The Nonprofit Welcome Wagon: How to Engage Newcomers and Build a Strong Community – Through Volunteering

Guest post by Dylan Manderlink

Dylan volunteering at an animal shelter in her new home.

Dylan volunteering at an animal shelter in her new home.

Upon moving to rural Arkansas from Boston, I had anticipated the reality of how different my new life would be down south. From the great distance between towns, expansive farmland, to the welcoming and warm southern accents, I expected my adjustment to take some time and happen gradually.

Although that’s not completely untrue, through the volunteer opportunities I have taken advantage of and the connections I’ve made to local nonprofits since being here, I feel as if my acclimation was smoother, quicker, and more fruitful than I had originally thought. From volunteering at a local animal shelter once a week, to joining a women’s rights and empowerment organization once a month, I involved myself, my passions, and my talents with the community I now live in. And in return, I have felt welcomed, familiarized, and positively acknowledged in a town that I now call home, despite only having lived here for two months.

Because of the initiative local nonprofit workers have made to involve me, get to know me on both a personal and professional level, and accommodate my unique background, passion, and skills, I have felt a sense of inclusivity and comfort that I didn’t expect within the first two months of living in a new part of the country.

A Pattern of Inclusion is Established

Looking back at my four years of college, I remember searching for nonprofits to get involved with, regular volunteer opportunities to take on, and local events to attend to better understand the new community and major city I was about to live in for four years. In just my first semester alone, I was connecting with passionate nonprofit professionals who deeply cared about the wellbeing of their city and its residents: civilians of Boston who lived in the community for years and years, students from different local colleges and universities, and community members who were experiencing the unfortunate realities of many social injustices.

Through these personal connections, I felt a deeper sense of purpose in my community and a strong feeling of gratitude towards the city and its unique people. Through my nonprofit and community service involvement, I was able to examine my community in a unique, personalized, and impactful way. I felt like I had been an active part in creating community ties and building a sense of unity among the people I was meeting.

Moving to Arkansas has really been no different in that sense, which proves to me that the spirit of volunteerism, community change, and social impact run strong in the nonprofit sector, no matter where you are.

A New Home

Upon transitioning from Boston to Arkansas, I was unsure what the nonprofit landscape would look like down south and what volunteer opportunities I would be able to take part in. At first, it was challenging to remove my urban lens when looking for nonprofit opportunities. Coming from a city, I had never partnered with organizations from rural communities, nor had I connected with professionals whose nonprofits weren’t based in or focused on a specific urban area.

But within days of reaching out to local nonprofits in Arkansas, I was receiving positive, eager, and personal responses. The nonprofit professionals I connected with expressed such thanks for me reaching out and were committed to involving me in the organization right away.

Dylan meets fellow volunteers at a women's rights and empowerment organization in her new hometown.

Dylan meets fellow volunteers at a women’s rights and empowerment organization in her new hometown.

Two weeks ago I attended my first meeting with the women’s rights and empowerment organization I have recently become a member of. Despite not having met any of the women prior, and really only having a brief but very warm email exchange with the director of the group, the moment I entered the meeting as a non-Arkansas native and brand new community member, I was greeted with heartfelt appreciation, warmth, and genuine compassion.

I felt immediately at home amongst such passionate, hard-working, and big-hearted activists. The women made such a genuine effort to get to know me, where I’m from originally, the college I attended, what I studied, and above all – what brought me to Arkansas and how they can help connect me more to the community through service and advocacy. I spent the whole morning creating meaningful connections and sharing vibrant stories about justice and equality with women whom I would have never met otherwise, and I feel very fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to meet and befriend activists in my new community.

Through my very recent experiences of being thoughtfully welcomed and eagerly incorporated into my Arkansas community’s nonprofit landscape, the transition from the northeast to deep south that was once full of uncertainty is now more comfortable, warm, and fruitful than I could have ever imagined.

