Tag: volunteer management

For nonprofits that rely on volunteers to further their mission, robust volunteer engagement and management processes and systems are essential to scaling impact without scaling costs dollar for dollar. Lean processes reduce ambiguity and save staff trips down rabbit holes in their day-to-day operations. Strong systems enable staff to focus on activities that warrant their skills and intellect by reducing the volume of busy work.

If you’re embarking upon a journey to streamline your organization’s volunteer management processes, consider the following five-phase approach to derive real, tangible outcomes from your process improvement initiative. These insights are based on an engagement with a national nonprofit operating in 23 states that sought to scale their systems and processes to allow for a five-fold increase in constituents served.

1. Analyze: get off your perch

In an operations internship at an Amazon Customer Service center in the summer of 2013, my on-boarding included the ever-so-important Associate Experience Week, a ritual that every managerial hire would go through to get a first-hand experience of the work done by front-line staff. The AEW allowed new hires to build a sense of what was working well on the floor and what wasn’t, and more importantly, allowed them to build empathy with the trials and tribulations, and joys of the people they would be managing.

Experiencing your volunteer management processes in the first person is critical to identifying meaningful areas for improvement. Start with developing a deep understanding of those processes. There’s no better place to do that than shadowing individuals where the good work is done, whether that’s out on the field or at their desks. If you’re a former front-line employee that moved up in your organization some time ago (or joined the organization mid-career and never did front-line work there) chances are that the day-to-day details of your volunteer management processes may have become unfamiliar to you. It’s time to update your understanding.

As you listen and learn from your staff, map out your volunteer management processes (recruiting volunteers, onboarding and background checks, sign-ups and communication, and so on) through process maps. Use large easel pads sheets, post-its, sharpies so that you can circulate these process maps in your organization (hang them on the walls). By making your process maps available in a transparent way, you can allow your staff to point out exceptions/variations that they may be dealing with without your knowledge, variations that may be impacting the efficiency of your process or the experience of your volunteers in ways you couldn’t have imagined. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing it!

2. Strategize: develop a game plan

Unless you’re Alexander the great, you are not going to conquer the world in one lifetime. (Frankly, if Young Alex possessed Google Maps, he would’ve realized that even he didn’t quite conquer the world). In other words, do not expect to conquer all of your organization’s challenges in this one initiative.

After you’ve mapped out your processes, documented every step and discovered more opportunities for improvement than you could wrap your head around, your next challenge would be to make your plate at the buffet of inefficiencies.

Your instinct would be to gather your team and “prioritize”. Consider it a pet peeve of mine, but when it comes to strategizing, few words make me cringe more than “Let’s prioritize.” In theory, “prioritizing” is the simple process of ranking needs in decreasing order of importance with complete and total alignment among those who are participating in the process. In reality, it can quickly devolve into an experiment in determining who in the room has more organization-wide influence, who holds more sway in decision making, who can make a more convincing argument irrespective of the facts (real or alternative), who is most entrenched in their ways and so on.

Instead of prioritize, I recommend that you pragmatize. First, remove from consideration areas of opportunity that would be constrained by factors that are beyond the control of you (or your team). If you feel that a major impediment in recruiting new volunteers is insufficient efforts from the Communications team, but you don’t run or work in the communications department, that’s probably one item out of consideration. Ask yourselves, “What do we have the mandate to accomplish?” Tap into your understanding of your organization to weed out projects that are likely to run into roadblocks and fall to the wayside. With what all is left, examine the value-add that each is like to generate. It’s tempting to go with projects that could increase the likelihood of bringing in more earned revenue or securing a grant, but the value can be created in many shapes and forms. In your situation, the best ROI could be in the form of alleviating major pain points or improving the satisfaction of your volunteer coordinators who are deadly tired of working off of Google spreadsheets and can’t wait to find another job at another nonprofit with actual systems. It could be a project that could improve the experience of existing volunteers so that they become sticky, and you’re not always on the hunt for new volunteer faces to replace old ones.

As you have these discussions, create a parking lot where you can park ideas that are great ideas in and of themselves but are unlikely to fall within the scope of your current initiatives and instead likely to move the current conversation onto tangents.

3. Eliminate: time for a spring cleaning (whatever the time of year)

Once those process maps are adorning the walls of your office and you’ve narrowed down on specific parts of your volunteer management processes to address, it’s time to carry out my favorite exercise: the asking of the “Five Whys”.

The exercise is pretty simple and delightfully challenging at the same time. You move through each step in the process you want to overhaul and ask “Why?” Depending on the nature of the activity within that step and how much you may already know about it, the first Why could be “Why do we do this?” or “Why do we do it in this specific way? or “Why do we do it at this point in the process and not at another point?”

That’s just the first why though. As you answer the first Why, you immediately counter that answer with another Why. And then you repeat that till you drill five levels deep. The goal is to validate that each step in the process is intentional, meaningful, carried out in the most efficient manner and carried out at the right point in time.

If you’re sitting in a room with veterans of your organization, it’d be easy to breeze through the Five Whys. Every step is likely to seem necessary, properly executed and well-timed. Why wouldn’t it… it’s your baby after all!

This is where it becomes extremely valuable to bring in an outsider’s perspective… someone who is inquisitive and isn’t familiar with (and doesn’t have an emotional attachment to) your processes. Consider yourself lucky if you can bring someone to the room with perspective on how other organizations (which could be other nonprofits, for-profits, governmental organizations etc.) carry out activities similar to yours in different ways. This person may be in the form of a (very) recent outside hire, a consultant, a counterpart at another local nonprofit, etc.

You want to come out of this process with a new process map which, if all goes well, looks at least somewhat different from the status quo. If the new process map looks far too similar to the prior map, it means that either your existing processes are close to perfection (which is unlikely, because there’s always room for improvement and innovation) or you didn’t ask enough Why’s.

