Volunteer Management: Meeting the Challenge and Raising the Bar

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A World of Volunteering Options

People from all ages and backgrounds want to make a difference in their own communities as well as places that are far-away. I had the opportunity to travel oversees recently and was very impressed with the number of groups exiting the plane excited about the service they were able to offer to improve the quality of life of others in need. Overall, they were thrilled with the experience that their volunteer opportunity offered and had a very clear and contagious sense of accomplishment even before their experience began. It reminded me that today more than ever, when people consider volunteering, they have plenty of options to choose from whether at the local level, in a community nearby, or even across the ocean.

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there was an estimated 2.3 million nonprofit organizations operating in the US in 2012. Although many large nonprofit organizations have paid staff to run their operations, most still depend and actively look for volunteer support. The realization that our volunteers have many options to choose from encourages all of us to take a closer look at the way we manage our current volunteer base and consider strategic ways to ensure that volunteering for Main Street is a valuable experience for both your organization and volunteers.

Important Gaps in Volunteer Management

Unfortunately, less than half of nonprofits that manage volunteers have important volunteer management practices in place, which is leading many volunteers to choose not to come back to support their efforts from one year to the next.  “The New Volunteer Workforce,” a report written by David Eisner, Robert T. Grimm Jr., Shannon Maynard, & Susannah Washburn highlights the following main factors that affect volunteer retention rates:

Matching volunteer skills with appropriate assignments. Today’s volunteers are not just interested in “helping” with general labor. They are looking for specific opportunities that match and enhance their skills and achieve a sense of accomplishment within the time frame they are able to offer. However, research has shown that only about 45% of nonprofits implement this practice. Within every aspect of the Main Street Approach, there are several volunteer opportunities for the young and the experienced, for the student and the retired professional, for the amateur and the experienced. We encourage Main Streets everywhere to define a structure that places a strong level of attention to finding the right fit for their current and potential volunteers. This includes outlining appropriate volunteer “job” descriptions, processes, and support system to ensure the volunteers experience a welcoming and fulfilling environment.

Within every aspect of the Main Street Approach, there are several volunteer opportunities for the young and the experienced, for the student and the retired professional, for the amateur and the experienced.

Recognizing the contributions of volunteers. About 35% of nonprofits take the time to consciously reward their volunteers through special activities or through the overall culture of the organization. For example, many organizations fail to highlight the support and impact of their volunteers in their annual reports and only recognize their sponsors and funders. Throughout my travels to Main Street communities, I am proud to see a more regular effort from Main Street organizations in recognizing their volunteers in their communication tools, at council meetings and special award events, and right after events.
Measuring the impact of volunteers annually. Unfortunately, less than 30% of nonprofits have this practice in place. This is a missed opportunity. Take pride on highlighting the quantitative and qualitative value of your volunteers. This is time well spent when we consider the “Value of Volunteer Time” as an in-kind contribution to your budget. Many Main Streets are using this value to demonstrate community support. As mentioned before, the Independent Sector provides a table that charitable organizations can use to “quantify” volunteer time.  Check out the value of the volunteer time estimated for your state here.

Providing training and professional development to volunteers. One out of four nonprofits provides training for volunteers to develop leaders within the organization. Coordinating programs usually offer regional volunteer trainings for local Main Street programs. Understanding that many programs deal with limited budgets, we encourage local Main Street programs to organize volunteer training opportunities and to also be attentive to local offering through other organizations. Technology can be a friend to our professional development efforts with webinars and innovative tools to support volunteer development. Main Street handbooks for board and committees area also now available online. downtown milford

Offering appropriate volunteer management training to paid staff. Only about 19% of nonprofits support staff training related to volunteer management. The Main Street Director serves a crucial role in leading and coordinating the volunteer efforts of the Main Street programs. In addition to the knowledge base on the Main Street Approach, more and more directors are asking for more specific professional development programming that helps increase their ability to work with volunteers. Some Main Street organizations are also adding specific roles within the board.

Providing Strong Leadership. Overall, nonprofits that depend on volunteers need to take the time to develop, support, and manage that volunteer talent more effectively. It takes time and effort to train a volunteer, but on the other hand, if we consider the challenges involved with the loss of a volunteer leader or with not having enough volunteers, investing time and effort in a comprehensive volunteer development program is time and money well spent.

