Creating a More Robust Volunteer Development Program

Now is a good time to review and focus on two key pieces of your volunteer program: training and engaging your volunteers.

Creating a More Robust Volunteer Development Program
11 mins read

What does your volunteer engagement program look like right now?

Two case studies—League of Women Voters of Oakland and Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County—explored in this article show us that a successful volunteer program blends elements of human resources management and donor management:

  • Recruiting
  • Training
  • Engaging
  • Appreciating
  • Evaluating
  • Retaining

No matter what is happening around us, the key elements of a strong program are the same. Yet how you implement key elements during these challenging times may require different approaches. As we continue to adjust operations to the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic, now is a good time to review and focus on two key pieces of your volunteer program: training and engaging your volunteers.

Some people might think of engaging as just putting your volunteers to work on tasks that are meaningful to them and that help to move your mission forward. And that is important. But engaging also means regularly communicating and connecting with your volunteers in the same way you cultivate a donor beyond just sending a request for donations. It’s about building and maintaining the relationship. Remember, volunteers are twice as likely to donate as non-volunteers!

The same concept of relationship-building applies to training. When you train your volunteers for their current roles, or develop their skills to grow into a future roles, you are creating increased organizational capacity but also a mutually beneficial relationships.

So, how can you engage and train your volunteers—from your board members to your occasional volunteer? And how can you do that remotely during the pandemic?

Case Study: League of Women Voters of Oakland

The League of Women Voters of Oakland (LWVO or the League) in Oakland, California is an all-volunteer, nonpartisan, political nonprofit that provides a good example of how to approach training. LWVO “encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.”

When shelter-in-place orders were given, the League moved quickly to Zoom board and committee meetings as in-person activities were put on hold. The League also cancelled its big May luncheon that served as both a major fundraiser and a major vehicle for community engagement. The cancellation pushed to the forefront of all planning the question of how LWVO would meaningfully engage its members and the Oakland community.

This was a significant question as the League headed into Election 2020. While the League supports year-round activities that inform the electorate and increase government transparency, an election year involves a significant ramping up of voter outreach and education activities. In California, mail-in voting also accelerated the timeline for these voter education activities and necessitated getting the word out earlier about how the voting process had changed. LWVO volunteers, from high schoolers to seniors, rose to the occasion and moved their candidate forums and ballot pro/con presentations online. LWVO also partnered with local schools and community partners assist with voter registration, education and getting out the vote, both virtually and in-person.

Meanwhile, an ad hoc committee transformed the cancelled May fundraising event into a virtual Centennial celebration of both the passage of the 19th Amendment and the birth of the League of Women Voters. Event planners changed the structure of the event to work better on a virtual platform. This meant having a shorter event with brief digital video segments that kept participants engaged.

The move from in-person to virtual activities required a steep learning curve for the entire organization, regardless of how tech savvy some volunteers were. During this pivot, board members and other volunteer leaders began to identify areas where additional training on technical and leadership issues would benefit the League. In response, the League started planning a series of virtual learning pods, or mini deep-dives, into topics that will strengthen skills and increase organizational capacity. The series launched in January 2021 with virtual trainings on a variety of topics including the use of online technology (e.g. how to use Zoom and Google Docs to best advantage) and stepped up digital presentation skills and leadership topics (e.g. LWVO’s nonpartisan policy and its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and how that translates into action).

The best part? This new program increases organizational capacity while being responsive to the needs of volunteers. A win-win!

Case Study: Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County

The Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County (HMTC) in New York provides a good example of how—and why—nurturing the relationship with your volunteers through regular engagement during the pandemic is key. HMTC teaches the history and lessons of the Holocaust as well as the dangers of all types of intolerance through education and community programming. Last year, HMTC provided tours and workshops to almost 23,000 students. How does the small staff of six do that?

“We couldn’t do what do without our volunteers,” says Helen Turner, Director of Education. “They are HMTC. We can’t exist without our volunteers.”

HMTC volunteers are a mix of Holocaust survivors, the second-generation children of survivors, retired teachers, lawyers, history buffs, and others who feel connected to the mission of the nonprofit. Most volunteers are between 58 and 90 years old. Many have been with HMTC for more than a decade. There is a real sense of community among the volunteers and staff. While some volunteers staff fundraising and development committees, the majority of volunteers are docents who lead students and others through the museum and also teach workshops.

