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 third kind of volunteer value – and she’s started to measure it.

Like many regional symphonies, the ISO seeks to expand its audience and introduce new members of the community to classical music. It conducts outreach into the community through educational programs and special concerts to help achieve this objective.

Volunteer Services Manager Donna Finney is tracking her volunteers’ reach on social media

Donna knows that her volunteers amplify the symphony’s profile in the community. As unofficial music ambassadors, volunteers share their enthusiasm for the symphony with friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers, encouraging others in their circle to attend the concerts.

The question is, how do you track the scope of a volunteer’s social circle?

Donna is measuring volunteer outreach in two different ways.

For starters, every concert volunteer receives a special voucher in recognition for the long hours that they spend on their feet and on-site during concerts.  Those vouchers may be redeemed by the volunteer or shared with family and friends. Donna is tracking how many vouchers are redeemed by new concert-goers.

Even more compelling, though, is the potential reach of volunteers through social media. Donna was curious about how far a volunteer’s post about the symphony might travel, digitally-speaking, so she started a pilot project. She now monitors the activity of 10 symphony volunteers (with their consent, of course) through their Facebook accounts.

Here’s what Donna tracks:

  • The number of friends in each volunteers’ network
  • The number of those friends who live in the Indianapolis area
  • How many friends “like” posts about the symphony
  • How many of those friends actually attend symphony concerts

At first Donna tracked posts of her own that were shared by the volunteers on their Facebook pages. Then, she created a Facebook group for the volunteers and discovered that the group activity extended outside the closed group, and volunteers started to post on their own page. The result was a spike in symphony-related posts and activity.

“I saw a significant increase in photos of volunteers attending concerts, or sharing the ISO’s Facebook concert/events and even sharing their photos and stories of them volunteering,” Donna explains.

“It was then I knew I was onto something.  I had wanted to find a way to measure (if possible) the social impact and true mileage of a ISO volunteer. How is our program helping to serve the ISO’s organizational goals beyond an operational level?

The ISO is deeply committed to serving our community, and I believed the volunteer program was a valuable way of supporting that mission, but we had no data to support this beyond concert support. I found that once I started tracking a simple Facebook post, I could see just how far our volunteers were able to connect with different communities throughout Indianapolis.”

Donna’s project is new. There is not a lot of data yet to report.  But I’ll be keeping an eye on Donna and hope to share an update in the future.

In the meantime, consider Donna’s story an example of leadership in action. While we may think of leadership in broad strokes – organizing the masses or advocating at board meetings, there are small actions you can take to move into a larger role.

You’ll recognize those small steps from the creativity behind them. When the spark of an idea hits you and won’t let go, that’s your signal to follow through and see where the results might take you.

In this case, one of our own saw a new way to demonstrate volunteer value and ran with it. Her project may inspire other volunteer managers to track their volunteers’ social reach. Perhaps, in time, it may even become a best practice.

I’ll bet there are more of you of you out there with equally creative ways to elevate your programs. When you act on those ideas and share your stories, everyone stands to gain – our nonprofits, our profession, and you for affirming your leadership role.

Volunteer Managers: bring in your best ambassadors from the very start. My November webinar walks you step-by-step through an interviewing technique that is proven to increase volunteer retention.

Check out ‘Behavior-Based Interviewing for Reliable, Loyal Volunteers’ at