One of the most persistent carry-over effects from COVID is the damage it did to volunteer programs. A couple of recent studies bring home how nonprofits are still struggling to rebuild their volunteer ranks and place volunteers in meaningful roles. Meanwhile, another study raises an ugly little truth – like Rodney Dangerfield, volunteers don’t get no respect.
First the numbers
Tobi Johnson does some of the most valuable work involving nonprofit volunteer best practices, including an Annual Volunteer Management Progress Report. Last year’s report showed nonprofits had reduced the number of volunteer roles since the pandemic. The number of people wanting to volunteer was down and so were volunteer hours. This year, 65% of nonprofits still reported that the total number of active volunteers had dropped since 2019 and recruitment was listed as the top priority for volunteer programs.
A survey of nonprofits in Florida found that 41% of them said they needed more volunteers.
Part of the problem may be that the nonprofit sector is sending mixed messages about the value of volunteers. A study from the University of Maryland got a lot of attention last month when it found that funders generally do not appreciate the importance of volunteers for nonprofits. Executives love them. Funders…not so much:
72.2 percent of nonprofit leaders felt that volunteers improve the quality of services or programs provided to a great extent, but only 25.2 percent of funders agreed.
I’m guessing most funders have never had to set up tents at dawn for a golf fundraiser. If they had, they would change their tune!
An interesting side note from the study…volunteer programs present a chicken-and-egg problem. Researchers found that foundations judge nonprofit resources, including numbers of volunteers, before they fund grant requests. Nonprofits say lack of funding is the thing that keeps them from having the resources, including volunteers, that foundations expect them to have.
Meeting Your Volunteer Needs
If you are like most Houston nonprofits, chances are you started pushing for new volunteers last year. This year you are still trying to bring in recruits and you are trying to keep the volunteers you have. Here are some best practices:
Have A Plan – If you ever read the book, The Little Prince, you may remember the line, "A goal without a plan is just a wish." Too many nonprofits want volunteers but don’t have a plan to bring in volunteers. Strategy needs to come first. How many volunteers do you want? How will you find them? What will they do? How will you communicate with them? Another line to remember is from Yogi Berra: “If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else.”
Treat Them Like A Major Donor – Count up the hours a volunteer gives your organization. Multiply it by an hourly wage, which is estimated at $28.14 per hour in Texas. It adds up, doesn’t it? One federal study says the value of a regular volunteer is somewhere around $2,300 a year. That contribution makes them a major donor. Start treating them the way you would treat a major donor and see what happens to volunteer retention. Get your organization to value them that way and watch what happens to your whole volunteer program.
Make it about them – There are a lot of great reasons your nonprofit should have volunteers, but almost none of them will motivate someone to actually volunteer their time.
Want to do things that have meaning
Want to relieve the workload on your staff
Are already busy with work and their own lives
Want to accomplish your overall mission
Want to see the impact of their personal efforts
Hope that volunteers become donors
Are giving time, which may be more precious to them than money
Smart nonprofits meet their own needs by meeting their volunteers’ needs first.
4. Successful Fishermen Know What They Want To Catch – Ask most organizations who they want to volunteer, and they will probably say, “everybody,” but that is a recipe for attracting nobody. You catch more fish when you know what you are fishing for, what bait to use, and when and where to find them. Develop a profile of your ideal volunteer and use that to drive your recruitment efforts.
5. Know What You Want Them To Do – This seems counterintuitive, but the least successful way to recruit volunteers is to ask them what they want to do. Usually, they don’t know. if they do, chances are it won’t match your needs. Start with job descriptions that lay out the tasks, the time, and the importance to the organization. Then move the discussion to their talents and where they might be the best fit.
6. Every Volunteer Is A Social Influencer – We usually talk about influencers in the context of social media. Sometimes your volunteers are very plugged into social media, and their posts can attract more likes than your nonprofit’s posts. More importantly, their experience influences everyone they know and interact with. Do they love your program and feel valued? They can be your best cheerleaders and recruiters. Do they leave because they weren’t engaged? Do they tell people they stopped because your program was in chaos? It’s like a bad review at an Airbnb; you have no idea how many people won’t be knocking on your door.