Want to increase volunteer retention? Here’s how to do it and enjoy the process

Let’s start the New Year by taking a show of hands. How many of you subscribe to this belief?

Creating a strategic plan for a volunteer program is a waste of time. It’s an abstract document, created to please leadership, and destined to gather dust on a shelf.

I’m seeing a lot of hands raised for this virtual poll. In volunteer management, where we are doers who spend our time getting things done, it may be hard to believe that creating a strategic plan is worth the time spent to create it. Even if your team begins the process with a lot of energy, how do you motivate your team to keep going as other demands eventually take priority? And is it even worth the effort? It’s Doable — Here’s Proof The short answer is yes – and here’s the example to prove it.

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When you treat volunteer training like a strategic priority, everything falls into place

Last year at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), a group of Museum Educators and me, the Museum’s Volunteer Manager, came together to discuss how we provide high-quality, engaging, and personalized learning experiences for all visitors to NMNH.

Our museum is impact-focused, and within my department we track a great many indicators that guide our work and ensure that our activities are connected to the strategic priorities of the museum. In this particular meeting, we identified a key point of visitor engagement being their interactions with our volunteers.

Working backwards from that point, we realized that we needed to take a deep, hard look at our volunteer training. Ultimately, the nature of the visitor’s experience depends on the quality of the training that our volunteers receive.

We wanted to make sure that our trainings aligned with the museum’s strategic priorities. So we decided to inventory all of our trainings, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that our volunteers were equipped to enhance the visitor experience.

Here’s one example, connecting an introductory training module to one of the museum’s strategic priorities:

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More respect. Higher salaries. Better technology.  It’s all possible if you add your voice to the Volunteer Management Progress Report.

Volunteer Managers, do you ever wonder if it’s just you?

Do you wonder if, in your (often) solo role as a leader of volunteers, that your struggles are not shared by your colleagues?

I’m talking about the BIG issues that you take on every day, the ones that affect your success on the job.

I’m talking about things like:

  • Recruiting enough qualified volunteers
  • Building a high-retention volunteer base
  • Increasing co-worker acceptance of volunteers

Tobi Johnson, MA, CVA and Founder of VolunteerPro, is here to assure you that you are not alone.

After having conducted the VolunteerPro Volunteer Management Progress Report survey for three consecutive years, Tobi has identified some very consistent trends in our collective experience – including difficulties with volunteer recruitment, retention, and co-worker buy-in.

“In addition to the quantitative survey questions,” Tobi explains, “we always ask an important open-ended question: ‘What’s your number one biggest challenge as a leader of volunteers?’

“By far, the prevailing response is volunteer recruitment. Engaging enough volunteers to fill needed roles is cited as a…

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How far can a volunteer’s experience reach? This leader of volunteers got curious

If someone asked you what’s so valuable about the volunteer role, what would you stress?

You might start by explaining how volunteers enhance the quality of life for clients, or how volunteers help deliver on the mission with a high return on investment.

Or, you might make the connection between strong volunteer relationships and financial giving.

Or, conversely ― you focus on the how the experience benefits the volunteers – about how they come to see your cause in a new light, or master a new skill, or achieve greater meaning and purpose in their lives.

That’s an impressive list of reasons to appreciate volunteers, for what they accomplish within an organization and the personal growth triggered by the experience.

But that’s not the end of the list.

There is another often-overlooked area where volunteers add value, and that’s when they spread the word about their volunteer experiences, and (intentionally or otherwise) increase the reach and visibility of the nonprofits they love.

Donna Finney, the Volunteer Services Manager for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO), is keenly aware of this…

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Your volunteers tell a compelling story. It’s time to share it.

If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you might think you’ve been switched to the ‘Volunteer Impact Channel.’ I’ve focused heavily on this question because strategic volunteer outcomes do the heavy lifting when it comes to volunteer program credibility.  These metrics connect the dots in a concrete, data-driven way between organization’s mission and the value of your volunteer.

One thing, though ― for all of this emphasis, there is one important message that I want you to remember:

You don’t have to wait until you’ve created volunteer impact measures to start promoting your volunteer program. 

If you’re not quite there yet – and I know many of you need to plan the process for a future time, you still have plenty of quality material to educate and inform Executive Directors, Board members, Corporations, Faith-based organizations – and even your volunteers.