Prior to Covid-19, the museum held monthly volunteer team meetings that included program updates, educational programming, and a segment called “Good and Welfare.” “Good and Welfare” was time set aside to celebrate good news—but also to identify volunteers who were experiencing life challenges.

In March 2020, when Covid-19 closed down New York, the museum closed its doors. Educational programming froze as did the monthly meetings. But HMTC didn’t just say good-bye to its volunteers until the doors re-opened. A first priority for HMTC was to continue to engage with volunteers to maintain the connections with the museum and to each other. Staff were concerned about trauma, and about how shelter-in-place during the pandemic was a potential triggering event for survivors who had to hide to survive during the Holocaust. There were also concerns about food insecurity and other challenges that vulnerable volunteers might be facing. Staff began by reaching out one-on-one to volunteers with phone calls and FaceTime. Staff organized volunteers to write “Letters of Love” to Holocaust survivors. And then they moved their engagement efforts to Zoom.

At first, said Ms. Turner, they were just trying to get people online. Knowing that many volunteers were not tech-savvy, the museum sent volunteers an email with the Zoom button and told them to click it at a specific time. The first meetings did not involve any business. They were just a chance to see good friends, chat, and catch up. Eventually, the team re-introduced trainings through the Zoom platform. These included training on new, virtual curriculum developed as well as online learnings that highlighted aspects of the museum’s collection. Meanwhile, fundraising volunteers were beginning to explore and implement virtual fundraising events and physical events like car parades.

At this point, HTMC has resumed socially-distanced tours of its Children’s Memorial Garden and is now providing online student education. Development Director Deborah Lom explained that “the structure was already in place” with strong relationships and a culture of training, so the virtual technology piece has been easier to introduce. Looking ahead, she predicts that HMTC would continue to incorporate a virtual component in its programming, as it provides new opportunities to tailor the ways it can engage with the community.

How Can You Apply These Ideas?

HMTC and LWVO provide just two examples of how to intentionally and responsively incorporate virtual volunteer training and engagement into your own program. Unsure where to start? Here are some simple ideas:

  • Treat your volunteers like the donors they really are. Independent Sector recently estimated the national value of a volunteer hour to be $27.20. Look at how you are engaging your donors and make a similar plan for your volunteers. Keep them up to date on organizational news and success stories.
  • Take advantage of features in virtual platforms like Zoom that allow social interaction. Remember, a lot of volunteers find value not only in your mission but in the social aspect of their work. Try Zoom breakout rooms, trivia quizzes with polls, and activities that allow people to actively engage.
  • Communicate regularly with your volunteers through multiple channels. Many nonprofits have reached out to their donors over the past year, but remember to also check in with your volunteers. Find out how they are and if they need anything.
  • Ask your volunteers what type of training they might want to do their jobs better and find a way to make it happen. A lot of people have extra time now—take advantage of it. Overwhelmed? Ask your volunteers to help or look for outside help from organizations like VolunteerMatch or Taproot Foundation.
  • Remember your board members are also volunteers. If you don’t have a professional development plan in place for your board, now is a good time to poll them and find out what topics they want to learn more about (e.g., how to promote your organization, how to really understand those financials).
  • Keep thanking your volunteers. Are you asking board members to call donors during your end of year or other campaigns? Throw in a “thank you” call to a volunteer here and there. The more specific you can get the better: “Your work on our database allowed us to analyze our visitors and identify where we need to do more outreach.”

Start small. Be creative. Test and evaluate your success. We’re in new territory here, but remember that the work to strengthen the foundation of a good volunteer development program has the potential to reap new dividends well after the pandemic subsides.

About the Author

Stacey Smith, MBA, has over twenty years of experience supporting nonprofits as both a volunteer and a consultant. Currently, she sits on the Board of the League of Women Voters of Oakland, where she also serves as Co-Chair of its Volunteer Development Committee.

As Principal Consultant at SKS Consulting, Stacey provides practical and achievable solutions to nonprofit and public sector agencies so they can more effectively serve their clients and communities. She helps clients with volunteer and board development and training, strategic planning and other services that lead to solutions for their most pressing needs.

In her free time, she is attempting to see all the U.S. National Parks.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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