A Call to Nonprofits

I am full of immense gratitude for the inclusive and encouraging experiences these nonprofits have provided for me since being here, and I would prompt nonprofits around the country to focus on volunteer outreach to those community members who are brand new and may be feeling a little out of place. The compassion of nonprofit professionals can bridge the gap from unfamiliar to at home for a new community member in such a unique, meaningful, and passionate way.

I encourage nonprofits to search for outlets in their community where they can connect with and motivate new residents. It is important to encourage and support alternative perspectives when focusing on volunteerism and social/environmental justice work, so welcoming new viewpoints from nonnative voices to your community will be undoubtedly advantageous in enriching and diversifying the cause your organization is fighting for.

How does your nonprofit welcome newcomers to your community? Tell us about it below!

Dylan Manderlink is a recent graduate of Emerson College in Boston, Mass., who with a self-designed major, Investigative Theatre for Social Change. She is now a Teach for America corps member, teaching high school in rural Arkansas. She is passionate about working in the nonprofit sector and providing educational opportunities for students to creatively inform themselves and others about social justice, community change and human rights.

The Responsive Tech that Powers Your Volunteer Recruitment

Responsive Design on the VolunteerMatch HomepageHere’s a fun activity: Take out your smartphone, open a Web browser, and go to www.volunteermatch.org. Looks nice, right?

We just released a fully responsive version of our website. This means that when volunteers come to VolunteerMatch.org to search and sign up for your volunteer opportunities, it’s even easier and prettier. Special thanks to our mobile Innovation Sponsor, UnitedHealth Group, for making this exciting upgrade possible!

Why Does Responsive Design Matter for Volunteer Engagement?

That’s a fair question. Let’s start with the numbers: Over 25% of people coming to our website these days are doing so via a mobile phone (this doesn’t even count tablet users!) To give you an idea of magnitude, that’s been about 2 million people so far in 2014. That number is up about 60% since last year. So the mobile market is growing for volunteer engagement, too.

Now let’s get into the fuzzier stuff. We want to make sure everyone has the chance to make a difference. Mobile phones are a big way many people – including lower-income, and physically-challenged folks – are able to access the Internet. Now the experience on VolunteerMatch will be as seamless, beautiful, fun and easy for them as it is for someone on a desktop computer.

So the switch to responsive design makes it more likely that anyone on a mobile phone, whether they are on their couch, at work, at a bus stop, waiting during their kid’s violin lesson, or weaving along the sidewalk, will find and sign up for your volunteer opportunities.

Should Nonprofits Do Anything Different?

Responsive volunteer opportunity on VolunteerMatch.org.You certainly don’t have to. You volunteer opportunities will automatically be optimized to look beautiful no matter what device someone is using. However, we do have a few simple tips to make the content of your listings stand out for people while on the go:

  • Keep it short and simple. Make it easy for someone to quickly read about the opportunity while scrolling through with their fingers. Otherwise, chances are they won’t take the time, and they’ll miss important details or they’ll give up and not sign up at all. Bullet points, simple lists and short sentences all work great.
  • Make your title extra-special. While on-the-go, many people won’t click through to view an opportunity unless it looks especially fun and inviting, or exactly what they’re looking for. So make sure your opportunity title is very descriptive, and make it witty or even funny so it stands out from the rest of the search results.
  • Include skills. Busy folks on their mobile phones will be more attracted to volunteer opportunities that seem tailor-made for them, and this means their specific skills. Fortunately, VolunteerMatch has a Listing Wizard that helps you choose the right skills for your opportunity. (And don’t forget, these listings are then automatically sent to LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace, for even more exposure!)

So what are you waiting for? Post some mobile-friendly volunteer opportunities on VolunteerMatch now, and let us know what you think about the new, responsive version of the website!

People Make the Difference: Matching Volunteer Interests to Nonprofit Needs

Everyone should have the chance to make a difference - don't you think?At VolunteerMatch, we believe that everyone should have the chance to make a difference. And we REALLY believe that the best way to make sure this happens is to help connect good people with the good causes that need them. Sounds simple enough, right?

