3 Ways to Build Volunteer Engagement Without Breaking a Sweat

Guest post by Andrew Koch

Intern Adil presents his work to volunteers from Otabo, including CEO Sabrina Finlay
Intern Adil presents his work to volunteers from Otabo, including CEO Sabrina Finlay

Are 100% of your volunteers excited and engaged in their work? If the answer is “yes”, do you know how to keep that energy going for longer than a few months?

I’d like to introduce you to a lesser-known tool for building volunteer engagement: flexibility. It’s okay to not have all the answers! In fact, it could make your program more successful, adaptable and even scalable.

We’ve seen this phenomenon in action at Rêve Academy — a nonprofit that helps young people dream with direction™ by creating pathways to digital careers — and where I manage a team of volunteers.

I’d like to share three ways our organization adds flexibility to our volunteer program, and tips for how you can add flexibility to your program:

  1. Increase Scalability by Simplifying Your Processes

If your organization sees a fresh wave of volunteers every season or year, you know that each volunteer group is going to be a little different. By simplifying your volunteer administration processes, you’ll have more energy to focus on the evolving needs of your clients. How do you know if your process needs to be simplified? Here are some signs:

  • You have lots of people interested in volunteering, but most don’t make it through the initial application or onboarding process.
  • Even for simple roles, prospective volunteers have to fill out stacks of paperwork or go through long training sessions.
  • You can’t remember the last time you updated your processes.
  • There’s only one way volunteers can contribute to the work of your organization.

Try these suggestions for adding flexibility while maintaining high organizational standards:

  1. Pre-screen volunteers to ensure high-quality recruits. This will help you keep training requirements at a minimum, and it is especially important when you work with vulnerable populations.
  2. Keep your forms and paperwork as concise as possible, without sacrificing crucial information.
  3. Allow volunteers to change and evolve their roles. Once you get to know them, you can look for gaps in your work where their unique talents could be a natural fit.
  1. Create Success by Embracing Unconventional Partnerships
As part of their project, students met with Otabo volunteers and Max Lund, a World Sneak Championship finalist and aspiring shoe designer
As part of their project, students met with Otabo volunteers and Max Lund, a World Sneaker Championship finalist and aspiring shoe designer

As part of our volunteer program, middle- and high-school-aged volunteers manage a student-run digital agency. They typically handle digital marketing projects — for example, updating a client’s website or revamping a brand’s logo. So, when a local shoe manufacturer, Otabo, offered to help our students create their own shoe brand, it was well out of our comfort zone (to say the least). It would have been easy to write off the idea as out of scope or too challenging for the kids, but when we took an honest look at the situation, we realized it was a great fit. Otabo had industry expertise that we lacked, and we already had access to the kind of students they wanted to serve. So we took the leap. By the end of our 8-week project, students had an unforgettable experience and we gained a loyal partner.

  1. Be Adaptable by Giving Volunteers Permission to Do More — or Less

To set the right expectations of Rȇve Academy volunteers, we introduce them to the “To, With, Beside” model. That means that we know and acknowledge each of our volunteers’ experiences may be different. Volunteers might have the opportunity to teach our students (To). At other times, they might learn alongside students (With). Or they might serve in a coaching or inspiring role (Beside). A flexible framework like this is reflective of the real world, where adults don’t have all the answers from the beginning. While the Otabo team had plenty to teach our students about the footwear industry, Rêve Academy students taught Otabo employees a few lessons of their own: how to engage with urban youth, communicate with English language learners and model professional behavior while still having fun.

If your organization could incorporate more flexibility, I encourage you to try these tips and let me know how they go. I’m confident you’ll see a noticeable difference in the satisfaction and longevity of your volunteers. Good luck!


Author Bio: Andrew Koch leads Rêve Academy’s Student-Run Businesses as well as the Digital Volunteer (Digiteer) program. Working directly with students gives him a helpful perspective as he finds, coaches and engages volunteers in meaningful ways. He loves having the opportunity to create cross-generational connections between Digiteers and students!