Need more hours in the day to manage volunteers? Here’s how to fix that

Sometimes it’s not humanly possible to get more done. Here’s what happens when nonprofits expand the volunteer management team.

Does this sound like you?

You are the only staff member for the volunteer program, and you do it all: recruiting, placing, supervising, acknowledging, and keeping all the data straight. And on top of that, you are also responsible for in-kind donations and helping out with special events.

You spend many, many evenings and weekends at work to oversee volunteer projects. In spite of the hours your put in, you can’t seem to engage more volunteers or even stay in touch with all of your current ones.

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done.

Nicole Dillon’s job was just like that for a couple of years, but now things are different.

New Hope Housing Volunteer Coordinator Sami Smyth (foreground) and Development and Special Events Associate Nicole Dillon (background), manage volunteers — and a wealth of in-kind donations

Nicole is the Development and Special Events Associate for New Hope Housing (NHH), a nonprofit in Alexandria, VA that serves individuals and families experiencing homelessness.  NHH serves more than 350 residents each night and utilizes volunteers for almost all of its programs.

“I used to do everything – manage volunteer groups, create new positions, track in-kind donations, and handle special events.” says Nicole Dillon. “There was rarely an opportunity to forge new volunteer relationships or deepen the ones we already had. It took all of my time (plus lots of late nights and weekend hours) to stay on top of the basics.”

Fortunately, Nicole is supervised by a Director of Development, Jan-Michael Sacharko, who understood that the volunteer program was limited by what one person could possibly achieve. He advocated successfully to expand the program and bring in a second employee.

“We saw changes almost as soon as Sami Smyth, the new Volunteer Coordinator, came on board”, says Nicole.

For one thing, “now we can take our time and build stronger relationships,” Nicole observed. “For over 20 years, many of our volunteer groups really had no idea what we did beyond their particular project.”

“I never had the time before to talk much with the volunteer groups, but now we do just that. We ask every volunteer group to come in and meet with us. We educate them about everything we do at New Hope Housing, talk about our needs, and see where else the group might wish to contribute.”

Volunteers from St. Stephens United Methodist Church, who have now adopted a group home, celebrate with clients

One great example: St. Stephens United Methodist Church, which had donated holiday food baskets for many years. The church expressed a desire to do more, but was unsure of how to proceed. In the past, Nicole would not have had the time to design new projects or oversee them. Now, the church has adopted one of the organization’s group homes. They cook meals, host holiday parties, and do other projects year-round.

The added bandwidth allows Nicole and Sami to track more onboarding data, keep contact info updated, and pull reports that help her minimize disruptions to volunteer service.

“We purchased Volgistics about a year ago, but weren’t able to fully utilize its capabilities. Now, we are more consistently having volunteers register in the system and I have been able to call on volunteers to help during emergencies. One of our cooks injured her shoulder recently, and I was able to recruit additional last minute volunteers to assist with preparing meals at the Kennedy shelter,” says Volunteer Coordinator Sami.

Nicole adds, “From a development standpoint, tracking volunteers better allows us to have a better understanding of how much time volunteers are contributing to our organization. We are able to use these numbers to show community support and match funding for various grants and contracts.”

With the added bandwidth, the volunteer and development staff are also able to act as an integrated team. Much like the staff at DC Central Kitchen, they communicate closely and share resources to better engage donors and volunteers. “We do weekly check-ins,” adds Nicole, “and we’ve been talking about shifting to a daily 10-minute meeting to make sure we are all on the same page.”

New Hope Housing understood that investing in volunteer program staff would result in better service to its clients.  But I wonder: how many other organizations have yet to make this shift?

One of the big take-aways from Tobi Johnson’s 2017 Volunteer Management Progress Report is that the majority of volunteer managers staff departments of one – even though most of us work for organizations with 50 – 101 or more paid staff.  On top of that, only 30% of participants focus entirely on volunteer coordination within their positions.

Once again, it all comes down to buy-in.  If we want to create strong programs without burning out, then we need to share more information with our leaders. We need to educate them, supply them with meaningful metrics, and show how our needs align with their priorities.

Recently, thought leader Rob Jackson wrote a post encouraging volunteer managers to seize the moment and speak up for the changes they need in their programs. As Rob said, “We need to make our voices heard and help shape the debate. If we don’t, it will be shaped for us, potentially by those who do not have the knowledge, skills and experience we do. Or worse, this moment will pass and nothing will change.”

Volunteer manager departments of one: it’s time to speak up for the changes you need.

My Six Principles of Buy-In will help you build your volunteer management team! Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing lis

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