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Volunteer Engagement: Strategies, Surveys, and Best Practices

Volunteer engagement: It’s the secret to keeping your volunteer network happy and activated.

But engagement can also seem somewhat nebulous and difficult to measure, discouraging many organizations from implementing any kind of formal volunteer engagement strategy.

Why engagement? Businesses are realizing that they’re powered by people and motivated, passionate employees drive success. So if engagement is an essential feature of running successful businesses, then why can’t community programs leverage similar strategies to boost volunteer engagement?

If your program is powered, even in part, by volunteers, you need to invest in strategic engagement.

Article Contents:

 

What is Volunteer Engagement?

The goal of volunteer engagement is to build better relationships with your volunteers so they become long-term supporters of your organization. Engagement helps to foster positive connections between volunteers and the organizations and communities they serve, ultimately resulting in positive outcomes for all stakeholders.

To understand successful volunteer engagement, you’ll need to discern what an engaged volunteer looks like.

An engaged volunteer…

  • Demonstrates a sustained passion and commitment to your volunteer program
  • Feels emotionally connected to your mission and invested in your program’s success
  • Feels motivated by volunteering with your organization
  • Enjoys volunteering with your organization
  • Supports and contributes to a positive organizational culture

The reality is that every volunteer isn’t going to feel all of these things toward your organization all the time. However, if you’re working to nurture positive associations with your organization on a consistent basis, you’re more likely to see success in other areas too.

How to Increase Volunteer Engagement

How can you increase volunteer engagement?

To start, you’ll need to develop a thoughtful, consistent strategy.

A volunteer engagement strategy is an investment in your volunteer program. It’s a planned approach to keeping the volunteers you already have happy, informed, and bought into your cause.

At the core of your strategy is fostering emotional connections and better experiences. There are many tactics for accomplishing this, but most activities will fall within the four main components of engagement:

  1. Volunteer Communications
  2. Volunteer Training
  3. Volunteer Feedback
  4. Volunteer Retention

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into each of these components of the volunteer engagement process. But first, let’s outline the factors that make for successful volunteer engagement:

Factors of Success

What makes a volunteer engagement strategy successful? There are three key factors for success when it comes to volunteer engagement (and overall management, for that matter):

1. Patience (and Consistency)

While there are plenty of strategies you can implement immediately, most programs won’t reap the benefits of an engagement strategy right away. Engagement takes time and should be treated as a long-term objective. In other words? Stick with it!

2. Persistence

Don’t give up on your lapsed volunteers. You’ll experience plenty of rejection, busy schedules, and waning interest. And that’s okay. If inactive or episodic volunteers haven’t explicitly told you they’re quitting for good, or they’re just simply not the right fit for your organization, there is still an opportunity to re-engage them.

3. Process

Volunteer engagement requires strategic planning similar to your fundraising or marketing efforts. Volunteers are resources critical to delivering on your mission. So, you need to invest in your volunteer program like you would other critical organizational activities.

Get organized, create a process for engagement, and track your efforts—and we’re here to help!

4. People (Power)

You’ll have plenty of opportunities to automate and streamline your volunteer management process. In fact, there’s some amazing software out there to do the leg-work, administrative tasks, schedule volunteers, and collect data (more on this later in the article). But for now, know that successful volunteer engagement relies on human-centric skills like relationship-building and communication—all skills which you possess!

The Benefits of an Effective Volunteer Engagement Strategy

Why invest in volunteer engagement? Strategic volunteer engagement takes your volunteer program to the next level. Here’s how:

Increase Organizational Return on Investment

It’s a common misconception that volunteers are free. While you don’t pay volunteers for their work, effective volunteer management requires an investment of time and resources.

However, you can make a return on your investment. When applied intelligently, engagement can yield a greater return.

Here are three ways investing in volunteer engagement can actually increase your organization’s overall return:

1. Engaged volunteers are more likely to donate to your organization.

These days, many organizations are receiving a majority of their funding from individual donations. In fact, 85% of volunteers donate to the same organization. Therefore, your volunteers may be some of your best donors; they already trust your organization and support your cause.

Engaged volunteers are more likely to donate both their time and money to your organization.

2. Engaged volunteers are more likely to recommend your organization to their network.

Recruitment is expensive, and many volunteer programs simply don’t have the resources for extensive marketing. That’s why smart organizations leverage word-of-mouth recruitment.

Word-of-mouth is a powerful and cost-effective marketing tactic that relies on your current support base to do the recruiting for you.

When your current volunteers are happy with your organization, they’re more likely to tell their family, friends, and colleagues about your organization, growing your volunteer network without the high cost of other recruitment tactics.

