How to Start a Volunteer Program: 12 Steps for Success
Has your nonprofit identified an unaddressed need within your community? Need more help running your current programs? Or could your next event benefit from a bigger team? If so, you may be interested in starting a volunteer program.
Volunteers provide nonprofits with the on-the-ground support they need to further their missions, whether that means helping to build homes, providing meals for food-insecure families, mentoring local youths, or cleaning up trash at local parks.
To help you build a sustainable volunteer program, in this guide, we’ll cover the essential steps for starting a volunteer program:
- Conduct a community needs assessment.
- Set goals for your volunteer program.
- Craft a mission statement.
- Create a leadership team.
- Define your volunteer roles.
- Invest in the right software.
- Develop your volunteer schedule.
- Promote your program to recruit volunteers.
- Train volunteers.
- Streamline ongoing volunteer management and communication.
- Show appreciation to volunteers.
- Evaluate your volunteer program.
Once you’ve strategized each of these steps, you’ll be able to create a volunteer management process that allows you to continually recruit, engage, and retain effective volunteers. Let’s take a closer look at each step of the process.
1. Conduct a community needs assessment.
The first step in building your new volunteer program is to analyze your current programs’ progress and continually assess community needs.
For example, perhaps your nonprofit’s mission is to refurbish local community parks. You might determine that you can better fulfill your mission by developing a volunteer program that supports your staff’s efforts by helping raise funds. With enough volunteers, you might even have the team necessary to expand your work to new locations and better serve your community.
Identify the organizations in your community (if any) that are already working to solve this issue. Determine what makes your volunteer program’s approach different and why your services are necessary for the community. This can help you promote your program more effectively down the line.
2. Set goals for your volunteer program.
Your goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
A lofty, ambiguous goal will not serve your organization in the long term. However, if your goal is SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound—you’ll have a clear benchmark to work toward and measure progress.
Here are a few volunteer program goal examples:
- We want to plant 10,000 trees throughout the community by 2025.
- We want to increase the number of pets who find homes by 70% in three years.
- We want to create 400 meal kits per week for families in need.
These goals are specific and have a clear timeline for completion, giving the nonprofit team a clear and attainable benchmark to strive for. Use your goals to make decisions about other aspects of your volunteer program, such as how many volunteers you’d like to bring on board or what you’d like them to prioritize.
3. Craft a mission statement.
Your mission statement will act as a guiding principle that your team can use to promote your program and set priorities. Your volunteer program’s mission statement should align with your nonprofit’s overall mission statement to show how your program fits into your larger efforts.
Base this statement on your program’s goal. For example, an animal advocacy organization with the goal of homing more pets than they did the previous year might have a mission statement like, “We work to reduce the number of homeless pets in the community by offering free rescue services and housing animals with volunteer foster homes.”
A strong mission statement can boost your marketing efforts by telling prospective volunteers what they can expect from working with your organization.
4. Create a leadership team.
Establish accountability for your volunteer program by creating a team that will oversee and coordinate various aspects of your program.
Depending on the size of your program, your team may consist of the following roles:
- Volunteer manager/coordinator
- Volunteer onboarding/training specialist
- Volunteer program marketing coordinator
- Community outreach coordinator
If you have a small team, one person may take on many (or all) of these responsibilities. Additionally, some of these roles may be filled by qualified volunteers rather than paid nonprofit staff members.
Make sure team members know what their responsibilities are and when they will be asked to share data or reports relevant to their roles.
5. Define your volunteer roles.
After establishing the core tenets of your volunteer program you’ll be ready to start recruiting volunteers. The first stage of the volunteer recruitment process is finding the right people for the right roles.
Develop clear volunteer role descriptions to explain what qualifications potential volunteers should have. These explanations should include the following:
- Role titles: Use a descriptive, self-explanatory title that is easily understood by your volunteers and staff.
- Role information: Include a high-level description that explains what the role is and the tasks they will perform.
- Skill qualifications: Describe the skills and qualifications required to do the tasks.
- Certifications: Don’t forget to list any necessary certifications, background checks, or other requirements that volunteers will need to work in their role.
