Reeling in Volunteers: 9 Tips for Sustainably Growing your Volunteer Program

Does your nonprofit’s volunteer program need a reboot? Check out these expert tips for giving it the relationship-building boost it needs.

With the pandemic effects on how we give and engage, the volunteer programs of the past need a serious reboot. But with all that nonprofit organizations have to tackle these days, who has the time? Fortunately, future-proofing your volunteer initiatives doesn’t have to be an all-in endeavor. 

For Pond’s latest webinar, we spoke to volunteer experts about embracing the change and making it work for you. 

Consider these tips and reshape your program to complement your organization’s goals, capacity, and community. 


Consider Pandemic Woes and Pivots a Chance to Reassess

Whether you shut down your volunteer program completely or scaled it back, now’s the time for a revamp that can reap even better results than before. 

Take time and brainstorm with your team to uncover:

  • What was successful about your volunteer program
  • What could be improved for future initiatives  
  • How your needs have changed in the past year
  • What your main goals are for the coming year
  • How volunteer efforts can support those goals 

Once you’ve compiled these data points, let them guide how you move forward as you consider your plans for the future. 


Understand (and Abide By) Your Capacity

Almost overnight, the pandemic revealed our desperate need to pull back. If you haven’t heard that boundaries are the new black, consider yourself told. And believe it or not, boundaries apply to your personal life as much they do to running your nonprofit. So in the spirit of setting boundaries, ask yourself: Do you have the capacity to effectively run a volunteer program right now? 

While we can all dream up a multifaceted volunteer program that spans across our organization, if making it happen means cutting back elsewhere or burning out, that’s not a winning plan. That’s a reason to reset your definition of success when it comes to volunteers. 

Instead of aiming for perfection, start with practicality by reallocating your capacity where you truly need it. If taking a lighter touch to your volunteer program allows you to proactively communicate with and personally engage a small number of folks who lend a hand, that’s a win.


Be Real About the Tasks That Are Best Done By Paid Staff

You get what you pay for, right? While your team may be lean and your budget is tight, volunteers aren’t a magically free solution for tasks and responsibilities that require a fair amount of training, attention to detail, and consistency. 

For certain positions, you’ll save time and money by investing in a dedicated professional to do the job full-time. You know what these roles are within your organization, so communicate these basic needs to your board. Once you have the core staff in place, adding volunteers into the mix will be much more effective.


Pinpoint Your Specific Needs, So You Can Make Specific Asks

If you take time to reassess your volunteer program, you’ll know exactly what you need in terms of helping hands. So instead of blasting a generic, “We need volunteers!” email, target current and former volunteers, donors, companies, and schools and ask them for exactly what you need. 

Let’s say you’re gearing up for Giving Tuesday. You may want to reach out to a local marketing firm or college to see if you can recruit some social-media-savvy volunteers to help you drum up an engaging campaign. 

If you’re leaning on direct mail for an upcoming fundraiser, consider saying “yes” to that school that’s looking for community-based activities if they’ll take on a few hours of stuffing envelopes and writing handwritten notes. 

Relying on a Saturday morning crew to dish out meals to people in need? Send a targeted email to donors in your location and your go-to local volunteer crew asking for food servers and welcome them to invite their friends to join in. 

Transparency is key to building a community of volunteers that produces ROI from your efforts in recruiting them, communicating with them, and facilitating activities designed to leverage their skills and gift of time.


Make Corporate Social Responsibility Programs Work for You

As consumers have increasingly grown to expect the brands and companies they support to contribute to social good, corporate social responsibility programs are seeking volunteer opportunities more than ever before. But when the company down the block wants to send a team over to spend a few hours painting a wall in your rec center for a day of service, take a moment before blindly accepting. 

Ask yourself, Does this really support our organizational goals or benefit our mission?  If the answer’s a “No,” redirect the well-meaning offer to an initiative that will reap results. Remember, it takes your lean team precious time to facilitate a volunteer day, so if it doesn’t create a meaningful difference, it’s not a good investment of your resources. There’s nothing wrong with replying, “Thanks for the offer, but right now, we’re specifically looking for volunteers to assist us with optimizing our website. If your marketing team has a few hours to spare, we’d greatly appreciate their expertise in this area.” 

Not only will you protect your organization’s resources, but you may just gain a community partner that can contribute to your success in a big way. Plus, that company can feel good about knowing the time and resources they donated were strategically leveraged to drive impact. Not to mention, the talented folks they send your way may just decide to volunteer on their own time.


Develop an Awesome Volunteer Communications Strategy

Just like recruiting donors, recruiting volunteers is competitive, and scoring a volunteer signup is just the beginning. The moment they say “Okay,” you’re tasked with creating an experience that will keep that volunteer coming back. 

