How to Run a Good Volunteer Program

Martin Luther King Day has evolved into a National Day of Service. I am proud to note I was with Youth Service America at the time they were setting up the framework for it. YSA is also the original force behind Global Youth Service Day, and while it is uplifting to see attention called to community involvement, we should use the occasion to consider what becomes of these volunteers when the spotlight has moved on.

If properly nurtured, volunteers can be a valuable asset to your cause. The fact they are working for you without pay means they have a unique level of commitment to your mission. Something about your establishment stood out to them in a way that others did not. They were inspired enough to want to give up their time to support your efforts, and this commitment has the potential to become a flexible vehicle for public awareness campaigns, fundraising drives, and day-to-day operations. However, their efficacy is only as good as your preparation to direct their activities.

First, do you really need volunteers? We sometimes feel like if we only had a few more hands, we could accomplish so much more. Sometimes that's true, but sometimes this could be an indicator of mismanaged resources. Are your staff's talents being leveraged where they're needed? Is it time to revisit your organizational structure and job descriptions?

Next, do you have the ability to coordinate a good volunteer program? In most cases it's best to have a single person who takes the lead on volunteer recruitment, training and management. The lead person would prepare the presentations, staff introductions and general material to welcome volunteers into your organization. They would be the central resource for volunteers if problems come up. You need to be prepared to set aside sufficient time and effort to facilitate the inclusion of volunteers.

Then there's the matter of insurance. Do you know what would happen if one of your volunteers was injured on your property? Do you know how much you would be held responsible? What happens if your volunteers are hurt in one of your vehicles? What happens if they're hurt on public property while participating in one of your events? More importantly, are your volunteers aware of these answers? This would be a good time to review your insurance policies to make sure you are aware of worse case scenarios.

If after these considerations you are still committed to rounding up some volunteers, here are some suggestions to building loyalty from this base of supporters:

  • List those things you need the volunteer to tackle and limit the volunteer's work to those tasks.
  • Plan a schedule, anticipate a worse case scenario, and prepare a binder to help guide the volunteer through their responsibilities.
  • It's okay to let volunteers go when they are no longer needed.
  • Never stake the survival of an important task on something as unpredictable as a volunteer arrangement.
  • Constantly remind your volunteers that they are important to the work of your organization and that their time is sincerely appreciated.
  • Publically highlight their accomplishments in your newsletter, on your website, at staff meetings, or as part of your events.
  • Give your volunteer a job description that tells them what's needed of them, something that serves as a kind of contract for a specified length of time.
  • Check in with your volunteers individually or in a group to make sure things are going well on the job.
  • Listen to your volunteers' ideas, because often an outsider's point of view will shed light on something you and your staff may have overlooked.
  • Remember volunteers are not a replacement to qualified, and vetted, staff.

What tasks have you recruited volunteers for? What other suggestions would you pass along to fellow organizations interested in starting their own volunteer program?

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