Why It’s Still Hard to Volunteer (and How Nonprofits Can Help)

This post was originally published on the New York Cares blog.

Guest post by Gary Bagley, New York Cares

New York Cares Volunteer Impact ProgramSince the report in February that volunteering numbers are down in the U.S., I have spent much of my time telling well-meaning people poised to make a call to service to please put down the bullhorn. A call to service is important, but a greater problem needs to be addressed first – improving the ability of nonprofits, schools, and community groups to engage volunteers strategically to drive impact.

At New York Cares, we think of volunteers as employees who get ‘paid’ with something other than money. That ‘something else’ may be different for each of us. Regardless, the same tenets that make for top-notch HR practices hold true for volunteer management. If a business mismanages its employees, it will lose them. New York Cares was founded in 1987, expressly because so many schools and nonprofits lack staff, money and know-how to involve volunteers effectively, if at all.

Our strategies are twofold:

  • We provide free volunteer management to our Community Partners, allowing them to outsource their volunteer needs to us, at no cost to them or their clients.We have fulltime staff who manage every program detail. They diagnose community partner needs, develop programs, create curricula, buy supplies, and recruit and train volunteers and volunteer leaders.
  • We also train Community Partners to grow programs by leveraging volunteers. In 2012, we launched our Volunteer Impact Program (VIP) to go beyond our outsourcing model. During the three-year pilot phase, we developed multi-year volunteer management plans with 15 Community Partners and provided ongoing training and staff support for achieving the goals. The results were dramatic. Our VIP participants from Year One had a 138% increase in the number of volunteer projects, compared to a 29% increase in non-participating Community Partners. We are committed to scaling up our VIP work by expanding to more nonprofits through a combination of training and consulting services with New York Cares. These VIP results reaffirm our belief that the question is not whether volunteers are willing and available, but rather, how to better prepare organizations to engage volunteers well.

By the way, the numbers may be down nationally, but this is not the case at New York Cares. We orient approximately 18,000 new volunteers annually, and this number is holding strong.

Thank you to all of New York Cares’ volunteers, current and future, who are committed to making NYC a better place to live for all New Yorkers.

Gary Bagley is Executive Director of New York Cares. He is responsible for more than tripling annual volunteer service delivery, filling more than 150,000 volunteer positions on 18,000 projects and serving over 1,300 nonprofit organizations and schools last year. If you would like to read more of his musings, go here or follow him on Twitter at @GBagley_NYCares.

Connect to Who Your Volunteers REALLY Are

A volunteer on a Habitat for Humanity Global Village mission trip.

A volunteer on a Habitat for Humanity Global Village mission trip.

How well do you know your volunteers? How well do you NEED to know them? After all, we’re very busy people working at nonprofits, and isn’t it more important to run our events without a hitch and come in under budget than to be buddy-buddy with volunteers?

No.

Think about it this way: Your volunteers are the people who care so much about what you do, they have actively sought you out so they can spend their free time, skills and sweat to do work for you – for free. What can be more important than that?

How Does It Help?

Getting to know your volunteers on a deeper level can have a number of benefits for your volunteer program and organization as a whole: when you speak to aspects of your volunteers’ personality and their real lives, you’ll see an increase in engagement and excitement. People will stick around longer and be more willing to take on leadership roles.

Also, when you have a stronger relationship with your volunteers, that connection becomes more valuable and meaningful for YOU, as well, and for your staff members who join you. When your volunteers become special, individual people, you’ll have even more fun, and be even more passionate about supporting them.

When Does It Help?

Knowing more about what makes your volunteers tick will be useful in a whole bunch of situations, such as designing new opportunities to appeal to other great volunteers, or coming up with fun, affordable appreciation events and gifts that your volunteers will actually like.

When you have a real relationship with a volunteer, you’ll be able to determine the best path forward to move them into a leadership role, or to expand how they support the organization by asking them for donations of money and goods, in addition to time.
And the more you’re connected to your volunteers, the easier it is to get connected to their friends and family, thus expanding your community of supporters!

What Do You Do Now?

So if you’re convinced, how do you actually go about getting to know your volunteers on a deeper level? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Ask them to fill out a survey (keep it simple and not too invasive!)
  • Ask them for feedback after an event, whether over email or via VolunteerMatch’s reviews feature.
  • Spend time with them! Have actual conversations with them! Ask them questions about their lives! Smile at them!
  • Talk to your fellow staff members, and foster a culture in your organization of sharing experiences and notes about volunteers, so everyone can learn from each other how best to relate to your supporters.

How do you get to know your volunteers better? Share your ideas and strategies below!

How Do Nonprofits Measure Volunteer Impact?

Take a quick survey about how your organization measures volunteer impact.We want to find out.

So we’re launching a survey with Software Advice, a company that researches and reviews volunteer management software in order to help people find the right systems for their organizations, to learn from you and other nonprofits how you determine the effect volunteer work has on your mission.

We want to know how you collect and measure volunteer impact, and also how you use this data to guide program improvements. So we’ve created the first ever Volunteer Impact Measurement Survey, which you can take right now by clicking here.

The goal of the survey is to identify which metrics produce the best insights into volunteer impact, as well as best practices for collecting this data and applying the findings.