After creating your volunteer role descriptions, you can now build your registration form with skill and certification-based questions to streamline your volunteer onboarding and scheduling process.
6. Invest in the right software.
Volunteer management software brings all essential volunteer management activities under one roof, making it easier to recruit, engage, and retain volunteers while also tracking progress made toward your program goals.
Look for volunteer management software that offers features like:
- The ability to customize recruitment, scheduling, and administrative settings based on your program’s needs.
- Recruitment workflows that streamline the volunteer application process and make it easy to collect important documents like waivers and background checks.
- A scheduling tool that allows you to track attendance and send shift confirmations and notifications.
- Self-serve options for volunteers to choose the shifts that align with their preferences.
- End-to-end reporting that syncs with your CRM to provide a comprehensive view of your volunteers.
It’s also helpful to invest in volunteer management software that comes with a mobile app. This lets you stay in touch with volunteers to provide critical information and updates whenever needed.
7. Develop your volunteer schedule.
Keeping your volunteer schedule updated and organized is key to reaching your program goals. Keep these considerations in mind when developing your schedule:
- Determine the types of shifts you will offer. For example, you might fill your calendar with various recurring and one-time opportunities based on your program’s needs. You may also consider offering micro-volunteer opportunities (typically between 1-2 hours) or virtual volunteer opportunities for volunteers with busy schedules, mobility issues, or transportation restrictions.
- Be clear about shift times and locations. Use your volunteer calendar or communications platform to share event logistics like the start and end times for each opportunity and their locations. You may also want to include parking information such as if they must pay to park or if the parking lot is tricky to find.
- Send volunteers scheduling reminders. Send shift reminders 24 hours in advance to help reduce no-shows. You can also use your mobile app to send alerts for when there are only a few spots left in a shift or when you urgently need assistance for a specific shift.
Try offering volunteers the opportunity to self schedule and select the shifts that appeal to them. Doing so will allow them to pick the times that best fit their interests and availability , while also reducing your leadership team’s administrative work. You can also send messages to specific volunteers when you schedule opportunities that are relevant to their skills or interests.
8. Promote your program to recruit volunteers.
Once you’ve finalized your volunteer roles and schedule, it’s time to start promoting your opportunities to your target audience. Use the following strategies to connect with a broad group of prospective volunteers:
- Craft an easy-to-use online registration form. Make sure your volunteer registration page only asks for necessary information so that it’s easy to fill out. Follow online accessibility and mobile-friendly best practices. Include a link to the form on your volunteer landing webpage.
- Spread the word on social media. Launch campaigns on social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram. Share the link to your registration page and highlight the benefits of getting involved. For example, you might promote the social or networking aspect of your volunteer opportunities.
- Personally invite current volunteers. If you already have a list of volunteers who have worked at previous events or opportunities, make them feel appreciated by giving them the first choice when new positions become available. Encourage them to invite their family and friends to get involved, too. You can even offer incentives to do so, such as offering free merchandise.
Your nonprofit’s donors can also be a great resource for finding potential volunteers. These individuals have already shown their support for your cause and may be looking to get involved in a hands-on way.
9. Train volunteers.
Volunteers will feel more comfortable and have a better experience when you equip them with the information and resources they need to perform their tasks.
Your training and orientation processes should be thorough and hands-on. Follow these guidelines for a successful training experience:
- Set clear expectations. Communicate expectations such as your code of conduct and the chain of command. You will also need to clearly communicate what training courses, lessons, and forms each volunteer needs to complete before their shift.
- Make the training accessible. The more training options there are, the better because you can open your opportunities to more people. Consider offering online courses or live streaming your training lessons for those who can’t make it to in-person training. In addition, ensure your training materials are accessible for people with disabilities, whether that means including captions for training videos, large-font printed materials, or training manuals in multiple languages.
- Track progress. Use your volunteer management software to track where each volunteer is in the training process and identify volunteers who are fully onboarded and ready to start participating. This allows you to get these newly onboarded volunteers up and running quickly.
Your training sets the tone for your volunteer relationships, so make a good first impression with an organized, practical onboarding experience.