In order to create the best connections between volunteers and nonprofits, we have all sorts of fancy, auto-magical tools and technology on VolunteerMatch.org, including search filters, Volunteer Profiles, and skills-based Listing Wizards. And we’re often reminded that our work is never done.

For example, we recently, and very proudly, released the 2013 Annual VolunteerMatch Impact Report, showcasing a whole year of connecting and volunteering across the VolunteerMatch network. In the report there are two sections I want to focus on today: “Top Opportunities,” and “Most Popular Interests.”

Cause areas with the highest number of active volunteer opportunities in the VolunteerMatch network.

Top Opportunities

This section displays the cause areas that have the highest number of volunteer listings on VolunteerMatch.org. What’s interesting about this top ten list is that the top five haven’t changed in years (just check out our reports from previous years.) The next five spots, however, are in constant flux. This year, Women and Homeless & Housing were replaced by International and Disabled. This reflects the constantly shifting nature of the nonprofit sector and its needs.

Most popular cause interests of volunteers in the VolunteerMatch network.

Most Popular Interests

Here’s where we show the cause areas that are most popular among our volunteer members – meaning they produce the most connections. What I like about this section is seeing the great diversity of interests and passions that make up the VolunteerMatch network. There’s truly something for everyone who wants to make a difference, and boy, do they show up!

Putting Them Together…

When we view these two sections together, however, a small but nagging inconsistency emerges. They don’t match up completely. You’ll notice some of the popular interests of our volunteers (Animals, Advocacy & Human Rights, Homeless & Housing…) don’t show up on the list of causes with the most opportunities. And vice versa.

This is a problem because it means that nonprofits are not necessarily getting all of the help they need, and volunteers are not always finding enough opportunities to help in the areas they care about. So what do we do about this?

For volunteers, we recommend taking a look at where the greatest needs are – consider a volunteer opportunity in one of the top 10 causes as a way to help the most.

For nonprofits, however, we all need to take a good hard look at these most popular interests, and tailor our volunteer listings to them. Perhaps we can create volunteer opportunities that attract folks who are passionate about human rights, or women? Be creative and strategic, and you’ll engage more volunteers and better volunteers.

In order for EVERYONE to have the chance to make a difference, we need to start listening and noticing what each of us truly needs – both nonprofits and volunteers. And then, the connections made on networks like VolunteerMatch will be strong, long-lasting, and will really change the world.

What do you think? How can we make sure the needs of nonprofits and the interests of volunteers are aligned? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Engaging Talent in Best Work

Guest post by Stephen Ristau

Engaging Talent in Best WorkToo often I hear from highly skilled and motivated people, “I just can’t seem to find a nonprofit organization that uses my professional talent well.” And despite the great strides that nonprofits have made in recent years to design volunteer or pro bono work experiences that require advanced expertise or training, I still see a disconnect between the available talent pool and the engagement opportunities nonprofits offer.

Do you find this to be true also? Has your organization stepped up the caliber of short-term, project-oriented work that taps into the motivations and expertise of volunteers? How can we assure effective volunteer matches that meet the mutual goal of “best work?”

I am interested in hearing about your experiences, cool ideas and best practices.

Here are some of mine:

  1. Do your homework - Engaging talent (paid or pro bono) is expensive but is well worth the time and effort to do it well. Done right, you are providing a pathway for the contribution of skills and expertise you otherwise may not be able to afford- you can ill afford to not prepare for this potential infusion of talent.
  2. Define what you need - Most of today’s volunteers want to know what impact they will have. Ask yourself “what will happen as a result of this project?” to get at the expected outcomes and deliverables, and then describe the resources and support you will make available to your volunteer to get the job done.
  3. Tailor opportunities to fit your volunteers - While many of us have used volunteers in the same roles for years, today’s volunteers (from Millennials to Boomers) want to use their skills to make a difference. Be prepared to customize short-term, high-yield engagements that may result in “repeat business” from volunteers who discover that your organization knows how to involve them best.
  4. Engage volunteers’ “eyes and ears” to determine new ways they can contribute - Be a progressive talent manager and engage volunteers in identifying organizational issues, challenges, and solutions they see. Collaborate on project plans, assess the strengths and interests of your volunteers, and support volunteers in the customizing of positions that meet your most pressing organizational gaps.
  5. Lead, follow, AND get out of the way - The best leaders and managers know how and when to do all of these: know how to provide direction, enable leadership and initiative, and clear the way for those with the talent and drive to get things done right the first time. Understand the capabilities and experience of your human resources, including volunteers, and allocate your time and supervision accordingly.