4. Empathize: luck doesn’t visit the same messy house twice

As you examine and streamline your internal volunteer management processes, you want to simultaneously examine and document your volunteer experience, i.e. the interactions that your volunteer has with your organization, whether it’s interactions with your staff, your website/volunteer management system, the electronic communication (email, text) that they receive and so on. Studying and streamlining the end-user experience is in my opinion, among the most overlooked areas in for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike. Creating pleasant, unambiguous interactions between you and your volunteers can go a long way in making them feel connected to your organization and its mission, and therefore, making them sticky.

Service Blueprinting is an excellent method for systematically analyzing and documenting an “experience”, something that can generally be considered fairly intangible. In a nutshell, a service blueprint seeks to document internal processes at a high level, while capturing internal-external interactions in rich detail. If you’re keen to explore and looking to get started on Service Blueprinting, the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University (my alma mater) excels at training organizations big and small on how to blueprint their services and customer interactions, but the treasure trove called the internet holds a few good examples worth looking at and emulating.

5. Endure: babyproofing for adults

Grand initiatives, such as transforming your volunteer management processes, can be fun, appealing, energizing, and can motivate your staff to come together, contribute and create tremendous value for your organization. That is until the next grand initiative comes along and the focus, energy, investment and enthusiasm shifts in its direction.
A well-planned and well-executed change management process doesn’t only deliver tremendous value in the now but creates improvements that are long-lasting and self-sustaining. However, creating that “sustainability” factor needs to be built into the scope and design of your project, and not left to an expectation that your staff will follow the new recommendations you put before them. As humans, we are all creatures of habit and can be quick to resort to our established ways, especially when we feel like no one is looking.

A sure way of holding people accountable for adopting change is, again, by creating transparency. Whatever process, technology, automation or metrics you decide to put in place as you seek to transforming your volunteer management processes, ensure that you identify success indicators that you care about (# volunteer opportunities per month, # of sign-ups per opportunity, # RSVPs and % of no-shows, # of repeat/returning volunteers), and ensure that the systems you adopt can report on these indicators in an automated way, or with minimal effort. Then, ensure that those metrics are made available on-demand or on a set schedule to the entire organization.

The key takeaway: A successful process improvement initiative in your volunteer management department can do wonders for streamlining your operations, increasing volunteer engagement and providing your employees with an opportunity to learn and grow. Just be sure to focus on the benefits to your internal and external customers while surrounding yourself with those who will hold your feet to the fire.

Earlier this year, I met with one of our volunteers to go over some training materials. This particular volunteer started out as a computer mentor at our Digital Inclusion Computer Help Lab, but he wanted to do more by volunteering with another one of our programs as well. As I spoke with him, I was overwhelmed by his generosity and willingness to do so much for our community. When I thanked him for his support, his response humbled me—he said that our organization was doing more for him than he was doing for us, by giving him the opportunity to help.

It can be easy for us as program managers and staff to forget that people want to volunteer. It can be daunting to think about starting a volunteer recruitment campaign. It may feel like an imposition to ask people to give their free time to our work. But the truth is, people want to help. So how can we tap into this desire to help and use volunteers most effectively in our digital inclusion work?

Determine your volunteer goals

Before recruiting volunteers, it’s important to take time to determine what your program goals are in relation to volunteering. Why do you want volunteers? What kind of volunteer positions will be most helpful for your program? How will volunteers help you achieve your mission?

When managed properly, volunteers can become advocates for your work, recruiters of other volunteers, and even donors. Their impact can ripple through all areas of your work, not just your day-to-day programming. Don’t be afraid to think big when you consider the ways volunteers can help advance your cause!

Once you have an idea of how volunteers can support your work, it’s time to start recruiting! Right? Actually, there are still a couple of things to do before you reserve a table at the local university’s service fair.

Make a volunteer staffing plan

Make sure that you have the staff time and resources to dedicate to managing volunteers. Managing volunteers is just like managing staff—except that, since they won’t be paid, you need to be better at selling them on job satisfaction. Volunteers, just like employees, don’t want to work for a bad manager. If your on-boarding or training processes don’t adequately prepare volunteers for their assignment, they won’t stick around. It’s also important to remember that social connections are crucial for volunteers. Sometimes you will need to take extra staff time to get to know your volunteers and build strong relationships with them.

Develop volunteer position descriptions

Take the time to write some clear volunteer position descriptions. What is a volunteer position description, you ask? It’s basically a job description for volunteers. These descriptions are not recruitment messages, but they are an essential element of the recruitment process. After all, there isn’t much point in asking people to help before you know what you need them to help with, right?

Set aside some time to write down the responsibilities, qualifications, and time commitment for each volunteer position. This will not only provide some much-needed structure for the volunteer manager, but it will also make it easier for you to target your recruiting efforts.

Recruit new volunteers

You have to ask people to volunteer. It’s like dating. You won’t know if someone’s interested in you unless you ask them. It’s tempting to think that once people know about your amazing program they will come to you and ask to help—and that does happen sometimes. But for the most part, you need to go after those potential volunteers and ask them personally. Even if they say no, people are generally flattered to be asked to help. After all, asking someone to volunteer means that they have skills that you value and that you think are worth sharing with the world.

Of course, figuring out where those potential volunteers are so you can ask them to help can be challenging. Unfortunately, there are no secret “Future Volunteer” clubs. But the good news is, potential volunteers can be found anywhere: PTA meetings, church congregations, college classrooms, AARP groups, local companies. To find them, your messaging has to be very specific.

Look back at your volunteer position descriptions. Use those descriptions to help you identify where to look for volunteers. If you need a volunteer to teach computer classes once a week from 10am to noon, for example, you may want to look for a college student who has a free morning once a week or a retired teacher who misses being in the classroom. Make sure that all of your marketing materials are tailored to the group you are targeting.

Retain your volunteers

Once you’ve gone through the recruitment process, it’s time to start the volunteer retention process. There are a lot of different priorities competing for volunteers’ time, so how can you encourage them to stay with your organization for more than a month or two?

Setting clear expectations up front is crucial; make sure the volunteers know what their responsibilities are, who they can go to for help, and what their time commitment is. Give them all the information they need to be successful.

