Building High-Value Volunteer Relationships
By Theresa M. Ellis

Theresa Ellis
In the nonprofit sector, we love volunteers, and the reality is that in many cases, we couldn’t meet our missions without them.

Independent Sector estimates that in 2014, about 63 million American adults volunteered, giving 7.9 billion hours of volunteer service worth $184 billion. While that sounds like an enormous sum, in reality, it’s only a fraction of the value that volunteers have to offer — and would willingly give — when their passions and talents are used to their full potential.

Have you ever wondered what motivates a volunteer to step forward and devote time and energy to your organization? A recent study on volunteerism identified two key factors: belief in a cause and the opportunity to use one’s skills. An equally important question to consider is what causes a volunteer to become disillusioned. Some of the most frequently cited sources of volunteer frustration are:
  • Disorganized management

  • Staff indifference

  • Limited training and orientation

  • Lack of contact and support

  • Wrong assignment

The following tips will help you to tap into the key motivations of volunteers, avoid common pitfalls, and build the foundations of high-value, long-term relationships.
  1. Get Them Excited. If you’re the United Way or the Boys and Girls Club, people know who you are. Volunteers will gravitate to you. Most community-based nonprofits do not have the luxury of being a household name. That doesn’t mean, however, that prospective volunteers wouldn’t be equally excited about your organization’s mission once they learn about you! Use every avenue available to you — your website, third party databases, speaking events, your network partners and donors, etc .— to get people excited about the great work that you do. Sell the vision, invite them to see your programs in action, and show them what a positive impact you are making in the community.

  2. Describe the Project’s Importance. As you’re recruiting or preparing volunteers to engage on a specific task or project, be sure to describe the impact that the effort will have on your organization and its constituents. Sometimes when volunteers perform tasks remotely or in the “back office,” they can feel a little distanced from your mission. Help them understand the context around the effort and why it’s so critical to your success, and they’ll be even more energized to volunteer.

  3. Explain Yourself. Remember that many volunteers have never been exposed to the nonprofit sector before, so explaining some of the basics like how you raise money, what the role of your board is, where your program participants come from, and what the titles and roles of your staff are can help them feel more comfortable and in tune with the nonprofit world.

  4. Clarify Expectations. How many times have you kicked off a volunteer project with great expectations that were never reached fruition? To make a volunteer experience successful, prepare the volunteer(s) as you would a member of your own staff. In other words, establish clearly defined, agreed-upon expectations of what the project will accomplish, by when you need it, and how frequently you would like progress updates for the duration of the project.

  5. Listen Actively and Be Responsive. Volunteers are usually busy people; they may have full-time jobs and many commitments just like the rest of us. Make sure you’re on the same page as the volunteers by asking how they’re doing, listening, and responding to their needs, and clarifying any points that might cause confusion. If you can respond quickly to their questions and accommodate their schedules, they’ll deeply appreciate your efficient use of their time.

  6. Devote Staff Time. Volunteer efforts are most successful when every participant involved — both the volunteers and your staff — makes the project a priority. If the volunteers are completing a longer-term piece of work like a market research study, your final output will be most valuable if you devote time during the project to exchange feedback and review interim drafts thoroughly.

  7. Recognize and Reward. A little thank you can go a long way. Think about ways that you could show your appreciation, such as ordering pizza if the volunteers come to your office at lunchtime, giving small gifts like t-shirts and photos, or recognizing your outstanding volunteers at an awards banquet.

  8. Work To Build a Lasting Relationship. Remember, volunteers do many things in their daily lives and may be able to contribute in ways you didn’t initially imagine. For example, they could become donors, board members, program volunteers, or even help you network among their friends and colleagues to help your organization find new volunteers. By cultivating the volunteers who are making a commitment to you — even for just a day — you can build long-lasting relationships that provide additional resources for years to come.

Theresa M. Ellis, now the inaugural director of the Dartmouth Center for Service, authored this article, which has been updated, while serving as CEO of Common Impact, an organization that develops and implements skills-based volunteering programs.