Before the big day

Keep volunteers posted via email on need-to-know info like directions, activity details (What will they be doing? Are specific shoes or clothes recommended?), and contact information for a staff member who can answer questions or address concerns. And of course, end with a thank you. 

On the big day

Lean on a text-message marketing tool or volunteer app to communicate essential info like time and directions once again. Providing extra guidance will ensure that their trip to your volunteer day will be smooth and seamless. 

After they volunteer

Send a heartfelt thank you email that shows and tells their impact by:

  • Letting them know what they helped your organization accomplish
  • Including photos of the volunteer experience that they can share on social
  • Telling them you’ll keep them posted on the progress of that project (This gives you the perfect opportunity to ask them to join in again)

Other relationship-building moves

  • Send a survey to volunteers asking about their experience
  • Send volunteers a certificate for their generosity
  • Host an annual volunteer awards ceremony 
  • Encourage volunteers to bring their friends to a volunteer experience

However you choose to engage volunteers, ensure that your communication has consistency because consistency establishes trust. When your volunteers know what to expect and can see purpose and intention in your outreach, you’ll be able to strengthen your relationships with them with every touchpoint.


Lean on Tech to Handle the Hassle for You

Not using tech to manage your volunteer program? A small investment in a volunteer app that integrates with your CRM can allow you to:

  • Get eyes on your volunteer opportunities
  • Build a seamless signup experience
  • Ensure volunteers receive timely updates and thank yous
  • Personalize your volunteer communications

End-to-end tech around your volunteer program can provide you with the data you need to truly know who your volunteers are and communicate with them in a way that reflects their motivations and experiences with your organization. You can lean on your database and integrations to send targeted, personalized communications that speak to:

  • How they became involved with your organization ( Through a company, faith group, school, friend, etc.)
  • Which volunteer events they attended
  • Which campaigns they donated to 

In addition to growing relationships with individual volunteers, this information can help you grow your volunteer community as a whole. Using this data, you can pinpoint commonalities among your donors and develop campaigns and initiatives that are more likely to recruit and engage people who will be happy to support your cause through acts of service.


Convert Volunteers to Donors with a Right-Sized Ask

Did you know that 85% of volunteers donate to the organizations they give their time to? That means making the ask of this generous group is a sure-fire way to gain critical funds for your cause. 

When asking your volunteers for financial support, consider the following:


Lean on engagement data to target volunteer groups. 

Remember, your volunteers give their time for free, so personalizing the ask and letting them know exactly who they are matters. When using an integrated volunteer app, your database can tell you who your volunteers are and allow you to segment messaging based on which events they participated in. If they donated before, you could also estimate their giving capacity.

Tailor the ask to the initiatives they support.

Let’s say you’re reaching out to a group of volunteers who recently helped your nonprofit cook meals for local seniors. Send them a link to an online registry of items that your kitchen desperately needs. Or, link your email to a dedicated donation page for that particular project and ask if they could chip in. 

Make it personal by mentioning their experience: “Thanks for making miracles happen with our old pots and pans last week! If you’d like to contribute to our kitchen registry, we’ve listed some items that could use an update. Even just one new pan can make all the difference.”  

Show them their gift in action. 

Send a follow-up email with a photo of their items being used or of the changes you made with their monetary donation. Pairing a visual with your thank you lets them see what their gift means to your mission and increases the likelihood that they’ll continue to donate their time and money in the future. 


Pay Attention to the Little Things That Enhance the Volunteer Experience

The past two years have turned even the most extroverted among us into perpetual homebodies. From mandatory lockdowns to remote work to the prevalence of online shopping, the need to step out of the door has been dominated by COVID-19 fears, ever-available tech, and Zoom fatigue that 

makes a night of Netflix more appealing than the thought of engaging in another conversation. 

When you ask someone to leave their home, come to your space to work for free, and engage with strangers, you need to amplify that experience by making it meaningful, and dare we say, fun. If you want to retain volunteers, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine if you walked up to your nonprofit’s volunteer site.

  • Would someone greet you?
  • What’s the environment like? 
  • Would you know where to go or what to do?
  • Are other volunteers attending?

While you don’t need to roll out a red carpet, you can consider small investments that make volunteers feel welcome, comfortable, and appreciated. For example, Are you working in a dead quiet warehouse? Put on some upbeat music. Assign a team member or two to greet volunteers and give them the lowdown the moment they arrive. Introduce volunteers to one another so they can strike up a conversation. These little things can make the biggest difference by turning what would have been a disappointing time into a day volunteers will want to experience again and again. 


Kick Off Your Volunteer Program Revamp

Today with a Little Help from

Your Friends at Pond

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