And of course, always, always thank your volunteers. Make sure that people know how much you value them. Let them know that you recognize the good they are doing. Volunteer appreciation doesn’t have to involve food or gift cards, although it can. Sometimes, a sincere expression of thanks or a card can be the best kind of recognition. Showing volunteers that they matter to you and to your work is crucial to retaining them on a long-term basis.

Keep it going!

Good volunteer management is an ongoing process, and it does take a significant investment of time and resources. But making that investment has dividends for your organization, your clients, and your volunteers that go far beyond the temporary benefit of having someone take a shift for a few hours a week.

Volunteering leads to change. It changes us—as volunteers, as program managers, as recipients of service. It makes us more caring, more capable, and more compassionate people. That’s what I learn each time I talk with a volunteer or a client who has worked with a volunteer. And ultimately, that is what we are striving for in our work. To create a society where everyone has access to the skills, equipment, and resources they need to thrive, we have to let others help us.

A version of this article originally appeared on VolunteerPro and is reprinted here with permission.

Volunteer recruitment “tell-a-friend” campaigns are easy ways to expand your volunteer recruitment campaigns by tapping into the networks of your existing volunteers. Your biggest fans will be more than happy to help you spread the word, but they need encouragement and the tools to do it.

That’s where word-of-mouth marketing campaigns can be an asset to your volunteer recruitment efforts.

These campaigns are simple yet powerful ways to use social proof to spread the word. To get your campaign rolling, pull together a small team of volunteers to help develop it.

By involving volunteers at the very outset, you’ll gain buy-in and cultivate a willingness to help. So, don’t do this in a vacuum without their participation.

Step 1: Engage—listening & interaction

Start by deepening your understanding of what motivates your volunteers: Why do they continue to help out? What do they get out of volunteering? What do they tell others about their experience?

It’s important to understand which messages your volunteers will be comfortable sharing and their friends will understand. Focus on the specific words they use to describe what they do in partnership with you. Also, be sure to poll volunteers on the specific communications methods they prefer (email, social media platforms, etc.)

You can gather this information through any or all of the following:

  • Surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Comment cards
  • Individual conversations

Step 2: Equip—inspiration & an ask

Next, gather “buzzworthy” ideas and information that volunteers will be excited to share.

To kick off your campaign, orient your volunteers by sharing some of the following. Ask them to share their ideas, too.

  • Compelling stories
  • Inspiring service
  • Insider knowledge
  • Unbelievable facts
  • Funny disclosures

Step 3: Empower—tools to share

Finally, create simple ways that the info gathered in Step Two can be shared online or on land. When creating text, graphics, or videos, feature the key words volunteers shared in Step One so you are sure to be “speaking their language.”

Below are just a few ways you can create pre-packaged content that can be easily shared:

  • Tell-a-friend buttons & links on your website that generate emails
  • Emails sent to volunteers to forward to friends
  • Social media posts & pics (simple, but inspiring)
  • Post Cards
  • Business Cards

More tips for “tell-a-friend” volunteer recruitment campaigns

Below are a few more tips to keep in mind to make your campaign even stronger.

  • Ask volunteers directly to share and like your content and social media properties.
  • Include a start and end date for the campaign, so you ask volunteers to focus a short, discrete amount of time versus an open-ended ask.
  • Keep track of the number of volunteers who are referred by your team and celebrate each step of their progress.
  • Personally thank those who refer applicants with handwritten notes or emails.
  • Include a “tell-a-friend” link on every web page that mentions volunteering.
  • Offer “sneak peek” insider info they can share as someone who is “in the know.”
  • Create videos that feature volunteers in them that they will want to share with others.

Recruitment and retention are some of the top challenges volunteer managers face—by taking advantage of your current volunteers’ enthusiasm for your mission, you can make your job that much easier.

In April 2017, the Sierra Club joined hundreds of other organizations in the Peoples Climate March (PCM) in Washington DC and across the country. Together, organizations turned out over 300,000 people to protest the Trump Administration’s attacks on clean air, clean water, and our climate.

This was actually the second Peoples Climate March—the first was in New York City in September of 2014. We learned a lot about how to amplify mass mobilizations on social media during the first event, but three years is a long time in internet years. Since then the world has seen the rise of Facebook Live, Snapchat, and a massive public resistance movement, made more visible through events like the Women’s March this past January.

This year, we combined the lessons of 2014 with some new strategies and a bit of trial and error to successfully cover the March on social media. Here are just a few things we learned along the way:

1. Stay on message—meaning the coalition’s message, not your own agenda.

A mass mobilization isn’t a branding opportunity—it’s about mobilizing supporters around the issue. Everyone (the social team, the media team, celebrity supporters, etc.) needs to understand and agree to what the messages for the day are. It’s easy to harm relationships with partners and supporters by posting something that clashes with your message and values. We held a messaging training for our staff who were covering the PCM on social media to ensure everyone was on the same page.

2. Use a variety of voices and perspective to tell the story of the day.

You have to remember that you’re not always the best messenger. If you have a large audience, you should be elevating posts from smaller or less visible members of the coalition. Go out of your way to make sure you are highlighting a diversity of voices from other organizations, different communities—especially front-line communities, and people in the crowd.

Assign one or two people to monitor conversations happening online with your supporters and also checking out traditional media sources. During this year’s March, CNN tweeted a stunning timelapse during the event. It was inspiring for us to see and great for us to share with our community; the video received overwhelmingly positive replies and favorites from our followers and a lot of reshares.

3. Be everywhere.

“For the first PCM [in 2014] we had three, maybe four people running all the Sierra Club social media for the event. It worked, but there were a lot of ‘quick saves’ going on, like finding a coffee shop with wifi to transmit because it was impossible to get a signal. And we mostly captured content that we used immediately.

This time, we had 12 people just capturing content, so inconsistent signals weren’t as much of an issue. We still had a queue of quality content to choose from, so we could take a more editorial perspective and support more social channels.” – Bharat Kusuma, Digital Community Manager

4. You don’t need fancy equipment.

You’ll definitely want professional videographers and some high quality photography happening at the event, but mostly for future use. For the PCM, our team on the ground used their own phones for everything.

