. 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 (an ice cream social or a pizza party will be especially popular for your young participants). The important thing is that you establish a consistent, genuine system for letting your volunteers know they’re valued.

4. Develop and Manage Your Relationships

Developing a volunteer program requires you to establish good relationships with incoming volunteers. Having an organized system in place 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. Volunteers are more likely to participate with your program again when they have a positive experience. When figuring out how to start a 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 create a volunteer database

Are you unsure how to start a volunteer program database? With the right tools, gathering volunteer information doesn’t have to be complicated! Many volunteer programs use a volunteer management software to help manage a growing volunteer base. A platform like Get Connected 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. Your volunteer database should maintain detailed records on potential volunteers including their skills, interests, and how they prefer to be contacted.

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. Learning how to start a volunteer program is about taking the time to research your community’s needs and planning effectively. With the right tools and preparation, you’ll your volunteers up for success!

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