10. Streamline ongoing volunteer management and communication.
Effective ongoing volunteer management is essential for ensuring everything runs smoothly and delivering a positive volunteer experience. The better the experience your volunteers have, the more likely they are to return.
At this point, your volunteers have been given the training and information they need to do a great job. Now, it’s up to your team supervisors to help your volunteers excel by offering them support whenever they need it. Here are a few volunteer management tips to ensure everything runs smoothly:
- Optimize your check-in process. Ensure your supervisors check in volunteers right when they arrive. Some volunteer management platforms allow coordinators to use their phones as mobile check-in kiosks, speeding up the process. This will allow you to manage no-shows and late volunteers throughout the day in real time and review volunteer performance later.
- Maintain open communication. Keep your teams informed throughout the day as things change. Communicate through your mobile app to individuals or teams to ensure that they can respond quickly to changes in circumstances.
- Offer ongoing support. Make sure volunteers have the contact information for the go-to staff member who can answer any questions during the volunteer event. Facilitate a positive experience by planning breaks during longer opportunities and offering water and snacks to help maintain high energy.
By streamlining your volunteer program’s logistics, you will show volunteers you value their time. Volunteers should feel like they’re a central part of your nonprofit (because they are!). By offering positive experiences and ongoing engagement, you can develop deeper relationships with volunteers that lead to long-term support.
11. Show appreciation to volunteers.
When it comes to volunteer retention, appreciation is the golden ticket. Whether it is a simple thank you as your volunteers leave, a gift such as a free t-shirt or water bottle, or a more significant statement of gratitude like a personal phone call, appreciation efforts make a difference to your volunteers.
No matter what type of thank you message you send volunteers, you should make sure it’s personal and specific. Don’t just say “Dear volunteer, thank you for your ongoing support.” Tailor thank yous to each volunteer with messages like, “Dear Vanessa, thank you for volunteering at our Run4Good 5K event. Because of your support, we were able to raise $10,000 for local elementary schools and host a safe, fun event for the community.”
12. Evaluate your volunteer program.
The final stage in the volunteer management process is to evaluate and optimize your existing plans to see even better results for future opportunities. When you understand how your volunteers discovered your organization, which opportunities they’re most interested in, and their preferred communication platforms, you can tailor your marketing efforts and opportunities to be more appealing in the future.
Two of the most effective ways to assess the success of your volunteer program are running reports and asking volunteers for feedback.
Harness the data in your volunteer management software to run reports on data points like:
- Volunteer attendance: This will give you a good idea of how many of your volunteers actually show up and which shifts or roles have a high no-show rate. This gives you a chance to adjust and improve those problem areas.
- Total hours worked: Using this report, you can measure the average number of volunteer hours worked and then calculate the value of an average volunteer. This data is useful for planning and can also be used in grant applications.
- Communications: Tracking all your communications with your volunteers provides insight into how much communication is required to ensure your volunteers are engaged and are likely to come back to volunteer again. You can also determine which communication platforms see the highest engagement.
- Volunteer performance: Supervisors can rate your volunteers’ performances. You can then pull a report to identify particularly effective volunteers and craft personalized thank you messages for those individuals.
- Volunteer experience: When you maintain information on your supporters’ volunteer history, you can invite them to work similar shifts in the future.
Talk to volunteers
When you ask for volunteer feedback, you can supplement your quantitative data with qualitative information about volunteer satisfaction levels. Once they have finished working a shift, or at the end of an event or program, consider sending your volunteers a survey.
Ask volunteers questions like:
- What was your favorite aspect of the volunteer opportunity and why?
- What was your least favorite aspect and why?
- Did you feel the volunteer training was sufficient?
- What could we have done to make the experience more rewarding?
- Would you volunteer with our organization again?
- Would you recommend our volunteer opportunities to a friend?
Once you have this feedback, you can then make changes to your volunteer management process based on volunteers’ comments, ensuring that you continually improve your process to provide the best experience possible.
These essential steps can help you at any stage of developing your volunteer program, whether you’re creating a new program from scratch or reviewing your current program to identify gaps in your strategy.
Every minute that you invest in planning an effective volunteer management process is well worth the effort to ensure that your organization can recruit, engage, and retain more volunteers, transforming them into long-term supporters.