We had looked into what we could do to make sure they’d always have a signal, but really there wasn’t much. Satellite hot spots would would be running through the same cell towers, so there wasn’t enough benefit to justify it.

5. Have a command center.

“Most members of our core social team weren’t actually at the march; they were holed up in a hotel room with good WiFi a few blocks away, which became our command center.

Our role online was mainly editorial and moderation. We also did our best to troubleshoot as we went along—checking in with some of the staff working the march itself to find out what was going on when using radios. Getting that to work took a little longer to get going than we planned. If we hadn’t had multiple folks in the control room, it would have been a bigger problem because you can’t easily play editor and do technical troubleshooting at the same time.” – Heather Moyer, Senior Content Producer

6. Look beyond the social media team.

We have a relatively small social media team for a large organization, but even with a large team, it’s worthwhile to recruit staff and volunteers to be in the crowd capturing content for social media.

There are plenty of people who aren’t social media professionals who have great social savvy and personal reach. These are the people you want out there getting good stories and pictures and talking with people. They’re motivated, and not intimidated about the responsibility and can roll with it when something unexpected happens.

Things will go wrong, and you need your people on the ground to know that you may not be able to respond to them individually, but they can just keep going — posting, streaming, tweeting, being in the moment.

7. Be crystal clear on roles before the event.

“We’re getting better at this. The important thing is to make sure that everyone is clear regarding who has final decision making authority on what gets posted and what doesn’t, or if something has to come down—but hopefully that’s a last resort. You have to train the team days and weeks in advance on both organization and mobilization event guidelines, and make sure anyone who doesn’t normally have access to post content knows how to properly engage that day.” – Kacey Crawford, Director of Content Strategy

8. Facebook Live can be tricky but really resonates with people.

“Your signal will probably be shaky so use it when you’ve got a good one. Just jump in. People love it. You can narrate the event, move around and show different aspects of it, interview people. The energy is contagious. For this event, 5 minutes seemed to be a sweet spot, but shorter broadcasts were useful too, because we could add more specific descriptions to the individual posts.” – Emma Cape, Online Organizer

9. Work with big social media organizations to amplify the message (they appreciate it).

“We were lucky to be able to partner with Snapchat for their coverage of the march—mostly because we had something to offer them as well: the inside scoop, lots of our folks on the ground. It created an opportunity to build a relationship with Snapchat that we hope will create more editorial opportunities in the future. It also gave us an opportunity to create content optimized for a younger audience, and they were great to work with too.” – Kacey Crawford, Director of Content Strategy


Mass mobilizations have grown so much more powerful through social amplification. The stories are all around—you just need a few people to collect them, the desire to raise marginalized voices (not just your own), a clear game plan, and a hub to manage it all.

In many nonprofit organizations, especially smaller ones, the staff are generalists: good at wearing many hats, and responding to the myriad needs of programs, clients and constituents. But imagine: What you could accomplish if you weren’t limited to the time and talent of paid staff?

All volunteers bring their skills and talents to our organizations, but when we engage pro bono volunteers we’re also asking them to bring their expertise. The term “pro bono” may conjure up attorneys and episodes of Law & Order, but today the term is used to describe any volunteer that uses their professional-level skills to solve strategic problems in an organization.

Engaging pro bono volunteers can be a great way to provide singular focus and experience on a project or problem. Do you need to evaluate the ROI of a program, investigate the options and costs associated with implementing a new donor database, or create marketing personas to focus your communications strategies? Engage a pro bono volunteer.

That’s easier said than done! The nonprofit space is full of pro bono engagement and skills-based volunteering gone wrong. How can we set our organizations up for success and tap into the power and promise of these volunteers without getting mired down in the problems?

When engaging pro bono volunteers, a little work ahead of time can make a big difference in the success of the project and the experiences of both paid and volunteer staff.

What do people think?

Not everyone may be as excited, or the see the potential, for pro bono volunteering in your organization. Determine what key stakeholders think or “believe” about pro bono volunteers. Identify “champions” and consider what information might be persuasive to others: case studies, pilot programs, etc.

Think big

How could the impact of staff members, programs, or the organization be expanded by engaging pro bono volunteers? What could you, your program, or your organization accomplish if you weren’t limited to the time and talent of paid staff? Engage your champions in these conversations. You can test your readiness to engage pro bono volunteers with this Skills Based Service Engagement Tool from Points of Light and the Taproot Foundation.

Build buy-in

Invite stakeholders (especially your champions) into the planning and screening processes. This collaborative effort can encourage even resistant stakeholders to be invested in the success of the project and pro bono volunteer engagement.

Start small

What projects best align with the needs of your organization, have the strongest champions, or the fewest barriers? New ideas, even if they’re good, can be challenging and scary. Aligning pro bono projects with organizational priorities can be a good place to start. Consider starting with a pilot program, or asking a pro bono volunteer to evaluate your current practices or programs. It’s easier to build on a smaller successful project, than to try to regroup after a larger project has failed.

Manage the scope

Starting small can be harder than it seems.  Check out resources from the Taproot Foundation like this Project Finder to determine deliverables, goals, and how challenging a project might be to launch and manage. (Stay away from the Black Diamonds if you’re a newbie!)

Know what success looks like

A pro bono volunteer will bring expertise and experience, but only your organization knows what it needs, and what will work for you. Have goals and outcomes in mind before looking for a volunteer to join your organization.

Tap into the network

Many individuals want to use their professional-level skills to help organizations. Volunteers want an opportunity to make a difference in their community—and pro bono volunteering is one of the best ways to do that. When surveyed, 79% say this very important factor in their decision (Hart Associates, 2010.)  Any skills-based opportunity posted on VolunteerMatch will reach up to 15 million prospective volunteers. Those opportunities will also automatically cross-post to LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace reaching up to another 10 million individuals who want to use their skills and experience while volunteering. There are also organizations like 1+ or Pro Bono Partnership that provide specialized professional services.