To solve the gaps in volunteer management practices, the Stanford report also takes a look at the concept of a “talent management approach” encouraging us to invest “in the infrastructure to recruit, develop, place, recognize, and retain volunteer talent," which we in Main Street highlight in more simple terms as the “3-Rs” of effective volunteer management – Retention, Recognition and Recruitment.

Assessing our Current “Infrastructure”

Given that Main Street is a volunteer-driven approach means we are focused on people helping us achieve results. Since we often depend on already busy people, such as businesses or property owners, employees, and residents, we must consider an organizational structure that is attentive to their needs and also provide an environment that encourages a strong sense of ownership and accomplishment so that they are motivated to lead the efforts. When we consider “infrastructure” in Main Street, taking a look at where we are with our current volunteer base is a great starting point to confirm our effectiveness in managing volunteer support or to define ways to enhance our efforts to retain and attract more volunteers.

Volunteer surveys by different nonprofit organizations confirm that even in more recent years, there are considerable gaps between the volunteer experience people are looking for and the volunteer opportunities nonprofits are providing. Overall, volunteer “jobs” that are not connected to skills and interest lack “real” responsibility and appropriate guidance and direction, continue to discourage many volunteers and impact retention. The young and tech savvy are often challenged with volunteer opportunities that require long, tedious forms with restricted timelines, while the older generations are overwhelmed with social media and online communication tools that limit the personal interactive experience. All of these challenges are also presenting opportunities for organizations to become more familiar with their volunteer demographics in order to modify, expand, or even change their organizational “mindset” and their overall volunteer management structure to keep volunteers engaged and coming back.

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It is crucial to connect volunteers with opportunities that match their skills and interests.

Understanding that many Main Street organizations have very few staff members forces us to consider and perhaps make some conscious decisions on the most strategic role of that staff within our organizations. Focus on “directing” volunteer leadership support is a crucial role of the Main Street Director. This includes time to develop and manage the volunteer system in place and helping volunteer leaders establish a priority in their plan of work. Organizations should explore volunteer management software to assist in managing logistics – here are a few examples to consider: Downtown Divas, Volunteer Matters, Volunteer Hub.

The Main Street Approach advocates that retention is our best recruitment tool. Although this principle is usually allocated to business development, it would serve us well if we incorporate this thinking as a best practice to an effective volunteer management strategy. Empowering volunteers with resources to achieve their roles effectively requires clearly defined roles, and appropriate leadership development training and support. Remember, how we function and organize our efforts, impacts the overall volunteer experience and whether our volunteers feel empowered to achieve results.

Raising the Bar!

Let’s raise the bar in building a more effective volunteer-driven structure within our programs. Consider the following principles to guide your efforts:

1.    Build a strong sense of ownership that results in a culture of volunteering from everyone in the community. Everyone that benefits from a vibrant and successful downtown has an important role in the revitalization efforts. Strive to incorporate stakeholders from all sectors and backgrounds.

2.    Build an organizational culture that fosters and rewards community engagement. Make it a priority to build an environment that welcomes volunteers, empowers them to lead specific roles that match their skills and background, provides a strong support system for them to achieve results, and recognizes their time and contributions as valuable as financial support.

3.    Build a program worth volunteering for – More than volunteering, Main Street builds leaders for your community. Demonstrate through your defined priorities and action plans that you offer a purpose in volunteering that motivates to action and to produce visible results. Offer your volunteers a true and long-lasting sense of accomplishment!

Feel free to explore several more great articles addressing different aspects of volunteer development listed below:

• Growing your Volunteer ProgramMain Street News, Mar-Apr 2011
• Youth on Main StreetMain Street Now, Jan-Feb 2010
• Focus on Volunteers Main Street News, January 2006
• Investing in VolunteersMain Street News, March 2001
• Managing Volunteers for a Stronger Main Street ProgramMain Street News, February 1996

Are you proud of recent efforts or initiatives related to volunteer development? Please share with us. Send your stories to Rachel Bowdon at rbowdon@savingplaces.org.