“Best work” organizations, nonprofit and for-profit, are those with human resources that champion innovation and learning, are accountable for outcomes, and are able to work in a coordinated team environment.

How are you maximizing opportunities for your nonprofit to achieve this “best work” standard? Let us know.

Stephen Ristau has been a nonprofit executive and social entrepreneur.  An innovator in the national encore movement, he has led Transforming Life After 50 and the SVP Portland Encore Fellows program.Contact Stephen at stephenristau@gmail.com and www.linkedin.com/pub/stephen-ristau/4/75/b28.

Nonprofit Tip of the Month: What You Can (and Should!) Post on VolunteerMatch

What you can (and should!) post on VolunteerMatchHere at VolunteerMatch, we want to help people find ways to put their skills and energy to good use – to help nonprofits like yours.

We want volunteers to visit VolunteerMatch confident that they’ll have some legitimate, meaningful options to choose from when deciding where to get involved. We want volunteers to have the information they need about each and every opportunity to really assess whether it would make sense for them.

That experience is what keeps people coming back to find more opportunities and connect with more organizations. It’s what makes people want to tell their friends about all the great stuff they’ll find on VolunteerMatch. It’s what ultimately gets YOU the volunteers you need for your organization!

When you post your volunteer needs, you can help us make sure VolunteerMatch remains the respected, viable network of volunteer and community service opportunities that people know and love. Here are some things to think about when posting your new opportunities (or editing your existing ones!):

1. A VolunteerMatch opportunity IS aimed at helping volunteers find activities at your organization, so make sure to list specific active tasks that you need help with.

2. A VolunteerMatch opportunity ISN’T a place for you to advertise your website. No phishing allowed. We do have some great sponsorship opportunities, though, if you’re looking to direct traffic to your own website.

3. A VolunteerMatch opportunity IS an unpaid position. We know some volunteer opportunities involve compensation, which is fine! If you’re offering a stipend or any financial compensation to your volunteers, just make sure it’s no more than the federal minimum wage.

4. A VolunteerMatch opportunity ISN’T a direct fundraising solicitation. However, we realize how integral volunteers are for your fundraising efforts! A VolunteerMatch Opportunity IS a great place to recruit fundraisers, NOT funds.

5. A VolunteerMatch opportunity IS a place to set expectations with your volunteers, including whether you’d like them to help provide materials for an active task. For example, providing yarn for knitting blankets is okay.

6. A VolunteerMatch opportunity IS a place be upfront about volunteer costs. No bait and switch. We realize there are costs involved with some volunteer opportunities (VolunTourism, Disaster Relief, etc).  If volunteers need to “pay to play”, let them know in your VolunteerMatch opportunity.

7. A VolunteerMatch opportunity IS a way to engage folks from all over the world. If the opportunity is marked “virtual” it must be equally accessible and equally relevant to volunteers located anywhere in the world. Writing newsletter articles, researching and writing grant proposals, or providing phone support are all examples of virtual opportunities.

8. A VolunteerMatch opportunity ISN’T something to duplicate in every zip code! Don’t spoil volunteer opportunity search results for volunteers. Your opportunities are visible for a 20-mile radius around the zip code they are listed within. Don’t create multiple identical opportunities in zip code after zip code. Nobody likes spam. If you need to cover a larger geographic area, use our Multi-ZIP feature, available when you publish your opportunity.

Making sure your opportunities fall within these guidelines will ultimately serve both your organization and the network of volunteers we all rely on to move our missions forward.

Do you have tips for fellow nonprofits about posting great VolunteerMatch opportunity listings? Share them below!