Consider the community

While individuals may want to use their skills when volunteering, many corporations have made pro bono and skills-based volunteering a cornerstone of their Employee Volunteer Programs (EVP). If you already partner with a corporation for single-day volunteering events, those companies can be a great place to start. If you’re looking to build a relationship with a corporation in your community to engage their employees as pro bono volunteers, there are a few things to consider:

  • Do the skills and experience need to be a key function of the company’s work? If you need help setting up a new accounting system, an accounting firm might be a good place to start, but most offices will have an accounting team even if their key work is something different.
  • Understand the goals and priorities of the company’s EVP. Your cause is awesome, but some companies restrict where employees can volunteer. Make sure your impact is aligned with the company’s stated goals before you make your ask.
  • Consider matching the size and structure of the company to your organization. If you’re a small grassroots organization, a local or regional company may have a better understanding of the challenges and limitations you might face.

Be picky

Consider whether a volunteer will be a good fit with the culture of your organization, not just if they have the skills and experience to do the work. Ask for professional references and examples of their work, and run background checks, if appropriate. Share your screening process with stakeholders to address any concerns, and include them in interviews to help build buy-in.

Get on the same page

Create an agreement letter or memorandum of understanding once you’ve identified the outcomes and deliverables for your project. Include a timeline, key deadlines, and evaluation points in the agreement letter. Ensure that Intellectual Property policies and Confidentiality Agreements are included with this documentation. Make sure everyone—paid and volunteer staff—knows their responsibilities and who to go to with questions.

Don’t check out

Volunteer engagement professionals are experienced in motivating and working with volunteers, but don’t assume that others in your organization have the same skills. Facilitate interactions between paid staff and pro bono volunteers. Ensure that everyone is communicating and that deadlines are being met. Even a quick 15-minute meeting can identify barriers, provide a key piece of information to keep a project moving forward, or keep stakeholders motivated.

Talk about it

Share updates, successes and even challenges within your organization and with your community. The more you share this work (even the things that didn’t go well the first time), the more this type of volunteer engagement will become part of your organization’s strategy for success.

Engaging pro bono volunteers can be challenging. Too often we encounter barriers around available resources, staff time and attitudes, and human resources management, but engaging pro bono volunteers can dramatically increase the impact of your organization. Make a plan, and get started! Find more resources and tools for getting started with pro bono volunteers on VolunteerMatch’s Learning Center.


For nonprofits and membership-based organizations, volunteer management can feel overwhelming. There are often too many people and not enough time to maintain a personal touch with every person.

Automated “drip campaigns” are the perfect intersection of technology and volunteers and can be a simple way to stay in touch, nurture relationships, and even weave together requests for time and cash contributions.

What is a drip campaign?

Email “drip campaigns” (also know as drip marketing, automated email campaign, lifecycle emails, autoresponders, and marketing automation) are automated series of emails scheduled to go out at a predetermined time (either a specific date and time or at specific intervals), depending on how you set them up.

In the marketing world, drip campaigns are used to nurture a prospect and ultimately make a sale. In the volunteer world, they can be used to automate and simplify communications and reinforce behavior on the part of your volunteer supporters.

As opposed to individual personal emails or group email “blasts,” drip campaigns are fully automated. Once you design a campaign, you can set it and forget it. Your readers then complete an online form and/or are “tagged” in your email system. Once a contact is tagged, the email series begins.

Four different volunteer management email drip campaign types

You can use drip campaigns for a variety of reasons throughout the volunteer lifecycle: to build an interested fan base, to increase the trust or skills of newcomers, to share updates and program changes, to keep supporters engaged over the long haul. Below are a few ideas:

  1. Volunteer Recruitment – To follow up on inquiries from the community, or to let volunteers who have submitted an application know the next steps in the process.
  2. Volunteer Onboarding – To help volunteers transition from their orientation training to consistent service by providing helpful tips, resources, and encouragement as well as gathering suggestions.
  3. Volunteer Skill Building – To help volunteers learn online, over a sequence of steps; this can either be integrated into your onboarding or be sent separately.
  4. Event Volunteers – To share event updates and logistics to ensure that event volunteers follow through and show up for the shift(s) they have committed to.

Can you use drip campaigns to re-engage lapsed volunteers or members?

You might be tempted to reinvigorate the participation of someone who hasn’t “shown up” or participated lately by sending them an automated series. You might to impress them with your organization’s progress, share what others are doing, and even asking for a donation.  It might re-energize them…or you might be wasting your time.

Before giving this a shot, check to see if the majority of your lapsed volunteers are at least opening your emails. It is highly likely that they are disengaged across the board. Don’t expect an automated email series to perform miracles. In this case, a phone call or personal email will be a better use of your time.

For excellent insights on what you might put in an email be re-activate someone (in this case in an online community) check out this FeverBee blog post.

Sample new volunteer onboarding series: what to include

Below is an example of an onboarding drip campaign you might use to welcome new online community members or volunteers. Be sure to include a signature with contact information (and an unsubscribe link) at the bottom of every email.

Check out tools like Animoto and Powtoon to make quick and easy videos that look good. Most email campaign software will allow you to embed video in the email itself.

