What We Learned in the First Year of Our Volunteer Program

What We Learned In The First Year Of Our Volunteer ProgramGuest post by Andrew Koch, Rêve Academy

At the end of 2015, my organization was presented with a goal and an expectation: to build a world-class skills-based volunteer program in the next year. Gulp. Our organization wasn’t starting completely from scratch, but without set processes or strategy, the idea felt daunting. Here are five problems my team encountered that year — and the best solutions we came up with to solve them.

Problem 1: Sometimes the best volunteers were hard to get.

We had several volunteers in 2016 who were very particular about how they wanted to engage. Perfect… except their expertise wasn’t what we needed at that time.

Solution: Put a date on the calendar and keep volunteers excited about it. If a potential volunteer is a great find (and not just stringing you along), schedule a date you know they can get involved. It’s okay if the event is months away, but stay connected in the meantime so they know you haven’t forgotten about them. You could also try setting up a short-term volunteer opportunity to get more folks looped into your organization.

Problem 2: Our process was set, but it wasn’t working like we wanted.

Our process was set, but it wasn’t working like we wanted.

In my last post for this blog, I recommended pre-screening potential volunteers, both as a safety measure and a way to identify people who weren’t a good fit. But what happens when someone looks great on paper but doesn’t jive with your team or clients?

Solution: Empower clients to be part of the vetting process. We invited volunteers to join us as we worked with clients. After everyone said their goodbyes, we asked students to vote anonymously — would you want this person to come back?

This process let our students know that their opinions were valued. It also helped us cut down on background checks for people who didn’t follow through!

Problem 3: Volunteers didn’t feel inspired by their work.

Volunteers didn’t feel inspired by their work.

Even the coolest-sounding volunteer gigs have their downsides. We wanted to make sure that every volunteer realized the enormity of their impact.

Solution: Help them connect the dots to your mission. We did by this inviting them to a culminating event that showcased the work they had contributed to. Volunteers were able to meet funders and parents, students had the chance to formally say thank you, and there were even a few tears shed. If you’re not able to host an event, what about creating a digital showcase, publishing heartfelt shout-outs on social media, or displaying your appreciation with a physical showcase of photos and artifacts?

The opportunities are boundless.

Problem 4: Some volunteers needed coaching.

Some volunteers needed coaching. When problems arise, it’s tempting to cut them loose rather than deliver criticism.

Solution: Don’t waste time before redirecting volunteers. I know you know this, but stop procrastinating and just have that conversation! An easy way to do so is to first state the problem, then ask for their help in brainstorming solutions. You’re likely to come up with ideas that not only solve the current issue, but will help future volunteers.

Problem 5: Our volunteers didn’t fully reflect the students we serve.

Our volunteers didn’t fully reflect the students we serve.

As a nonprofit, we talk a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion. So what does that mean for our volunteer program? We realized that volunteers who reflect our students (ethnically, culturally, or socioeconomically) can often communicate and empathize with them more effectively than a traditional volunteer. Plus, it’s easier for students to dream big when they see someone like themselves finding professional success.

We’ve done some brainstorming but we haven’t figured this one out. Do you have any tips for us? We’d love to hear them — share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!


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!

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