Four Ways to Fail Your Volunteers

Guest post by Eli Raber 

Don't fail your volunteers.Volunteers are the backbone behind many organizations., for example, is made possible by business advisers who volunteer their time, insight, and experience to strengthen small businesses that create jobs in underserved communities.

Because volunteers are so important, it’s essential that your engagement and appreciation efforts don’t fall through the cracks. Read on to discover four management missteps that are easy to make, yet with a proactive approach, even easier to avoid.

Fail #1: Not Framing the Big Picture

While you may live your organization’s mission day in and day out, volunteers may need some education on your “big picture.” Just like you, your volunteers could benefit from a holistic perspective.

Break down the value of their work; how do their personal contributions add to the whole, and in what ways are their efforts creating impact? Framing things in a larger scope can up the commitment factor for volunteers, making their efforts more meaningful.

Fail #2: Setting Blurry Expectations

Just because volunteers are eager, willing, and…well, voluntary, doesn’t mean they should be thrown into situations without clear expectations and support. Commit to giving your volunteers the tools they need to succeed.

From an information sheet to a formal starter kit—standardize an onboarding process that best suits your volunteers. Also, take the time to teach your staff how best to train your volunteers; volunteers who do not feel supported by program staff may have a bad experience and might not come back.

Fail #3: Narrow Entry Points for Engagement

Don’t discount the different ways volunteers can lend a hand. For example, the most common way for’s volunteers to contribute is by mentoring a small businesses. But that’s not a convenient option for everyone who believes in our mission, so we offer multiple entry points for engagement. Hosting an online webinar, volunteering to table an event, and submitting a blog post are different yet important ways our volunteers contribute.

Empower your volunteers to think outside the box when deciding how to help. Also, consider organizing a volunteer committee that can give a voice to the group, and thus, creates a seamless way for your organization to stay connected to its volunteer base.

Fail #4: When Appreciation Stays Stagnant

We all know that we can’t take our volunteers for granted, but thanking them through the same old channel is another fail. Your appreciation should be as fresh and vibrant as your volunteers’ energy.

From t-shirts to coffee cups, consider swag for your volunteers. A Volunteer of the Year Award is an exciting way to show thanks, or (on a smaller scale), make social media shoutouts to outstanding contributors. Remember, individual attention can be more powerful than public recognition. When volunteers send you an email or answer a survey, make an effort to respond. Exemplify that you’re listening and prove how important they are.

Our program, like so many others, would not exist without volunteers. What are some other “fails” to avoid? Join the conversation via the share buttons below!

About the Author: Eli Raber is the Associate Director of, helping to connect entrepreneurs who create jobs for underserved communities with the valuable resources they need to run and grow their businesses successfully.

How to Embrace Your Volunteer Management Super Powers

Guest post by Elisa Kosarin, Twenty Hats

This post was originally published on Twenty Hats.

If you feel like you haven’t got enough power to make your vision a reality, read this post.

When I was planning my October 7 retreat for volunteer managers, Leading From Where You Are, there were several things that I absolutely knew I wanted to cover – things like the principles of buy in, work/life balance, and what it’s like to lead in a nonprofit scarcity environment. And being the planner that I am, I drew up a nice detailed timetable, mapped out how many minutes we had for each exercise, and then stared at my agenda in consternation: we had extra time that I really wanted to fill with something valuable and different. What might that be?

On a hunch I threw in a discussion based on an article I had found about the different kinds of power that we all possess. I had never facilitated this type of discussion before and wasn’t sure if it would fly or sink.

Our conversation around our power ended up being one of the liveliest parts of the day (and this was a retreat with a lot of lively discussion!)

I know from my own work and from working with other volunteer managers that we spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out ways to bring our bosses or co-workers on board with our big ideas. Sometimes we approach these “internal strategy sessions” with a measure of despair, because we feel we do not have the leverage to make things happen.

Not true.

We may lack “Legitimate Power,” meaning that our position may not rank at the top or carry as much authority, but we hold other forms of power that make it possible for us to turn our ideas into realities.