3. Boost retention rates.

High volunteer turnover is expensive. When you break down the time it takes to recruit new volunteers, onboard them, train, and place them, you’re looking at a significant investment of your time.

Placing volunteers who are already trained and invested in your cause is more efficient than finding new ones. Therefore, programs that focus on engagement for the purpose of boosting retention are more cost-effective, resulting in a better ROI.

Build Better Relationships with Your Volunteers

Engagement is a two-way conversation. You support your volunteers, and they’re more willing to support you. You get to know them, and they get to know you.

Engaged volunteers help in a crunch, serve on your board, and mentor other volunteers. It’s intangible moments like these that emerge from the simple yet powerful act of getting to know your volunteers in a genuine way.

Improve Program Outcomes

Ultimately, engaged volunteers perform better. When volunteers are passionate about the work and understand its impact, they tend to perform at a higher level. Volunteers who are using their skills will feel like they are making a positive impact, and are therefore more likely to volunteer with your organization again.

Proven Tactics for Engaging Volunteers

Volunteer engagement will typically consist of four main strategies: communications, training, feedback, and retention. Engagement is a process in that all of these elements should be ongoing, and should continue throughout the volunteer lifecycle.

Let’s take a look at the most essential volunteer engagement strategies:

Digital Communications: Your Engagement Powerhouse

The idea here is simple: When you communicate with your volunteers, they’re less likely to forget about you. Part of the secret to engagement success is reminding volunteers that you still need them.

Today’s methods of communication are efficient and effective. While you should absolutely continue to call volunteers who prefer to chat on the phone, many volunteers’ communication preferences have changed. You may find that a majority of your volunteers prefer to engage with your organization online.

If you want to reach your volunteers (and stay in touch), you’ll need to meet them where they are: online.

Employ these digital communication tools for deeper engagement:

Email

Email is widely accepted as the primary means of communication among organizations and their stakeholders. In fact, it’s how many successful volunteer programs keep their volunteers engaged throughout the year.

We recommend that you email your volunteer network at least once per month. You can even implement a volunteer newsletter—a great way to keep in touch in a casual, friendly way (without feeling like you’re asking too much).

Need some fresh email content ideas? Here are a few to include in your next volunteer email:

  • Featured upcoming volunteer opportunities and events
  • Organizational updates and reminders
  • Fundraising goals and progress
  • Volunteer stories and spotlights
  • Client stories
  • Personal thank yous
  • Calls to action to get involved

To learn more about employing email to boost volunteer engagement, check out this list of email marketing tactics for volunteer programs.

Social Media

Social media is more than just a recruitment tool. A healthy social media presence will keep your supporters thinking about your organization

In order for social media to work, you’ll need your volunteers to “follow” or subscribe to your channels, so make sure to include social media handles in your correspondence. You also need to post regularly, which typically requires a well-planned approach.

If you’re not sure where to start, try focusing your efforts on one of two social media platforms:

  • Facebook is the most popular social media platform, great for events and sharing photos coupled with writing
  • Instagram is well known for visual content, including photos, videos, and stories.
  • LinkedIn is essential for professional networking and great for high-quality group interactions, article sharing, and events.
  • Twitter encompasses short-form writing, great for activism, and quick, enticing calls to action.
  • Try TikTok if you want to engage the next generation of volunteers.

There’s plenty more to learn about engaging your supporters through social media. Our marketing expert compiled these achievable campaign ideas for a winning social media strategy.

Texting

While texting has been around for a while now, it certainly feels like a new frontier for many organizations. Text or “SMS” marketing is becoming an increasingly popular means of reaching customers, donors, and even volunteers.

Whichever tool you choose to communicate with your volunteers, the name of the game is consistency. Consistent, thoughtful outreach will ensure your volunteers remain connected and engaged.

Gather Volunteer Feedback

If you want volunteers to remain engaged, they need to feel invested in the essential processes and outcomes of your program. Successful volunteer engagement relies on open channels of communication.

Tracking volunteer feedback can empower your volunteers, improve their experience, and bolster retention.

There are plenty of ways to collect volunteer feedback. From roundtable discussions to volunteer engagement surveys, these activities signal that you’re willing to listen.

After inviting feedback, it’s important to synthesize results and actually use them to make decisions. This feedback loop is paramount to creating a volunteer culture that respects input from all stakeholders (not just board members).  

Support Your Volunteers Through Continued Training

Training is essential to getting new recruits up to speed and prepared from the outset. However, volunteer training can also be an effective engagement tool.

For many, volunteering is an opportunity to hone skills and obtain knowledge. Support their desire to learn by offering continued training. Whether they want to become better leaders, take on a new hobby, or prepare for a professional career, extend ample training opportunities for even your most seasoned volunteers.