And best of all, you can achieve this education by creating a document that is easy to access and full of great info:

You can create a Volunteer Management Annual Report

This report is very similar to an organizational annual report. It’s a summary…

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It’s trickier than you think to describe impact – and that’s good

Every time I offer a volunteer impact measures training, I’m struck by some new takeaway the helps me better explain how to do master this complex-but-valuable process.

Today, my takeaway is this:

When you create impact measures on a matrix, one column stands out as the trickiest to complete – and probably the most important.

That column has to do with (drum roll, please)… Indicators.

Let me back up for a sec. Impact measures are created using a logic model. A logic model is a matrix that maps out all of the components needed to evaluate the effectiveness of a program.

The various columns within the matrix – the activities, the inputs, the outputs, the indicators, etc. – all of these pieces lead towards creating the outcomes you actually want. It’s the outcomes that demonstrate exactly what your volunteers accomplished that served your clients or delivered on your organization’s mission.

You can’t create relevant outcomes without putting a lot of consideration into your Indicators.

The Indicator describes what improvement looks like, so that you can set a quantifiable goal to work towards.

Here are some general examples…

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Need a better way to check in with your supervisor? Here’s some help

Is this how you prepare for a regular meeting with your supervisor?

You’re sitting at your desk, checking your calendar, and you see that the weekly check-in with your boss is scheduled for 2:00 pm – just 10 minutes from now.

When you meet, you know there are one or two priority items you absolutely must discuss – like the new volunteer manual and the schedule for corporate groups — no need to write down those topics.

And then there are a couple of other things you want to be sure to bring up – some volunteer requests and a staff concern. You take out a notepad and jot down those issues as you head out the door.

Oh,  and as you enter your boss’ office,  you remember it would also be good to talk about the fall appreciation event. You’ve already arrived, though, so no need to add that to your notes.  You’ll just remember to mention it while you chat.

Or will you?

How many times have you sat down for a check-in with your supervisor and forgotten to mention half the…

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Greater volunteer engagement, pet projects, promotionshere’s how to fast-track progress toward your goals

Once, there was a volunteer manager named Midge. Midge ran the volunteer program for a large after-school organization. She managed hundreds of volunteers who tutored, mentored, and advocated for low-income children in her community. The program was well-regarded and Midge loved her job.

Midge thought it would be good to start a pilot program – an advisory council to offer feedback to staff and the board.  She was excited about the project and saw huge benefits for her nonprofit.  She anticipated some resistance – she would need more buy-in from leadership. The staff would need to come around to the idea, too.

Having these conversations made Midge uneasy. She was more comfortable when everyone was already on the same page. And besides, she wasn’t sure when she would have time to actually make this project happen.  She was already so busy – it would be a stretch to pull it off and stay on top of everything else.

Even though the pilot was a priority for Midge, she never seemed to find the “right” time to get her project…

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We know it’s a good idea to set volunteer impact measures. So what holds us back?

Not too long ago, a friend of mine made an observation about leaders and how they perceive the value of volunteer programs. She pointed out that any resistance we experience to expanding our programs probably comes from one source: the lack of quantifiable measures to demonstrate volunteer impact.

That may seem like an obvious statement as you read it in print, but for me it was one of those smack-me-upside the head aha moments.

Let’s take our close cousins in the volunteer world, development programs. It’s easy to measure success in fundraising – money is numbers. If those numbers go up, then things look good. If they go down, then it’s time to regroup and figure out how to point those numbers in the upwards direction.

Managing volunteers is not so simple to quantify. Any experienced leader of volunteers will tell you that the number of volunteers or the number of volunteer hours is a poor indicator of program success – those figures tell you nothing about how a client’s life was transformed, or how effectively a program…

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In an ideal world, nonprofit volunteers and employees are all considered staff.  But that doesn’t mean we manage all this talent the same way.

A lot of agencies may take the view that volunteers are unpaid staff and should be vetted, placed and managed as paid staff would be.  I often wonder how well that approach really works for the complexities involved in volunteer management.

I agree with the principal that volunteers should be vetted in the same way as paid staff. Taking the time to do a thorough reference and background check is important, especially if the volunteer is working with youth or other vulnerable clients. Besides the issue of liability and risk, an agency never wants to send the signal that volunteers can “slip through the cracks” of a vetting system.

However, once a volunteer is on board, does the idea that they are “unpaid staff” really hold up? How can/should good volunteer management practice differ from managing paid staff? This is a complex topic deserving more conversation and debate than can be accomplished with one blog, but perhaps the largest difference between paid staff and volunteers is that volunteers chose…

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