  • One of my clients leveraged her connection power to initiate an agency-wide staff training on volunteer management. She is someone who is respected and trusted by the leadership – a position that made it much easier to bring them on board with this new project.
  • Another client is the only person in her office to work with court-mandated volunteers. That’s expert power, and even though she’s the youngest person on staff, her office depends on her to fulfill a grant-mandated service.
  • We also hold the power to elevate ourselves professionally. When we meet with our colleagues at conferences or through our local DOVIAS, we share tips and strategies to do our current jobs better or receive leads on more fulfilling positions. That’s information power and referent power in action.

Ultimately we are all gatekeepers for a tremendous source of power – the power of volunteers to expand the capacity of organizations to fulfill their missions and transform the world. If you are the type who worries that your boss or coworkers don’t recognize or appreciate this amazing resource, remember that you have the power to cultivate their buy-in. It may take some guidance or self-reflection to figure out the next steps, but it’s entirely doable.

You can read more about power by viewing the article that inspired this conversation in the first place. The author, Sharlyn Lauby, comes from the HR world. One more example of how managing people is at the heart of effecting change.

Tweet this post! If you agree with my POV, share this message:

Volunteer managers hold plenty of power to turn their ideas into realities,

When People Say “I Want to Help!” 10 Million Times

For the past few weeks, everyone here at the VolunteerMatch office has been paying close attention to our live connection map. This map lets us see, in real time, every time someone clicks the “I want to help!” button on a VolunteerMatch listing.

So, why have we been watching this map so closely?

We’ve been counting down to a huge milestone: 10 million connections created between nonprofits and potential volunteers. And at around 7 a.m. on Monday October 5, 2015, the 10,000,000th prospective volunteer clicked “I want to help!”

You may be saying, “So what?” Well, we all celebrated with cake, so that was something to look forward to:

VolunteerMatch celebrate 10,000,000 connections with cake!

But besides that, it actually says a lot about the world of volunteering.

When a volunteer clicks, “I want to help!”, that’s just the beginning. The initial click is a good intention. It’s an opportunity for nonprofits to reach out and build a relationship with a new prospective volunteer. It’s a mutual hope to take action and make the world a better place.

What happens next? Well, according to our research, only about half of “I want to help!” clicks turn into actual volunteers. Why? Maybe the nonprofit never responded to the volunteer’s offer. Maybe it turned out it wasn’t a good fit once the volunteer and the nonprofit learned more about each other’s skills, schedule, and wants. Maybe the volunteer simply changed their mind.

So, out of 10 million online connections, about 5 million actually volunteered. 5 million. That’s not an inconsequential number. That’s 5 million opportunities for nonprofits to grow their capacity. That’s 5 million ways for volunteers give back, become a part of something, and/ or build their skills. 5 million chances to make our communities, and the world, just a little bit better.

Let’s break it down even more. On average, a volunteer will stay with an organization for 2.5 years. During those 2.5 years, they will volunteer 28 days at an average of 3 hours per day. Add all that together, and you have 150 hours per volunteer. What does that equal when multiplied by 5 million?

750,000,000 volunteer hours.

Let’s just step back and think about all that can be, and has been, accomplished with 750 million hours. To put it in perspective, that’s 1,205 entire lifetimes. Here are just a few examples of some of the volunteers and nonprofits making a big difference with their time. Oh, and a few more.

It’s amazing to think about everything that’s already been done, and what we all can accomplish, together, in the next 750,000,000 hours.

October Food for Thought: What Are the Experts Saying?

At VolunteerMatch we learn so much from other experts in the fields of volunteer engagement and nonprofit management, and we want to help you stay up to date on the latest news and trends. Here’s some food for thought to get your October going.

Food for ThoughtHow Nonprofits Can Increase Engagement Through Gamification
From Huffington Post:
No, you don’t have to take your serious issue and turn it into fun and games. But you can use these tactics to make volunteers more engaged with your organization and mission.

Three Essentials for Getting the Buy-In You Want From Your Coworkers
From Twenty Hats:
Lack of internal support. It’s a problem many of us know all too well. But you’re not powerless if you equip yourself with these three things.

A Pro Bono Service Toolkit for Nonprofits, Business Professionals and Companies
From Taproot Foundation and #GivingTuesday:
As we recently wrote about, #GivingTuesday isn’t just about giving money, it’s also about giving time. Use this toolkit to integrate pro bono volunteering into your nonprofit’s #GivingTuesday plan.

