Volunteers for Sustainability

With the economic downturn, many nonprofit organizations are struggling. Funders and donors are contributing less and people aren’t giving individual donations as much. As a result, organizations are cutting programming in order to cope. Despite the fact that we are experiencing a period of decrease in financial contributions, we have seen the numbers of volunteers increase. This provides organizations with an excellent opportunity to capitalize off the resources provided by volunteers. Instead of cutting programs, including volunteer programs, organizations (and volunteer coordinators) can strategize to create sustainable programs that require little or no effort, time, or funding from staff members.

Volunteer management and coordination is no easy task when there is not a foundation already set. Putting the necessary infrastructure into place is going to make the person’s job that comes after you much easier, will allow an easier transition, and will make the prospect of program sustainability much more attainable.

Develop focus areas: Break down volunteer management tasks into focus areas. At Volunteer Maryland, we use the Cycle of Volunteer Program Development as a model for setting up sustainable volunteer programs. Foundation Building, Program Implementation, and Sustainability are the three main elements that make up the cycle. Recruiting volunteers that focus on specific areas is a concrete step towards creating a sustainable volunteer program. Do you want your volunteers to focus on volunteer recognition? Do you want them to focus their attention on recruiting and training additional new volunteers?

Develop Position Descriptions: For each focus area, there should be a position description to articulate the responsibilities and duties of the volunteer that will be taking over. For example, if one of the focus areas for your volunteer program is to recruit more community volunteers, the volunteer position created could be called Community Ambassador. The resulting position description would outline the responsibilities of the Community Ambassador position.

Write out focus area policies: Once you have written your position descriptions, decide if any of them require special instructions. It is important to create guidelines for each focus area. For example, do any of the positions require specific training, education, or certification? Further, more general guidelines should be created outlining the structure of the volunteer program. What will volunteers do if someone steps down? How will new volunteers be recruited? How will the volunteer program be structured? Will each team of volunteers have a volunteer leader? How will the volunteer leader be chosen?

Creating Open Channels: Making sure that the communication lines between organization leadership and its volunteers is very important for sustainability. If volunteers are connected on a deep level with the organization’s mission and the goals that leadership has planned, they are more likely to remain dedicated. Keeping communication open helps volunteers feel as though they are an actual part of an organization rather than just being a source of free labor. A good way to engage volunteers is to allow them to attend board meetings where they can ask questions and propose ideas directly to the leadership.

Offer an Incentive: Creating sustainability also means giving volunteers something that provides them with an incentive to stay with your organization. A great way to do this is to offer them a professional development opportunity that they can take with them outside of their volunteer service with your organization. For example, offering them a professional letter of reference for a job or graduate school is a great incentive. Also, offering free or discounted services like free tax preparation (offered by Baltimore CASH Campaign) or free training on invasive plant removal are great motivators for volunteers.

What are some ways that you have worked to create a sustainable volunteer program at your organization? Please share your ideas!


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