There is a huge appetite for volunteering at the moment, especially since Covid-19 invaded our shores. For most people, it's difficult to sit back and watch as others struggle to get by, and seeing others who need help ignites an interest in people putting their hands up to volunteer.
Engaging volunteers is different to engaging employees because volunteers are with you because they want to be there - not because they have to be. More often than not, they will have approached you about volunteering for your organisation and it's up to you to keep them once you've got them.
I've volunteered with a lot of different organisations in a variety of capacities, and here are some of my tips for getting the most out of the people who want to be there for you and your cause.
1. Make it easy for your volunteers to volunteer with you
This seems pretty obvious, but believe me, you'd be surprised at the amount of times I've had to chase organisations to say 'hey, I'm still here and I've got some free time to help you!'. You might well be busy, but you should never be so busy that you end up ignoring offers of free help (especially when it might relieve some of your stress).
If you don't need help from your volunteers at any time, be clear and tell them but keep the dialogue open - because you never know when you might need their help.
Action: Your volunteers need a go-to contact person who they feel comfortable talking to. This person won't mind being contacted, and will keep the conversation going with your volunteers so that when everyone needs to pull together, they are ready to go.
2. Be inclusive, in every way
When I say 'be inclusive' I'm not just talking about including people from a wide range of backgrounds (although, this is really important too). What I mean, in the most basic of senses, is INCLUDE everyone. I've been on more than one call as a new volunteer where I've not said a single word. Did I feel welcomed into the fold? No I didn't!
It’s difficult to connect at the moment when we can’t meet in person, but a newbie isn’t likely to pipe up on a Zoom call with 40 other people to introduce themselves when they don’t really know who they’re introducing themselves to. When your volunteers feel like they're a part of your organisation, they will be your biggest, most passionate advocates, and everyone needs a positive voice singing their praises.
Action: Welcome all new people and ensure they feel like they are a part of the team from the beginning. Introduce them to others, and give them a buddy to work with who knows your organisation well. Or, take them under your wing.
3. Manage your volunteers well
There are some good volunteer management systems out there for charities who have a lot of volunteers (Volunteero, Better Impact, Volgistics), but I understand that this is not always feasible for much smaller charities. What you can do though, is have a plan as to where you need your volunteers to be, separate it by function (fundraising, social media) and set-out your expectations to them - reminding them of where they need to be and when.
One organisation I work with does their shift management through an open Google spreadsheet which about 100 people have edit access to. This is not ideal, when you keep seeing your name disappear and the addition of extra rows mucks up the formulas that have been put into place. It also requires a lot of the volunteers because they constantly have to check a spreadsheet, and, going back to my first point, you need to make it easy for people to volunteer with you.
Action: Assign roles and responsibilities for your volunteers and ensure that they know what is expected of them. Remind them of where they need to be and when (this might be time-consuming, but it would be more time-consuming without volunteer help). You will reach your goals sooner, and your volunteers will be more engaged because they know what they need to do to help you and your cause.
4. Get your communications right
This is ridiculously important for volunteer engagement, and requires a subtle balance. On the one hand, don't stalk your volunteers daily and overload with info, and on the other hand don't be a stranger (see point one). Also, the medium by which you contact your volunteers is key. Don't have Zoom meetings every week if there is nothing to update your team on every week. Email them when you have something to say, because they will stop reading your emails if there is nothing of interest in them. WhatsApp groups work really well for some organisations but they have to have a main leader to lead the group, because when lots of people are contributing, important messages can get lost in the thread.
Action: Pick a medium which works for everyone, and stick to it. If possible, deliver all communications through one voice. If your volunteers are hearing from the head of fundraising one minute, then the head of operations and then the head of events, you don't always know whose word is most authoritative. Pick a comms representative, or use the leader of the charity.
5. Be clear about what you need help with
It's great to have volunteers, but it's no good collecting them if you don't know what do do with them, and if they don't know what to do. Remember, your volunteers are there because they want to help you, so tell them what you need help with. When volunteers don't feel like they are being directed, they will disengage and not do anything for you at all. When volunteers disengage, they will stop volunteering for you and if they have a bad experience with you they might not want to volunteer at all after that.
Action: Have a live list of things that need doing which you can regularly communicate to your volunteers so that they can offer to do them. If no one in the group is able to do what you need, they might know someone who can help...
6. Say Thank You
Again, this might seem like an obvious one, but it's amazing how people can sometimes forget to highlight great work, or forget to say those two simple words. Volunteers genuinely want to help you, so it's really lovely for them when they hear that their work is having an impact on a cause they are passionate about.
Action: When a volunteer does a good job for you, make sure they know how much you appreciate them. It will make them want to work even harder for you.
The Final Word...
Volunteers are special people who want to help you - look after them!