A woman working for the first time as a volunteer in a nonprofit organization wrote to me, saying, “Some of the behaviors observed are what I would describe in for-profit corporations as hostile work environment, bullying and harassment of volunteers ... this is my first experience with nonprofit leadership and thought you may have additional insight to share.”
This made me think of a conversation I’d had with my good friend Bonnie Hilory. Since I met Bonnie she has been executive director in four nonprofits and built very successful volunteer programs in every one of them. She and I have discussed how to create a volunteer culture both volunteers and staff can embrace. Here are four practical things to consider as you think about shaping the culture of your organization.
1. Make the Volunteer Relationship Two-Way
Give the volunteer something meaningful that they can own and put on their resume. There needs to be an exchange of knowledge or value between the organization and the people working in it. Ideally, interns or volunteers should walk away with a salable skill. This means they often need mentoring, but they also need to own what they are doing, as opposed to just being an extra pair of hands. Bonnie finds people who are good at something specific and makes it theirs.
(FYI, Bonnie finds one third to half of her volunteer applicants from volunteermatch.org. This site is free for both volunteer candidates who are searching for their next opportunity and nonprofits who have a need for talent — it’s a valuable resource.)
2. Create a Culture That Encourages Volunteers and Helps Them Thrive
It’s down to the leaders to create and maintain this kind of culture.
One reason volunteer programs suffer is the staff feels threatened. You can see signs of this when talented volunteers are not given meaningful roles. Sometimes they are given a meaningful title, but the role doesn’t match. Even worse, the volunteer is told “you can help me do_____.” This undermines volunteers and goes on all the time, though it is rarely talked about and is a big black hole in the nonprofit industry.
3. Avoid the One-Size-Fits-All Approach
Get a good match so the organization and the volunteer both benefit. One of the keys to recruiting a volunteer is to avoid the “we are recruiting you for this role, take it or leave it” approach.
The process of recruiting a volunteer involves more listening and reflecting. Know all opportunities in the nonprofit and lay out the needs before you interview the candidates. While conducting the interview, consider the fit. Look at the potential volunteer as an individual to see how they might benefit the organization and vice versa. How can the organization help the volunteer (mentoring, training, certification in SalesForce, etc.)?
The interviewer may make the interview process seem casual, but behind the scenes they are doing serious due diligence — scrutinizing volunteers’ resumes and cover letters, conducting background checks, checking references on each volunteer. Their interviews are done in a professional manner and documented, ideally with two interviewers so they can later discuss fit.
4. Manage the Churn
It can really burn out paid staff when volunteer turnover makes them have to pick up the pieces and recruit and train new volunteers only to have them depart again. On the other hand, when the volunteer program is running well, you can get longer-term commitments from volunteers.
Staff are often reluctant to ask for a year-long commitment, but doing so in the interview makes the fit and the organization’s needs more transparent. Sometimes volunteers will recruit other volunteer talent. Bonnie says committed volunteers will help protect a healthy culture and she often includes them in interviews with applicants.
In the all-important issue of volunteer recognition, what really works is a simple but profoundly sincere expression of appreciation.
Finally, there is the all-important issue of volunteer recognition. This is often either missing entirely or tends to come across as shallow or poorly thought out. But in fact, what really works is a simple but profoundly sincere expression of appreciation.
Bonnie is a rock star in this area. She requires volunteer hours be tracked and knows exactly how many hours an individual volunteer worked. The dollar value of volunteers is converted through the Value of Volunteer Time tool, and once a year she budgets a gala dinner for volunteers and guests. The organization’s leadership get up and recount the value the volunteers have given in terms of time and money saved, as well as impact (such as providing a skill set that was previously missing). At one place Bonnie worked, a highly skilled volunteer had given over 3,000 hours in one year!
The volunteers love the celebration and so do the paid staff and leadership. It helps create a sense of family unity instead of an us-and-them atmosphere.
By the way, it’s good to express appreciation often and in lots of little ways, like invitations to events, a name tag, highlighting a volunteer in a newsletter, having a volunteer candy dish and keeping it full, etc. (If I ever end up volunteering for your organization, I really love those little Almond Joys.)
To the first-time volunteer, my wish for you is that you have an even more positive experience in your next volunteer gig. Remember, the nonprofit and the volunteer share responsibility for agreeing on their fit, so explore volunteermatch.org. There are many nonprofits who need committed and caring volunteers — find a culture that embraces them.
Many thanks to Bonnie Hilory. You can find a ton of good ideas and information about nonprofits at her website.
How can you build a thriving volunteer culture in your nonprofit?
About the Author
Randal is a results-driven, development and execution-oriented leader with more than 25 years of experience leading high performance teams. He’s a proven business professional, capable of leading change in both the boardroom and on the frontline, with a strong track record leading strategy development, entrepreneurship, performance and evaluation globally across a variety of social enterprises and functions.
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