Pictures, Pictures, Pictures
From Susan J. Ellis
With all the powerful ways in this article to use candid pictures and video to improve your volunteer program, Susan should have thrown a few more “pictures” onto the end of this article’s title. From recruitment to recognition and everything in between, your phone’s camera needs to become active ASAP.

And finally a dose humor from Volunteer Management Snark.
When someone says their “volunteer database” is an Excel spreadsheet:Volunteer Management Snark

*No offense if you ARE using Excel spreadsheets, but you might be interested our recent post 4 Steps to Finding Your Volunteer Software Match.*

And for more tips from experts, check out the VolunteerMatch book that brings together 35 experts.

8 Creative Ways to Show Volunteer Appreciation

Guest post by Chris Martin

"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it." -William Arthur WardGratitude is the most powerful thing in the world. It’s said that it’s not happy people who are thankful but rather it’s thankful people who are happy.

Yet, recent studies have painted society as losing its civility, especially in the workplace. It seems that some people have confused niceties with inefficiencies and compliments with ulterior motives. And in our nonprofit space, this will not do.

Let’s put the gratitude back into our attitude. Volunteer appreciation should be the most important mandate we have. If it isn’t, there’s no time like the present for a nice change of pace.

Want to make sure your volunteers know you’re grateful for their service? Follow these suggestions and you’re sure to make them feel like the sun shines just for them!

  1. Get involved alongside them.

Nothing says “buy in” like the Executive Director or supervisors stepping into the fray of serving food, signing up registrants, or helping to coordinate events at the ground level (roles often filled by volunteers).

Showing your volunteers that their job is so important that even the highest management member would help will say a lot about your trust in that person and the job that they do. And as a bonus, isn’t it nice to have someone lend you a helping hand when you’re working hard?

  1. Share their impact with them in a way that they can pass on.

Creating a simple image like an infographic with key metrics detailing the volunteer program and how it impacted a community is a great way of demonstrating how their time and effort helped. In turn, volunteers can share that information on their social media channels, with friends and family and say, “I helped this effort, I made a difference.” Isn’t that something we’d all like to say?

  1. Ask for their opinions – and fully listen.

Having a sit down with some volunteers during program planning stages or between shifts is a great way to explain upcoming initiatives and engage with your volunteers while getting crucial feedback. Make sure to pay attention to the second part: Listening.

If you’re going to ask for an opinion, you owe it to that person to take what they say seriously. Think for a second: who in your life always listens the best? Become that person for your volunteers. Engage with them; acknowledge their ideas; and then draft your response rather than drafting a response in your head while they’re still talking. The difference that ‘thinking after rather than during’ makes will astound you.

  1. Write a blog post or social media post dedicated entirely to them.

Did you launch a new initiative that far exceeded expectations? Don’t just say ‘thanks’ to the volunteer(s), show your supporters that you’re grateful by telling their story.

  1. Write a letter – but not to them.

Think outside the box: Write a letter to your boss telling them how grateful you are that you have such an outstanding volunteer serving your organization.

Gush to your boss about how fortunate you are that your organization has such amazing volunteers – and really drive home the accomplishments and efforts they’ve made. Then, feel free to let the volunteer know. Even better, management could print the letter off and take it to the volunteers directly to recognize how excellent they are.

Larger organizations can replicate this by writing a letter about a team that runs/ran an event and have upper management read it to volunteers at a debriefing.

  1. Place a handwritten note in a card and mail it. Yes, as in made with a pen and paper.

Nowadays, everything is done digitally. This is largely a good thing, but that doesn’t mean everything has to be digital all the time. Isn’t getting mail exciting now that it has become a total novelty? It sure would be nice to receive a mailed letter that isn’t a bill!

  1. Drop the business talk and speak to them on a personal level.

Telling them how they’ve helped your charity is amazing and essential, but don’t forget to tell them how they’ve helped you. Remind them that it’s volunteers like them who make your job a joy.

  1. Lastly, say “thank you.”

Above all else, a simple, heartfelt “thank you” can make the difference in someone’s opinion of their experience – and your organization. Additionally, if you want to get really creative, say it in different words or funny phrases.

About the author: Chris Martin is a former social worker and currently the Senior Marketing Coordinator for Charity Republic, a company specializing in promoting volunteerism and community engagement via accessible and efficient technology solutions.