Utilizing volunteers may sound like a great way to get free labor. But, as they say, there is no free lunch. To get the most out of volunteers, your organization must invest some thought, planning, and, once you recruit volunteers, ongoing management. Before recruiting volunteers, consider what level of volunteerism you need. There are many roles that volunteers can play in an organization and different roles require different skill sets as well as different types of management.
Single Event Volunteers
An organization might utilize single event volunteers for activities like stuffing envelopes for an annual event or participating in a beach cleanup. These volunteers require little to no training and minimal supervision. However, it is still critical to create a pleasant and productive experience for those who volunteer. When this type of volunteering involves a large group, it is important to provide clear instructions and manage logistics carefully. Nobody wants to show up at the wrong place for a beach cleanup!
Of the four levels of volunteering, these volunteers have the least investment in the organization. However, there are several unique benefits to this type of volunteer. This level of volunteerism provides an opportunity to introduce your organization to a broad spectrum of individuals (and corporations if you have the ability to host large groups). With some careful planning, you can determine which volunteers may be interested in a deeper level of engagement. For example, utilize a participant survey to determine areas of interest and levels of availability and then funnel initial interest into longer-term opportunities.
This type of volunteer fills a quasi-staff role or works along side staff to perform essential roles in the organization. An example of this level of volunteerism would be an intern focused on supporting the development department. Due to the significant role these volunteers play in the organization, they require more investment in terms of training and management. Regular volunteers should have an up-to-date job description and a clear supervisory structure with regular communication. One of the key benefits of this type of volunteer is that their time can be focused on a specific initiative rather than being pulled in multiple directions. In addition, they can provide the extra manpower to try new initiatives without stretching staff too thin.
Regular volunteers have a longer-term commitment to the organization and may be interested in moving into different volunteer roles with increasing responsibility or, eventually, an appropriate staff role. One way to make the most of regular volunteer is to discuss their future goals. By understanding their goals, as well as their performance, you can work with those that have potential to cultivate deeper levels of engagement. Time spent training a volunteer could pay double dividends if the volunteer moves seamlessly into a staff role!
Pro-bono, Project-based or Expert Professional Volunteers
This type of volunteer is retained for a narrow scope of work based on specific technical skills. The engagement could be a long-term role, such as a regular bookkeeper, or a short-term role, such as support during a strategic planning process. This is an appropriate level of engagement for someone whose unique skill set would not be utilized in an event like a beach clean up, but who may not have the time to commit to a regular volunteer or board role. The benefits of this type of volunteer are that you are gaining valuable technical skill as well as a fresh outside perspective.
To make the most of this type of volunteer, it is crucial to be very clear in the scope of the project as well as realistic about the time it will require to complete. In addition, it’s important to know the extent to which the volunteer needs contextual knowledge to complete a project on top of his or her content expertise. These aspects of the job description may be determined in collaboration with the volunteer, but need to be clear up front. It may seem obvious, but it bears saying, if someone offers you their limited time, they want to see their efforts pay off. This is not the time to try out an idea than has a small chance of taking off (unless that is a clearly stated component of the job description). One way to maximize the engagement of these volunteers is to build in a training or mentorship aspect if possible. Some people are natural mentors and will be honored to share their knowledge and build your staff’s capacity.
Many people may not think of board members as volunteers. While board members are technically volunteers, their role is distinct in several important ways. Board members are engaged at the highest level of decision making for an organization and are ultimately responsible for that organization. Most board members are asked to make a commitment for a specific amount of time as well as pledge a certain amount of financial support. Due to their high level of responsibility, it is even more important to recruit and vet board members carefully.
Individual qualities of potential board members are important, but it is perhaps initially more important to consider the overall makeup of your board. Valuable board members will have deep knowledge of your industry or clients, specific technical knowledge, and/or the ability to connect you to useful networks. Diversity is also important to consider. Studies continue to show that diverse groups are more innovative and balanced in their decision-making. Because you are asking quite a bit of your board volunteers, it is imperative that you support them in their role. A tip for making the most of your board volunteers is to provide an organized and thorough orientation. This should include written materials that outline board roles, procedures as well as key organizational documents. One thing to consider is assigning a new board member a mentor. This ensures that they have a go-to person for their questions.