Volunteers are a Critical Resource

Be mindful with your volunteer engagement.
Be mindful with your volunteer engagement.

Last night I, along with a few dozen of my online community and nonprofit peers, was inspired to think about volunteers in a whole new way.

At TechSoup’s Online Community Meetup here in San Francisco, Jayne Cravens shared her expertise about engaging online volunteers in an online community. But during the session, important issues surfaced that reminded me how universal this topic of volunteer engagement really is.

Questions about staff buy-in, volunteer recognition, “firing” volunteers, risk management and reporting made it clear to the entire group that volunteers can and should impact everything that goes on in the organization. This leads to one inevitable (and familiar) conclusion:

Volunteers are a critical resource.

Sometimes it’s easy to see the footprint of volunteers at your organization – they run events, work in the office, serve on your Board. But sometimes their influence is not as obvious. Maybe they share your social media messages, participate in your forums, or donate their birthdays. How do you keep these folks engaged? How do you track and report on their impact?

Mindful Volunteer Engagement

Many of us approach our volunteer programs in a reactive way – oh, we need volunteers for something in a week or a month? Okay, let’s recruit some. Instead, volunteer engagement should be a key strategic element of your nonprofit’s operations. We should all be practicing what I like to call “Mindful Volunteer Engagement.”

Start by asking yourself and your fellow staff members these questions:

  • What are the goals of your organization for the next year? How can volunteers contribute to this?
  • What are some projects you wish you could afford? How could skilled or pro bono volunteers help fill in this gap?
  • How strong is your organization’s online presence? Who are the passionate influencers you can engage as volunteers to help build your online communities?

By identifying the goals for which you can engage volunteers, you’ll be able to more easily track how volunteers are contributing.

Funders Care About This, Too

The light is finally dawning, and funders are beginning to realize the importance of volunteer engagement when it comes to nonprofit effectiveness. On the Reimagining Service blog, Jane Leighty Justis of The Leighty Foundation wrote about the value of increasing an organization’s capacity to mobilize its volunteer resources. The results are seen in every single area of the organization – and what funder wouldn’t be interested in supporting that kind of improvement? (For more information about the link between successful volunteer engagement and nonprofit effectiveness, check out this research conducted by the TCC Group that highlights the impact of volunteer engagement on a nonprofit organization’s overall effectiveness.)

Bottom line: If your nonprofit is not engaging volunteers strategically to impact the most critical goals and functions of your organization, you are falling behind – and this is one train you don’t want to miss.

How do volunteers fulfill critical functions at your organization?