WittyBizGal Nonprofit Management; 5 Steps to a Great Volunteer Program


On the whole, nonprofit organizations seem to have somewhat of a reputation for management which is carried out less efficiently and effectively than for profit organizations. The truth in that perception and opinion based rumor is that there are plenty of poorly managed organizations out there—both nonprofit and for profit.

One of the most useful resources of the nonprofit organization is its volunteer human resources and, yes, inefficient, ineffective volunteer programs, or the complete lack of a formal volunteer program at all, are a common nonprofit management error. This is especially true for small nonprofit organizations which, notoriously, are always scrambling for adequate funding. Jumbo sized, well funded nonprofits such as the American Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, etc., tend to be better organized, more efficient, and mostly effective, but even they sometimes could use a tune-up, particularly at the regional level.

If you would like to set up a good, solid volunteer program from scratch, or give your old, clunky one a Hollywood makeover, here are five easy steps for you. Well, okay, maybe not easy, but surprisingly simple and well worth the effort!  

1)     Define, and Continually Examine and Re-Define If Necessary, the Purpose and Scope of Your Volunteer Program

Some  nonprofits just start using volunteers without putting sufficient thought into how to make the most of these precious resources. Every organization is unique, and has its own specific mission, goals, objectives, and appropriate, often untapped, or not yet considered opportunities for volunteers. Spend some time considering that mission, the organization’s goals and objectives, your existing staff, and your workforce plan. Then, based on all of that, develop an actual mission and vision for your volunteer program.  By the way, even if you already have a working volunteer program, it is never too late to go back and complete this first step. And, once you have a good idea of your purpose and scope, definitely have your Board and Staff go back and re-evaluate it periodically. There is nothing worse than an outdated mission and purpose that has not kept up with the times and those inevitable organizational and industry environmental changes.

2)     Have a Good Understanding of Your Legal and Ethical Responsibilities to All Your Workers—Paid or Unpaid

Employment law is a much stickier wicket than most people realize. That being said, it is way too complicated to memorize—nobody does that, not even a labor attorney. Oh, and even if you did memorize it all, your knowledge would have limited utility because it changes about every five minutes anyway. Also, don’t just assume that employment laws don’t apply at all to volunteers because they are not classified as employees. This mostly true statement can get you into a whole lot of trouble if you don’t know what you are doing. Find out which employment laws, federal, state, and local actually do cover volunteers in a blanket fashion. And tort laws…oh those tort laws—know which ones apply to you and your common related workplace scenarios. Here’s a hint: issues of equal opportunity, privacy (both client and volunteer), and personal safety and injury will likely be your biggest bugaboos.

3)     Perform Job Analysis, and Develop Written Job Descriptions Yes, you have to!

Okay, well, technically you don’t have to. But, trust me, management, whether that is carried out in a for profit or nonprofit environment is best addressed through heeding best practices. Those are good, standard guidelines which may not involve actions that you have to take, rather those which have been deemed best to take. This is based on a collective body of knowledge of a lot of people who probably know a lot more than you do, no matter who you are, because they either know a lot about laws and regulations, problems which have occurred in real life scenarios, or have even royally screwed up themselves, but never will make the same mistake again. You should figure out what your volunteer jobs are going to entail—exactly. This typically involves the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to do the job effectively, and then the areas of responsibility, actual duties, reporting relationships, and physical work environment in which the job will be performed. A lot of people management activities are, or should be at least, based upon a good job analysis, which produces a good written job description.

4)     Manage (Recruit, Motivate, Guide, Counsel, and Train) Them Like Employees

No, in most cases, you don’t have to, because more than likely no state employment regulatory agency is going to knock on your door or send you a nasty letter if you don’t. But, you’ll just have to trust me on this one because it is one of those best practices I mentioned before. And, frankly, it is just easier to simplify your human resource management practices by designing your volunteer program management activities around your paid employee human resource activities. Follow those first for recruitment of volunteers, which can be largely guided by your newly minted job description. Conduct a formalized, professional recruitment process. You won’t be sorry you did, but you might be sorry down the road if you don’t. Remember, you’re looking for fit there—fit between the needs of the organization, and the skills, abilities, and also the needs of the volunteer. In the other aspects of volunteer relations management, you must consider motivation and rewards, as well as performance management. It is best to conduct regular performance reviews for your volunteers—just like employees. And here’s another hint about motivating volunteers: identify and then focus on those intrinsic rewards associated with the work that your volunteers do. Sure, they are not doing this for an hourly wage or yearly salary, but you’d better believe that each and every volunteer was motivated by certain wants and needs to altruistically show up on your doorstep and work for free. Find out what those needs and wants are, collectively and individually, and use them as a guide to manage the nonprofit/volunteer relationship throughout.

5)     Write Stuff Down

Avoid making assumptions when it comes to effective utilization of volunteers in your organization. In fact, documenting and codifying into formalized policy and procedure is always a good managerial practice. You know what they say about assumptions—and it’s true, because I have seen it play out over and over in organizations. BE CLEAR—about everything. People need to know what is expected of them, and the less ambiguity the better when it comes to behavioral expectations, knowledge of the history of the organization, how things work in departments other than the one they work in, ethical expectations, etc. Do not leave things to chance, because if anything is likely to come back and bite you, it will be that, in some fashion or another, when you least expect it. I recommend that each volunteer be educated about and clear on first and foremost, the vision/mission and history of your organization. Next, volunteers should understand all the policies and procedures of the nonprofit—written down, and given to them so that they can refer back as needed. And finally, the volunteer’s employment relationship should be comprehensively documented—first with that all important job description, then down the line, with written performance evaluations, goals which are set, areas for improvement, etc. Never confuse organizational communication with micromanagement—they are not the same thing. When it doubt, write it down.

I hope these tips have been helpful for you…This is, of course, not a comprehensive list of all the things you need to do to have a great nonprofit volunteer management program. If you have additional tips, cautionary tales, and best practices, please do add them in the comment section. It’s really important for all of us working within the nonprofit sector to support one another and share information—we’re in this together!

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