Want more time, more respect, and more funding? This volunteer management practice will get you there

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 is operating.

If we want our leaders to stand up and take notice of our programs, we need to start measuring the strategic impact of our volunteers’ contributions.

No doubt I’m preaching to the choir here.  We know that measuring impact is important. There are a number of excellent books out there to get us started in the process. Past blogs right here on Twenty Hats have touched on the essentials.

But as far as I can tell, there are a great many of us who still need to actually sit down and establish a comprehensive set of impact measures.

And if that’s the case – if many experienced and capable volunteer managers have yet to measure impact, what’s holding them back?

My guess is that it has to do with work load. We have so many demands on our time, so many reactive moments when something urgent lands on our desk that needs immediate attention. And then there’s timing. There always seems to be another event to prep for that’s right on the horizon – the appreciation event, the gala, the 5k race.  There never seems to be a right time to organize a strategy session and create the measures.

While all that is true, there is another missing ingredient that prevents us from committing to this process:

We don’t realize what we’re losing.

Creating a set of strategic income measures is an investment. It’s an investment of your time, and most likely funds as well.  You’ll need to either educate yourself on how to create effective measures – or you’ll need to hire someone who can lead you through the process.

And as with any investment, you need to quantify what’s being lost and what you stand to gain from your investment.

But you don’t need to sit down and run a cost/benefit analysis right now. I’m going to do it for you:

Loss/Gain #1: Time

While the measures you create are about connecting volunteer activity to the strategic priorities of your program, the results from all that data will lead you to decisions that improve your program and spare you extra hours on the job.

You’ll spend less time:

  • Recruiting, because your volunteer capacity metrics will point you towards the best referral sources for your ideal volunteers
  • Trying to fill last-minute staff requests for volunteers, because you’ll be tracking your turn-around times and let staff know how far in advance to submit their requests
  • Replacing all of the after-school volunteer lesson plans, because you’ll from tracking check-out rates which plans are most popular with the children – and the volunteers

 

Loss/Gain #2: Credibility

Let’s go back to my observation at the start of this post. Decision makers – Board members, Executive Directors, Leadership Teams need you – and want you – to educate them about the value of your program. It’s challenging to assess the success of a volunteer program without concrete measures.

When you have strategic outcomes to report, you’re unlikely to find yourself:

  • Explaining that there is no magical closet of volunteers, because your data draws the connection between recruitment activities and the number of active volunteers.
  • Left out of strategic planning sessions, because your data demonstrates that volunteers help deliver on the mission in a cost-effective manner
  • Trying gain your co-workers’ buy-in, because the outcomes will demonstrate that volunteers serve more clients or free up their time

 

Loss #3: Funding – for your program and for you

Metrics are numbers. It”s easier for people to grasp anything that’s quantifiable. When you measure the value of your volunteer program, you arm yourself with the documentation you need to increase another incredibly valuable asset – money.

With strategic program measures, you’ll be able to:

  • Increase staffing, because your data shows that correlation between team size and volunteer turnover
  • Expand your program budget, because your data reveals which investments (perhaps advertising, mileage reimbursements, or appreciation expenses) have a direct connection to volunteer retention
  • Advocate for a raise, because the connection between volunteer impact and your nonprofit’s sustainability is so clear

As leaders of volunteers, we rely on our intuitive ability to connect with others and cultivate relationships.  We’re personable. We put a lot of thought and effort into the bonds we forge.

Likeability is not enough when it comes to advocating for our needs.  To reach our biggest, most sought-after program goals, we need to back up our EQ with plenty of irrefutable facts.

 

Volunteer Managers: the toughest part of the measuring process is getting started. My June 20 webinar walks you step-by-step through what you need (and what you don’t need) to successfully create impact measures.

Check out ‘Getting ready for a Volunteer Impact Strategy Session’ at volunterimpactsuccess.eventbrite.com

5 Comments

  • Great blog Elisa – I think this is something we could all do a little better.

    One way we measure volunteer impact is in our annual volunteer survey. We ask volunteers what their goals are for volunteering with us (resume experience, connecting with others, making a meaningful contribution) and then we ask if we helped them achieve that goal. We also ask volunteers to tell us how volunteering has had an impact on them.

    It is one way we try to get at this idea of measuring impact but I am sure there are lots of other approaches as well.

    • Agreed, Laura! Feedback surveys give us vital information about the volunteer experience that we can use to improve our program. I would take the assessment process one step further and collect other data to evaluates how your program meets the strategic goals of the organization. We’re always evaluating in two directions — 1) to ensure that volunteers have a meaningful experience and 2) to verify that our volunteer program is effectively serving the mission.

  • Agreed! We also have a staff survey and ask them to rate the degree to which volunteers help expand the number of clients we serve, provide a higher level of service to clients or complete projects that might not otherwise get done.

  • All this commenting on survey results indicating volunteer impact makes me think about how very important it is to ask the right questions on the survey and be mindful of the choices you list if they are multiple choice questions. As far as volunteer satisfaction surveys, I’ve always viewed them as a report card on how the volunteer program is going, but not an opportunity to measure the actual impact of what they do (and not just how they feel about it, but rather factual data.)
    Hmmmmm….

    • Thanks for your comments, Jenna! When it comes to measuring impact, surveys can provide some of the data. As you observe, it depends on the types of questions you ask and how you ask them.

      Ideally, measuring impact relies on an array of data collection tools. We’ll touch on that on my June 20 webinar. volunterimpactsuccess.eventbrite.com

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