Want more time, more respect, and more funding? This volunteer management best practice will get you there

Guest by Elisa Kosarin. This post originally appeared on Twenty Hats.

We know it’s a good idea to set volunteer impact measures. So what holds us back?

Not too long ago, a friend of mine made an observation about leaders and how they perceive the value of volunteer programs. She pointed out that any resistance we experience to expanding our programs probably comes from one source: the lack of quantifiable measures to demonstrate volunteer impact.

That may seem like an obvious statement as you read it in print, but for me, it was one of those smack-me-upside the head aha moments.

Let’s take our close cousins in the volunteer world, development programs. It’s easy to measure success in fundraising – money is numbers. If those numbers go up, then things look good. If they go down, then it’s time to regroup and figure out how to point those numbers in an upward direction.

Managing volunteers is not so simple to quantify. Any experienced leader of volunteers will tell you that the number of volunteers or the number of volunteer hours is a poor indicator of program success – those figures tell you nothing about how a client’s life was transformed, or how effectively a program is operating.

If we want our leaders to stand up and take notice of our programs, we need to start measuring the strategic impact of our volunteers’ contributions.

No doubt I’m preaching to the choir here. We know that measuring impact is important. There are a number of excellent books out there to get us started in the process. Past blogs on Twenty Hats have also touched on the essentials.

But as far as I can tell, there are a great many of us who still need to actually sit down and establish a comprehensive set of impact measures.

And if that’s the case — if many experienced and capable volunteer managers have yet to measure impact — what’s holding them back?

My guess is that it has to do with workload. We have so many demands on our time, so many reactive moments when something urgent lands on our desk that needs immediate attention. And then there’s timing. There always seems to be another event to prep for that’s right on the horizon – the appreciation event, the gala, the 5K race.  There never seems to be a right time to organize strategy and create measures.

While all that is true, there is another missing ingredient that prevents us from committing to this process:

We don’t realize what we’re losing.

Creating a set of strategic income measures is an investment. It’s an investment of your time, and most likely funds as well.  You’ll need to either educate yourself on how to create effective measures or you’ll need to hire someone who can lead you through the process.

And as with any investment, you need to quantify what’s being lost and what you stand to gain from your investment.

But you don’t need to sit down and run a cost/benefit analysis right now. I’m going to do it for you:

Loss/Gain #1: Time

While the measures you create are about connecting volunteer activity to the strategic priorities of your program, the results from all that data will lead you to decisions that improve your program and spare you extra hours on the job.

You’ll spend less time:

  • Recruiting, because your volunteer capacity metrics will point you toward the best referral sources for your ideal volunteers
  • Trying to fill last-minute staff requests for volunteers, because you’ll be tracking your turn-around times and letting staff know how far in advance to submit their requests
  • Replacing all of the after-school volunteer lesson plans, because you’ll know from tracking check-out rates which plans are most popular

Loss/Gain #2: Credibility

Let’s go back to my observation at the start of this post. Decision makers (board members, executive directors, leadership teams) need you – and want you – to educate them about the value of your program. It’s challenging to assess the success of a volunteer program without concrete measures.

When you have strategic outcomes to report, you’re unlikely to find yourself:

  • Explaining that there is no magical closet of volunteers, because your data draws the connection between recruitment activities and the number of active volunteers.
  • Left out of strategic planning sessions, because your data demonstrates that volunteers help deliver on the mission in a cost-effective manner
  • Trying to gain your co-workers’ buy-in, because the outcomes will demonstrate that volunteers serve more clients or free up their time

Loss/Gain #3: Funding – for your program and for you

Metrics are numbers. It’s easier for people to grasp anything that’s quantifiable. When you measure the value of your volunteer program, you arm yourself with the documentation you need to increase another incredibly valuable asset — money.

With strategic program measures, you’ll be able to:

  • Increase staffing, because your data shows the correlation between team size and volunteer turnover
  • Expand your program budget, because your data reveals which investments (perhaps advertising, mileage reimbursements or appreciation expenses) have a direct connection to volunteer retention
  • Advocate for a raise, because the connection between volunteer impact and your nonprofit’s sustainability is so clear

As leaders of volunteers, we rely on our intuitive ability to connect with others and cultivate relationships. We’re personable. We put a lot of thought and effort into the bonds we forge.

Likeability is not enough when it comes to advocating for our needs. To reach our biggest, most sought-after program goals, we need to back up our emotional intelligence (EQ) with plenty of irrefutable facts.

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