Opt in [web form or tag]
  • Your audience can either fill in a form on your website that then tags them, or you can tag them manually in your system
  • Collect at least a first name and email address (you can then give your communications a personal touch by using the merge fields in the email subject line or the salutation of the email)
  • When possible, use a double versus single opt-in to make sure your emails are delivered (set your system to send an email with a confirmation link versus a simple sign up)
Welcome to our team (or community)! [sent immediately after confirmation link is clicked]
  • Thank them for joining
  • Let them know they can expect to get a series of emails over the next few weeks
  • Emphasize that you hope to save them time by focusing on the most important “need to know” info
  • Let them know they can unsubscribe at any time if the info isn’t helpful
Our story [send two days later]
  • Use photos and/or video to show and tell your story
  • Focus on the history of your organization, why it was started, where you are now
  • Keep it brief!
  • You can include quotes from volunteers, community members, or those who have benefited from their service
What we stand for [send three days later]
  • This is a “manifesto” of sorts, where you share your values and beliefs (either in text or video)
  • Don’t beat around the bush
  • This is a good time to weed out people who aren’t aligned with you – better now than later
Free tips & downloads [send every 2-3 days]
  • Send a minimum of three, but you can send more
  • Each should be focused on one critical skill you want your audience to know or be prepared to do (e.g., how to log into our community, how to access our online training, how to sign up for a shift, customer service skills, who to call for what, etc.)
  • Keep it brief!
  • Offer all tips and instructions in a printable format
Call to action: Sign up for a shift (or complete your online profile) [send three days after last Tip Email]
  • Focus on a simple step you want your reader to take
  • Provide a link and super simple instructions
  • If possible, have your system tag them if they click on the link in the email to track who is following through
Thank you! [send three days later]
  • Volunteer appreciation should start early, so why not now?
  • Express your gratitude; include quotes and photos of paid staff members and why they love volunteers (or make a video!)
How is it going? (feedback survey) [send 1-2 months after joining]
  • Include 3-5 questions only
  • Ask the net promoter question: How likely is it that you would recommend volunteering (or joining) to a friend or colleague?  
  • Ask for specific suggestions (e.g., tell us one thing we could do to make your experience even better)
  • Ask any other questions that get at things you are trying to improve

More tips for better volunteer management email campaigns

Here are a few tips to make sure your automated campaign is successful.

Send an introductory non-automated welcome email from your personal email account

Let the volunteer know that they should be expecting a series of emails from you and include a confirmation link (most email services can generate a link for you) that the volunteer clicks to confirm it’s OK to hear from you via email. If you don’t do this, emails may end up in their spam folder or, worse, they’ll be marked as “unresponsive” and your email distribution service provider won’t send to them.

Make sure you use a compelling email subject that describes a benefit

Generic subject lines like “Update from XYZ Nonprofit” can feel boring or like spam and are likely to get deleted. Describe what’s in it for the volunteer of the read it. For example, “Our Volunteers’ Share Their Top 5 Tips With You” Try CoSchedule’s headline analyzer or another tool to determine if your subject line needs work.

Write naturally and conversationally

The email is coming from you, even if it is automated, so write to volunteers as a human being, not a robot. It’s OK to convey emotions. To make it even more personal, include an image of your handwritten signature at the bottom of each. If some volunteers respond to your emails, you know you’re on the right track.

Reference volunteers’ “pro-social” behavior

Reinforce the norms you are striving for by sharing messages that reflect your expectations. For example, “95% of people who request a volunteer application complete it and turn it in within one week” or “the average volunteer donated 6 hours last month, helping us reach our goal of serving 45 youth.”

Whenever possible, include actual photos of your volunteer fans

Social cues are even more powerful when they are demonstrated through photos. A picture is truly worth a thousand words, and photos will increase the perceived truthfulness of your testimonials.

Be sensitive to the timing of other digital communications

If there are e-blasts that go out to your audience on certain days (e.g., e-newsletters on Wednesday), don’t schedule your drip emails to go out on those days. Also, you may want to consider waiting to send donor solicitations until after a welcome campaign is over (with many systems you set them to remove a tag once the campaign is complete; then, you can sort accordingly.

Be sure your software tracks your open rates

You need to know what’s working for your specific audience. If you’re wondering what a passable open rate might be, Check out MailChimp’s stats on average open and click rates by industry. For non-profits, the open rate is about 24.9%. That means about one in four people will open your email.

“Listen” to your users

Include helpful information in your emails by providing tips that help alleviate some of the common problems experienced by your volunteers or community members. Also, if you hear complaints about getting too many emails or see rising unsubscribe rates, you may need to space out or consolidate your email campaign.

Want to learn more?

If you’re interested in learning more about what triggers volunteers to act and how you can better work with human nature, check out tips and the free VolunteerPro e-Course Better Volunteer Recruitment in 6 Easy Steps.


The Wikimedia Foundation has cracked the puzzle on optimizing people power. Millions of volunteers contribute to Wikimedia as editors. But the foundation goes a step further and nurtures volunteer leaders to take on specialized projects that strengthen its community.

You might think that a technology-focused org like Wikimedia would see its platform as the channel for volunteer contributions. Not so. Wikimedia also invests in face-to-face, community-led initiatives. Volunteers participate in “idea labs” where they design and build tools the movement needs to connect more deeply with members. Volunteers also tackle community issues, like the gender gap in editors, or online harassment.

The organization empowers its volunteers with trust and responsibility. “As these are community issues, we expect that the best ideas will come from the community,” said Jaime Anstee, Senior Strategist, Manager, Learning & Evaluation, at Wikimedia.

Despite being a tech-focused nonprofit, Wikimedia doesn’t fall into a common NGO pattern of emphasizing online mobilizing over organizing. Author and academic Hahrie Han describes these two distinct ways of looking at building people power. In my interview with Han for Beyond the First Click: How Today’s Volunteers Build Power for Movements and NGOs, she explains the difference between the approaches:

Mobilizers essentially say, “wherever you want to come in on the engagement ladder, we will make it work for you.” They are creating opportunities for involvement that match with interests that people already have. With all the data and technology tools that we have, it’s easier than ever to search for and identify who those people might be.

In contrast, organizers want to engage supporters in a set of experiences that will try to transform their interests, motivations and skills so that they want to do more. This work is more transformational than what the mobilizers are doing.

In other words, mobilizers go broad while organizers go deep. Han’s research for her book How Organizations Develop Activists uncovered that the most effective orgs blend the two approaches. “The changes that mobilizers affect are fragile, because they’re missing the leadership core that helps to protect those wins from future threats.”

However, our research bore out that the typical non-profit in 2017 has a powerful bias toward mobilizing over organizing. Why? Because that’s where they’ve invested most heavily.

