Imagine this: you work at an environmentally focused nonprofit, you’ve spent the past few months recruiting volunteers, and now it’s winter and there’s nothing for them to do… Doesn’t sound familiar to you? How about this: your Executive Director hands you a list of volunteers that he or she has recruited but not placed and asks you to do something with it; the volunteer program is new and positions still need to be defined, but you don’t want to let your ED down or turn these volunteers away by not placing them immediately. As a Regional Coordinator, I hear about situations like these all the time from Volunteer Maryland Coordinators who are working at environmental sites or building new volunteer programs and I’ve tried to come up with some solutions for them on how to handle downtime or (doesn’t every volunteer coordinator wish for this) a surplus of volunteers. Whether you work at an environmental site or you are building a volunteer program from the ground up, you know there are tasks that volunteers can do, but they may not be able to do them right now. It is hard to recruit and retain volunteers for future tasks that may seem eons away, but you don’t want to be stuck when a project or event approaches and you find that the volunteers you spent so much time recruiting in the fall are no longer interested or able to volunteer for you. So what do you do? While there is no perfect answer, learning how to engage your volunteers during down time will help keep them around for the future.
Here are some ideas for how to keep volunteers engaged when they can’t do their usual tasks or their usual tasks don’t even exist yet!
Train them: You may be thinking, “But my volunteers already know how to do their tasks.” So what? Train them some more! Partner with other organizations in your area to provide extended training opportunities for your volunteers. Help them learn more about your organization, your mission, and the community need you are facing or provide unique opportunities for volunteers to develop new skills they can put on their resume!
Party with them: Well, not in the traditional sense of the word, but winter is a great time to plan volunteer recognition events or social activities that allow your volunteers to get to know each other outside of their day to day involvement in your organization. Get some of your longer term volunteers involved in helping to plan a recognition event for existing volunteers and invite new volunteers along to meet the staff of your organization and the volunteers they may be working with.
Go virtual: Does your organization’s website make you cringe every time you look at it? Is the Facebook page inactive and covered in spam? Does your Board even know what Twitter is?!? If your answers were yes, yes, and not a chance, then maybe you should consider using your volunteers to help update the website, clean up and maintain the Facebook page, or start a Twitter feed. This will require some work on your part, helping the volunteers understand just what you want and moderating the content they produce for the first few weeks, but it will keep those volunteers active and engaged and give them work they can do from home!
Pick their brains: Chances are, that cadre of volunteers has a lot of great ideas and insight into your programs. Get volunteers together to gather feedback on the existing program and brainstorm ideas and needs for the program, whether it be writing a five-year plan or coming up with a list of tasks that need to be done but never seem to get done.
Kick them to the curb: No, I don’t mean fire all of those volunteers you spent so much time recruiting. Your volunteers are passionate about the mission of your organization, that’s why they are volunteering for you (for the most part)! Once they know all there is to know about what you do and why you do it, send them out into the community in pairs to do community outreach. You may get more volunteers than there are tasks for, however you will also be spreading awareness of your organization and engaging the community in which you work!
Need more ideas? Check out these websites to see how others have done it in the past!