In addition to providing volunteer coordinators with a benchmark for comparing your practices to that of your peers, the survey results will answer several key questions:

  1. What percentage of nonprofits currently measure the impact of their volunteers’ work?
  2. What metrics and indicators are most effective for measuring volunteer impact?
  3. What methods are most effective for collecting volunteer impact data?
  4. How do nonprofit leaders use this data to guide program improvements?
  5. What technology do nonprofits use to collect volunteer impact data?

Please contribute to this important research by taking the quick survey right now! Then stay tuned to updates from Engaging Volunteers to see the results when we publish them.

Help Us Develop a Hunger-Fighting Volunteer Engagement Wizard

No, not this kind of wizard:

Help VolunteerMatch develop a wizard to help nonprofits engage volunteers in the fight against hunger.

The kind that helps you determine what you need in order to better engage volunteers in the fight against hunger. VolunteerMatch is developing this online tool as we speak, and in order to make it a reality we need some help from YOU.

The first step is to take this survey. We’ll use the information collected in the survey to fine tune the content of the Volunteer Program Improvement Tool.

Once it’s ready to roll, we’ll share the tool with you. It’s designed to be a simple way to assess where your volunteer program is currently and provide actionable ideas on how to take it to the next level.

Please complete the survey by May 15th. We will have tool kits for you to use by July 2014. Thank you in advance for helping us develop a tool that will make a big difference for organizations everywhere.

Take the survey now!

Winning People Over to Your Cause – Part Four: Measure Success Based on Your Volunteers and Community

Content Marketing for Nonprofits, by Kivi Leroux MillerEditor’s Note: This series explores ways to apply content marketing strategies to help lead a successful nonprofit volunteer program. Using the wealth of information in Kivi Leroux Miller’s book “Content Marketing for Nonprofits” as a jumping-off point, this four-part installment discusses how a solid content marketing strategy will pay dividends in drawing volunteers and supporters, bridging the gap between volunteers and donors, and engaging your community.

heartmeterHow can you learn more about your volunteers and supporters? This question should serve as the driving force behind how you keep track of your work and success. In this blog post, the final one of the series, we will discuss how you can quantitatively and qualitatively measure the impact of your work and adapt to the needs of your volunteers and community.

Invite Volunteer Feedback

One way your data might manifest itself is through surveys and polls. After a volunteer participates in one of your opportunities, ask that person to fill out a short form talking about how it went. Did the opportunity match his/her skills and interests? Did the volunteer learn something or take something away from the experience? Did the volunteer feel guided by his/her supervisor? How you tweak your program based on responses to questions like these can be the determining factor in whether or not that volunteer will lend his/her time with you again.

One organization that encourages volunteer feedback is my local Sierra Club chapter. In the process of creating and publishing their newsletter, “The Yodeler,” released online and in print, the Club invites volunteers to edit their articles, not only grammatically but stylistically and formally as well. As a result, existing volunteers directly affect how the Club’s message is delivered, and can provide input based on their own needs.

Use Online and Social media Analytics to Follow Trends

Website analytics like Google Analytics and Sprout Social will provide you with quantitative data that you can use to track a number of different statistics and trends. You might be interested in:

  • How long people stay on the volunteering page of your website
  • How many people are visiting your site for the first time (unique visitors)
  • Which age group has the most people following you

You can collect a wide variety of data and follow a bunch of different trends. But efficiently using social media is more than just collecting a mass amount of data: it is using those metrics that are most relevant to you that will then help you improve your content.

Analytics can also be used to determine how good of a job you are doing in responding to social media activity. Your online analytics can track how quickly you are responding to comments on the different social media outlets. You can then take that data and compare it to the graphs that tell you how many followers, fans, and likes you are receiving on a weekly basis. Small steps in improving your social media presence can be very beneficial in drawing new volunteers.

Balance Exposure and Engagement

Much as you want to have your name heard by lots of people, it will only be meaningful if people are actually having conversations about you. To clarify this idea, think about this awesome analogy that Kivi presents in her book:

To summarize, think of building social media followers like filling a football stadium. Many people like you enough that they will attend, but only a small fraction will wear apparel and team colors, and even less will put on face paint and go all-out with costumes. Social media provides extremely useful tools for connecting with a massive number of people, but it is up to you to use those tools effectively to create quality relationships and die-hard fans.

You might have thousands of followers on Twitter or likes on Facebook, but these only mean something if people are actually getting involved. In terms of online analytics, you might compare your impressions (the potential number of people who saw your name and post) to the number of interactions (the number of times you were mentioned by other people), and compare these to the number of people who actually sign up to volunteer.

At the same time, you can only create new interactions if you are meeting new people. Thus, exposure and engagement work together, and you need to balance both in order to successfully build strong relationships with your volunteers and community.

By following some of the strategies in this blog series, we hope that your organization leads a more successful volunteer engagement program. Maybe you used these strategies as inspiration for a new approach, or your existing strategies diverge from those listed here. We would love for you to share your experiences, and hope you will jump in the conversation about how to engage volunteers using content marketing!

What methods does your organization use to measure successful communication with and engagement of volunteers?