The answer is resounding: a sense of community!
We surveyed our network of volunteer leaders, and they all agree; programs that focus on building community keep volunteers coming back time and again.
In this article, we’ll share the real reasons that volunteers value community and the ways in which you can nurture these connections in your own program.
- What is a “Sense of Community'' in Volunteer Programs?
- Why is Community Important for Volunteers?
- What are the Benefits of Investing in Your Volunteer Community?
- How Can Volunteer Managers Cultivate Community?
What is a “Sense of Community'' in Volunteer Programs?
‘A sense of community’ can be described as a feeling of shared purpose or belonging between members of a group. The group can be knit together by shared interests, cultural background, or other factors that unite them.
Members of a community believe they matter to those around them, and they feel confident that their needs will be met as they work towards a shared purpose or goal. Inclusivity is at the heart of a community-focused approach; volunteer programs should take care to create a welcoming environment for all types of volunteers.
We surveyed over 125 volunteer leaders on the #1 reason their volunteers serve with them. After compiling their responses, we realized that time and again, their answer was community.
After all, what motivates a group of people to get up early on Saturday morning to head to your organization and pack boxes? It's not just that they care about the cause, but it's also the experience of smiling faces, warm greetings, and friendly conversations over a cup of coffee while getting started with their tasks.
These are the small moments that build a "sense of community.”
Why is Community Important for Volunteers?
Many people choose to volunteer in search of a sense of belonging. They may seek connection through the common causes or activities that your organization supports. Perhaps they hope to experience personal growth, develop skill sets, expand their networks, or be close to those who are making an impact in their hometown. Many people choose to volunteer in hopes of making new friends and return again and again because they are connected to the community they've gained at your organization.
Whatever the reason someone chooses to volunteer with your organization, take a look at the ways you build a sense of community in your organization and you'll find the key to success!
What are the Benefits of Investing in Your Volunteer Community?
The reality is, building a thriving volunteer community takes intentional effort. Time is an often-cited barrier, along with communication and limited staffing resources. However, these challenges are far outweighed by the benefits of investing in a volunteer community.
One of the greatest impacts of nurturing a volunteer community is the increased return on investment. This means that your organization gets more resources out of its volunteer program than it’s putting in. When organizations create a thriving community, they can maximize their limited human resources, build capacity, and increase donor engagement.
Building a community atmosphere can also help bolster volunteer retention efforts. Research shows that high volunteer turnover can disrupt an organization’s operational efficiency, and might even have an effect on its ability to render essential services. Thus, organizations with strong, engaged volunteer communities can consistently rely on its committed supporters, and may even perform better work.
Now that you know the importance of investing in a volunteer community, let’s look at some ways in which you can begin cultivating these connections in your own organization.
How Volunteer Managers Can Cultivate Community
Fostering community amongst volunteers should be a top priority. By making a commitment to community, leading with a volunteer-focused approach, and encouraging volunteers to build community together, your organization can nurture the social connections that will allow your program to thrive.
1. Make a Commitment to Community
Adopting a community-oriented attitude to volunteer management fosters a culture of shared values, responsibilities, and successes. Your volunteers are even more likely to stick around if they have a sense of belonging to your community! Therefore, prioritize community in your everyday operations by focusing on these following tactics:
Incorporate “community” into your mission statementVolunteers are the key to program success; therefore you’ll need to keep their experience at the forefront of your mission. Make one of your key mission objectives to nurture a thriving community where volunteers feel welcomed for years to come.
Nurture volunteer leadersWhen your organization adopts an internal focus on leadership and volunteer mentorship, it may lead to a change in your volunteers’ world views, the growth of new relationships, and the mastery of new skills. This can create a sense of loyalty and alignment with your mission.
Say hiMake sure that all of the staff- not just those on the volunteer coordination team- make it a habit of saying hello to volunteers. After all, volunteers are the lifeblood of many organizations, and they appreciate being acknowledged! It might not always be possible for volunteer leaders to greet volunteers, especially when the opportunity is happening off-site. In this case, find creative ways to say hi, like a volunteer packet with an intro, a text message at the beginning of their shift, or a special message during check-in.
2. Lead with a Volunteer-Focused Approach
Volunteer leaders know that the best way to succeed is by prioritizing their volunteers. When volunteers feel like their experiences and opinions are valued, you’re more likely to see increased satisfaction, a boost in performance, and a reduction in turnover rates.
Follow these tips for incorporating a volunteer-focused mindset in your program:
Focus on the volunteer experience
You should always consider the volunteer experience. What is the process like for volunteers? Does onboarding help them feel well-informed about your mission and integrated into the community? Can a volunteer orientation help instill a sense of unity?
Create a culture of communicationAre there opportunities to personalize your communication, whether in your email marketing or elsewhere? Do volunteers know how to get in touch with questions or concerns? This transparency and openness in communication can create a foundation of trust in your program.
Offer recurring volunteer opportunitiesWhen volunteers attend regularly scheduled shifts, they are more likely to get to know the nonprofit’s community. This can also help foster friendship and social connection which is proven to have health benefits.
Have a system for matching interests and skillsOrganizations who consider volunteer interests are more likely to enjoy greater retention and engagement. Volunteers are most engaged when they are passionate about a cause, and their skills are used for good. Another fun way to build community is by pairing new volunteers with seasoned volunteers who can teach them new skills!
Host gatherings (in person/online/hybrid)By regularly hosting meetings, gatherings, or events, your volunteers will naturally mingle and get to know one another. Volunteers will begin looking forward to these occasions.
Listen to volunteers and ask for feedbackIn order to cultivate trust and mutual respect, your organization should remain open to community feedback and act on the suggestions of your supporters. One way that you can stay informed is through quarterly or annual volunteer surveys. Be direct, and listen carefully to their feedback. This will make your volunteers feel heard and appreciated. If a volunteer has left your program, make sure to have a conversation with them to learn more about their decision to leave, while thanking them for their contribution. This will help you to learn more and retain a vibrant community down the road.
3. Encourage Volunteers to Build Community Together
Organizations can only help facilitate community-building; real relationships are forged by the people themselves. When people feel like they belong and that the relationships they have matter, they are more likely to remain serving with your organization.
Use the following techniques to empower volunteers to add to the dynamic community you’re already cultivating:
Wear name tagsEncourage both volunteers and staff to wear name badges with their pronouns (go green and make reusable ones!). This is the easiest way for others to get to know each other.
Cater to groupsDoes your organization have the capacity to welcome families, work groups, students, or volunteer teams? When people volunteer with others, they experience increased happiness and satisfaction. Your program will win too- more people means more impact and greater community networks!
Provide organization or program T-ShirtsResearch the themes, passions, and interests that tie together your volunteer community. Then, design a t-shirt with these assets in mind. This will help volunteers feel even more connected with one another and your cause.
Create a dedicated space for online engagementVirtual volunteerism is here to stay. Make sure that you provide a dedicated online space for your volunteer community. This could take the form of a private Facebook group, a Slack channel, or a social media platform.
It’s true that many of the benefits of a volunteer community are intangible. It might simply mean that volunteers ‘want to be there’ and feel happy to spend their time with your organization. But be sure: while a community takes time to build and requires a dedicated effort, your program will see tangible results, increased volunteer retention, and prolonged volunteer engagement!