For all things volunteer training, check out our ultimate volunteer training guide.

Focus on Retention

Retention is a major pain point for many volunteer programs. Retention is also a result of positive volunteer engagement.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to help you boost retention rates, including these strategies for retaining volunteers:

Understand Why Volunteers Quit

The goal of retention is to reduce turnover. And to reduce turnover, you’ll need insight into what factors lead to volunteers quitting, particularly your newer volunteers.

These are the top reasons volunteers quit according to volunteer managers:

  • Burnout
  • An unpleasant experience
  • Loss of interest
  • Busy schedules and life events
  • Feeling underappreciated or undervalued

With this information in mind, you can take the necessary precautions to counter volunteer turnover.

Match Volunteers to the Right Roles

Engaged volunteers want to know that their efforts are directly impacting a cause. One of the best ways to keep volunteers interested in your organization is to match them with opportunities they’ll love–remember positive experiences yield greater retention.

But matching your volunteers with the opportunity that’s right for them requires a system for collecting data on each volunteer’s skills, strengths, and passions.

The best way to track volunteer skills and interests is to collect this information when the volunteer registers with your organization. Volunteer management software can streamline the collection and store of this data.

Offer Flexible Programming

Like you, volunteers lead busy lives. And one of the primary reasons volunteers quit is because they can no longer fit volunteering into their schedules.

The solution here is simple: be flexible.

For example, if you want to appeal to working families, offer more evening, weekend, and school holiday shifts. Offer family-friendly opportunities or childcare solutions and create hour-long shifts (some volunteers simply cannot manage those longer 4-hour shifts).

Virtual volunteering is also a great way to keep volunteers active from home.

We have a lot more information on volunteer retention to offer, so if your goal is to increase engagement and reduce turnover, be sure to check out our guide on volunteer retention.

Create Consistently Positive Experiences

Happy volunteers show up time and again to serve their communities. Every volunteer should feel empowered by their choice to give their valuable time to your cause. Thus, forward-thinking volunteer managers need to make an effort to cultivate a satisfied volunteer workforce.

What are the secrets to delivering consistently positive experiences?

Let’s focus on two main factors at play: culture and convenience.

First: culture. In order to engage volunteers, you need to create a culture of community and support.

Many enjoy the camaraderie they experience while volunteering. Fellow volunteers, staff, and clients provide meaningful connections that people look for in a community. Think about ways to foster these moments, through group projects, social events, and communication networks (like group chats and forums).  

Next: convenience. How streamlined is the volunteer experience? Can volunteers get involved easily? If they have to jump through lots of hoops to sign up, or their onsite check-in felt chaotic, they’re less likely to have positive associations with your organization.

Implementing a volunteer management system can streamline nearly the entire volunteer experience, from your website to on-site check-in. A robust option will even automate the hours logging process, removing unnecessary obstacles.

Engagement is about building relationships with people. But many volunteer leaders are so bogged down by administrative tasks like scheduling and data entry that they don’t have time to focus on highly impactful activities that keep volunteers engaged. Volunteer management software can free up your time so you can focus on the most important and impactful engagement measures.

More Creative Ways to Engage Volunteers

Here are a few more creative ideas to boost your engagement strategy:

The Power of a Fun Program Name

Next time you need to name a new volunteer program, event, or team, try these creative volunteer program names. You will not only catch the attention of recruits, but you’ll also ensure your program is memorable for current volunteers.

Dabble in Enneagram

The Enneagram Personality Test is a trendy tool used by employers, team leaders, and individuals to categorize personality types, hone interpersonal skills, and encourage introspection.

While the verdict is still out about the effectiveness of personality tests, inviting volunteers to take the Enneagram quiz can certainly be a unique, just-for-fun way to get to know their collaboration style and motivations a bit better. It may even help them identify the volunteer roles they’ll love best!

Inspire with Quotes

Sprinkle your regular communication with some inspiration and motivation. Quotes about volunteering make enticing social media content and add a special touch to your newsletter, website, and more.

Gamify Volunteerism

Increase engagement by incentivizing volunteerism. Encourage friendly competition by rewarding volunteers for logging hours or bringing friends along. You can learn more about leveraging gamification to encourage sustained participation in your program.

Think Beyond the Holidays

Many organizations see steep increases in engagement over the winter holidays, only to experience a lull in the new year. Engagement requires a year-round commitment. Here’s how you can keep volunteers engaged after the busy holiday season.

Strategic volunteer engagement is instrumental to the success of your organization. These volunteer engagement ideas will help you build a sustainable network of supporters and continuously deliver on your mission.

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