Many nonprofits have spent money and time on CRMs, petition platforms, social media, and other tech that can be effective tools in achieving large-scale mobilization. But these platforms are often not configured for organizing volunteers who are doing on-the-ground work and recruiting others to the cause. Inside any organization, financial investment signals importance, so staff often follow the money and the tech and, by doing so, reinforce the overemphasis on mobilizing in their work.

As executive director of Control Shift Labs, Nathan Woodhull often advises organizations on their technology mix. When it comes to tracking volunteer behavior he finds that most groups have misaligned incentives: “I don’t think most organizations have any idea. It’s a hard problem, and the tools that exist today are mostly focused on broadcasting to 500,000-plus people rather than recording one-to-one conversations.”

Woodhull suggests that activists can take lessons on high-level volunteer engagement from political parties. Becky Bond, senior advisor to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, confirmed this perspective in an interview about how Bernie organizers used technology: “The under-25 crowd understood the notion that Facebook doesn’t win elections, that posting to social media doesn’t move votes. What we needed to do was use social media to organize people to actually do the one-on-one voter contact that’s proven to have the biggest impact on moving voters to the polls. That work is going door-to-door, getting on the phone, and talking to voters live.”

Is your organization overemphasizing mobilization? One indicator of this is when you’ve got a gap between your supporters’ online actions and their offline ones. It’s a challenge to transition people from the web, but if you’re prioritizing mobilizing over organizing, your digital supporters may be falling into a black hole when they’re ready for more.

Julie is the co-author of Beyond the First Click: How Today’s Volunteers Build Power for Movements and NGOs. This article is adapted from the report.

It’s become one of the most pondered questions among nonprofit leaders: How do we measure and explain the impact of our work? With long-term missions aimed at transforming communities or ending major health and social problems, it is vital to identify evidence of progress and milestones reached. Recognizing such achievements keeps good work moving forward and attracts more funding for the cause.

But nonprofits operate on more than financial donations and grants. They also have “time donors” who contribute their expertise generously as volunteers on their boards of directors, in service delivery roles, and in fundraising activities. Despite the reliance on such “skillanthropists,” successful engagement of volunteers is often low on the list of priorities of organization executives. Why? Because volunteers are seen as nice when they should be valued as essential. So the challenge is how to demonstrate the difference successful volunteer involvement makes to the organization’s mission.

Ask the right questions

It is disheartening to see how many organizations do not even require regular reporting on the work of volunteers (what is not measured is not valued). But even when reports are gathered, the number one question posed to leaders of volunteer involvement is perhaps the least useful: How many volunteers do we have, how many hours did they give us this year, and is this more than last year? A tally of hours served without analysis of what was accomplished and how well it was done is hardly worth compiling.

Bigger is not always better. Having “more” volunteers this year than last year does not self-evidently mean quality service delivery or greater impact. Some organizations would actually be better off cutting their volunteer corps in half and holding those remaining to higher standards!

The number of volunteers needed is a strategy determined by expectations of productivity.

So, if you wish to provide 15 percent more client services next year, somehow you need to add 15 percent more effort. This might be provided by asking each current volunteer to give an extra two hours a month or by recruiting additional, new volunteers.

Recognize, too, that the body count of how many people are in your volunteer corps does not translate into a standard number of hours contributed. Fifty volunteers each giving two hours a month provide the same output as five volunteers who can give twenty hours. The amount of effort necessary to recruit and support the larger number of volunteers is clearly much more intense, without the payback of more service.

On the other hand, if your programmatic goal is community education, you may feel that getting fifty people to participate is more beneficial than just five. See? It depends.

How many volunteers and how many hours are inputs to activities performed. The key is to measure outcomes, not simply activity.

Articulate goals and objectives

It all begins with determining goals and objectives for exactly what you expect volunteer involvement to accomplish in any period. What’s critical is for volunteer work to be in alignment with the strategic planning for all organizational programs, projects, and services. Once you have determined what needs to be done, it should be possible to ask whether those goals were met.

Does it feel strange to set standards of achievement for volunteers? Shouldn’t we simply be grateful for whatever they do for us? Banish these attitudes! Not only is it important to insure that everyone in your organization is focusing on the same goals to achieve your mission, but it is highly motivating to volunteers to see that their service is making a real difference.

When planning for volunteers, avoid asking, “What could a volunteer do?” Your answers will be limited to the type of person you picture as a “volunteer.” The better question is, “What needs to be done?” For example:

  • What are we doing now that could be expanded with more help?
  • What unmet needs do our clients have that we presently can do nothing about?
  • What unmet needs does the staff have (to support them in their work)?
  • What might we do differently if we had more skills or time available to us?

As you identify what would really help the organization to move forward, you will define roles and activities for which you can then recruit the most qualified volunteers prepared to accomplish them.

Assess real indicators

Once you have structured volunteer engagement around priorities and goals, you can monitor whether volunteer effort is having success in accomplishing them. Consider how you can reveal the impact of volunteers doing their work well through questions such as:

  • Have our clients expressed any awareness of, appreciation for, or comments about volunteers here?
  • What were we able to do more of this year than last because of the extra help from volunteers?
  • What did volunteers free staff to do?
  • What were we able to innovate or experiment with this year because volunteers offered or agreed to test something new?
  • Did the involvement of volunteers allow us to offer enlarged or improved services to our clients?
  • Has our public relations or image changed, and can we trace any of this change to volunteers?
  • Is our volunteer corps representative of the community we serve and do we allow them to be ambassadors for us to their circle of friends and colleagues?
  • Have members of the paid staff visibly developed their supervisory skills as a result of working with volunteers?
  • Are volunteers themselves satisfied with their work?
  • What percentage of volunteers are also financial donors to our organization?

As with absolutely every other aspect of organizational life, the amount of time you spend determining what you want volunteer involvement to be will directly affect the quality and creativity of what you get. Ignore this aspect of your organization, and maybe you’ll get lucky. But if you incorporate planning for volunteers into overall agency planning, you will naturally take the steps necessary to assure that you reach those goals. And it will be satisfying to everyone to be able to see and report the impact of volunteer effort.

