Restore Strategies | Turning One-Time Volunteers Into Committed Partners
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Turning One-Time Volunteers Into Committed Partners

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If you’ve been in the nonprofit business for any length of time, you’re familiar with the countless individuals that, when informed of the plight of the vulnerable child, the weathered homeless man, or the poor family, feel convicted to take action and look for an avenue to meet a tangible need. These “pulled heartstrings” tend to be most prevalent around the holiday season, and millions of people around the country will contact local organizations for the first time about getting involved with their mission.

Sadly, however, many of these volunteers will walk out the doors only to return to to their normal routines. What does it take for a nonprofit leader to keep these one-time volunteers engaged and transform occasional volunteers into committed partners in the fight for human flourishing?

Fight for Intentionality – From the Very Beginning

In many ways, producing recurring volunteers starts before the volunteer ever shows up at all. Like most normal human beings, volunteers want to feel like more than a number or a warm body filling a role anyone else could do. Putting this personal touch on your earliest interactions with them will engender goodwill with them and improve their likelihood of showing up with a favorable disposition toward the organization.

What does it look like to practice intentionality and make each volunteer feel special?

-When a prospective volunteer inquires about an opportunity to serve, avoid sending one-line responses with a link to your website. More than likely, such an email will come across as curt and rude. The individual may even feel insulted if the link’s presence in the email suggests, “You just didn’t look hard enough on the website, and you’re wasting my time.”

-Make sure the website provides all of the necessary information the prospective volunteer will need in an intuitive way. This should include the serving location, time commitment, supplies needed, and activity details. If similar organizations are also offering service opportunities this season, many volunteers will take the path of least resistance and elect to serve with the organization that makes it easiest.

-If the hectic holiday season means you’ll be more likely to write one-line responses, take some time to pre-write email templates that feel personal and warm. As author Kathryn Pauley once wrote, “A little human flare goes a long way. Strive to make your connection feel less like a business interaction and more like the start of a friendship.

Give Them Work To Do

Okay, so this may sound a little reductionistic, but this is actually a MUCH bigger problem than most nonprofit leaders realize. Even the brightest-eyed, most passionate volunteers will throw in the towel and find somewhere else to serve if they feel like they’re being underutilized or their time is being wasted.

How can your nonprofit make sure volunteers have a rewarding experience?

-Do a realistic assessment of how much work will need to be done prior to issuing a call for volunteers. Do not use more volunteers than necessary and make sure that every person that shows up will have substantive work to accomplish. The WORST outcome is for a volunteer to walk away having sacrificed their valuable time with nothing to show for it.

-Leverage the skills your volunteers have. If at all possible, don’t pair individuals with highly desired and valuable skill sets with the simplest of opportunities. Challenging work is often the most rewarding work.

Show Volunteers the Value of Their Work

Small wins aren’t always possible, but allowing volunteers to see some fruit from their labor is going to be a huge boost to their morale and will incentivize them to come back later to continue building upon the work that they’ve started. This is especially crucial when people are asked to perform more mundane tasks after which the results are not quite obvious (e.g., tutoring a child in math for an afternoon).

How can your leadership show one-time (and recurring) volunteers the impact of their work?

-It may be hard to quantify the impact of some one-time events, but consider using the average value of a volunteer hour in your state and sharing the cumulative total with those that served. You could also use metrics like number of acres cleaned or pounds of trash collected, patients/clients served, or meals prepared/delivered. While these metrics are important, make sure to highlight the long-term impacts that these numbers will have on the lives of real people. After a meal serve day, for example, discuss how students that go to school with food have better academic outcomes and are more likely to escape the cycle of generational poverty.

 

Encourage Relationship-Building

While people may find their way to your organization because they share your passion for the people you serve (or may simply feel guilty for all that they have and want to soothe that uneasiness), many will stay for the community. People are inherently social creatures and want to build relationships with those they serve and serve with. If the one-time volunteer is trying to decide where to donate their time, odds are that they’ll go where they feel a greater sense of belonging.

How can your organization create this sense of community for one-time or occasional volunteers?

-Create a space for shared meals together. After a day of service or event, purchase food for all of the volunteers to eat together. You may even want to encourage veteran volunteers to sit down with new volunteers to get to know them and share more information about the organization’s cultures and traditions.

-Host fun activities for volunteers after serving like outdoor movie screenings or days on the lake/beach. This not only signals your gratitude for their service but serves as a reminder that they are part of a family and not simply tools for a community project.

-Follow up with volunteers that serve once, even if they don’t come back for the next event. This is why it’s important to understand the interests and motivations of each volunteer – if you have a pulse on what makes them tick, you will be able to send them opportunities down the road that may better fit with their interests or work better with their existing schedules.

The American social sector is experiencing a turnover crisis – approximately a third of individuals that volunteer this year will not volunteer again next year. This shoulders nonprofits with the additional costs associated with identifying, recruiting, and training thousands of new volunteers every few months. To stop the bleeding, organizations must fight to build a “family” culture that empowers volunteers, celebrates their contributions, matches passions with responsibilities, and fosters a true sense of belonging for those looking to partner for community transformation.

For additional reading, visit the NonprofitHub’s resources here and here or check out VolunteerNow’s fact sheet here.

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