Isn’t the honeymoon stage of a relationship great?! Things are new. Fresh. Exciting. I’m not referring to dating someone new; I’m talking about the beginning of the relationship with a new volunteer or donor.

When a new volunteer walks into the doors of your organization, they feel the possibilities are endless. In their eyes, the impact they will make as part of your organization is immeasurable. Through your organization, they will change the world. Your cause becomes their cause. The stars align.

During the early stages of the budding relationship, you tend to be more attentive. You show appreciation. You hold events, sending the supporter a personal invitation to be there. You show them they are special. You even create an exclusive online community where they can share, collaborate, and communicate with others who share their passions, fueling the fire and furthering the cause.

Somewhere along the way—maybe a year from now, maybe 10 years from now—things change. That supporter moves on to something new.

It doesn’t have to be an ugly breakup.

“I try to practice the idea of supporter as respected partner in every stage of the relationship with a supporter,” says Chris Bailey, Digital Fundraising and Communications Manager for Habitat for Humanity International, “learning not just what they’re passionate about but asking what kind of relationship they want with us. Then demonstrating that respect by taking action with this knowledge.”

It Takes More Than Technology
Associations and nonprofits of all sizes have seen the results of utilizing technologies like CRMs and online communities. These interactive platforms allow for deeper relationships with constituents and streamline the maintenance of individual supporter information.

In addition to the technology and data, Bailey emphasizes the importance of the people behind it.

“It’s just as important to ensure we have the right processes and people-systems in place so that every contact with a supporter is an opportunity to note personal preferences and ultimately recognize them as a unique individual,” Bailey says. “If we can learn what type of issues spark their interest, personal motivations, or even how often they want to hear from us and effectively use this information, then it shows a kind of respect that isn’t often shown to consumers. So it’s not only good relationship practice, it’s a foundation for being a remarkable organization.”

And just like any other relationship, the stronger your continuous connection has been, the smoother the possible goodbye becomes.

“As a digital fundraiser, it’s often difficult to know exactly when someone has moved on. We use words like ‘lapse’ and ‘reinstate’ with the idea that anyone might return to support our cause at any time,” Bailey says. “But on those occasions when we do learn that someone has decided to move on, one fantastic form of goodwill is to simply show gratitude. Say, ‘Thank you.’ Let them know how invaluable their support has been to furthering a cause that has been important to them. Reinforce how impactful they have been in their time as a supporter. It’s always possible, in time, that this former supporter could return to being an active, passionate supporter again.”

Taking the Relationship to the Next Level
Before you know it, you’ve spent 10 years working with this supporter. You know their interests, their impact, and the hundreds—maybe even thousands—of hours they’ve spent to further your cause. The relationship may be different, but that doesn’t mean they are truly gone. Relationships tend to ebb and flow. People change, but their commitment still matters—in both of your lives.

“Before I was in direct marketing fundraising, I managed membership for professional associations,” says Bailey. “There are friendships that I made in that role which remain to this day. I think the whole notion that we can separate our professional and personal lives does a disservice to all of us as human beings.”

Here in Victoria, B.C., the nonprofit and tech communities are fairly tight-knit; but some of these communities seem to operate in separate spheres that don’t necessarily overlap. As organizers of NetSquared Victoria—which is part of the NTEN 501 Tech Club program—bringing together these communities to share ideas and resources is part of our mission.

Here are some strategies we’ve used to draw different communities to our events and get community members more engaged.

  1. Start a Needs Parade. We end all of our events with a “needs parade,” a chance for speakers, volunteers, or attendees to deliver a 30-second pitch about a specific need to the group. Needs can be anything from, “I’m new to Victoria and I’m looking for work as a social media manager,” to “I’m planning an event and we need sponsors,” to “My rock band needs a drummer—anyone know a drummer?” This is an easy icebreaker that helps prompt connections and conversations that might not have happened otherwise.
  2. Co-sponsor events. Partnering with like-minded organizations to co-sponsor is a great way to get members of both organizations talking to each other and sharing ideas. The women in tech panel we hosted with the Victoria chapter of Ladies Learning Code was one of our most popular events. So popular, in fact, that we’re running another women in tech panel on February 23. We also help organize an annual event called NGO Ho Ho, where small nonprofit groups can celebrate the holidays together at a much bigger and more festive bash than they could throw individually.
  3. Recruit diverse organizers. We think having a large group of diverse organizers who pitch in as they’re able can be better than a small, homogenous group of organizers, even if the smaller group is more devoted and hard-working. That’s because diverse organizers can help attract more diverse speakers and attendees, which leads to livelier discussions at our events and more cross-pollination of ideas. Plus, it’s easier for a small group of devoted, hard-working people to burn out. We’re pretty flexible about the level of time commitment, which makes it easy for organizers to contribute when they’re able to and avoid guilt when they’re not.
  4. Invite varied speakers. In planning our events, we try not to focus too much on speakers from one type of organization or topics that overlap too many months in a row. By inviting presenters with varied experiences, it helps us bring in varied attendees. Often, our event speakers share or retweet our event announcements, too, so it’s also a chance to engage with their communities. Social Media Surgery is a great example of varied speakers. Our last Social Media Surgery featured six “surgeons” (experts on various aspects of online communication and social media) offering one-on-one tips and advice in an informal setting.
  5. Engage the community on social media. We live-tweet our events using the hashtag #Net2Vic and retweet other attendees using the same hashtag. After each event, we also compile highlights using Storify so that others can see the main takeaways, or attendees can recap the key points. In promoting our events, we use other hashtags to indicate geography, such as #YYJ (the airport code for Victoria) or #YYJevents, so that those following the hashtag know about the events even if they don’t know our organization yet. Posting event photos on social media (we give attendees the chance to opt out of photos if they prefer) are also a great way to re-engage attendees after the fact when they tag or share photos.

Engaging members of different communities helps our organization grow and keeps our events useful and relevant. We’d love to know how you’re involving your own communities in events, so leave a comment and let us know!