How to start a successful volunteer program

So you’ve become a leader of volunteers. Exciting! You may be setting up a program from scratch, or taking over from a previous coordinator. In both cases it makes sense to start with a bit of planning to build a solid foundation to everything that comes next.

Here are four steps with simple exercises for you to undertake before springing into action as an applauded volunteer manager of a successful volunteer program!

Illustration of a leader of volunteers

How to start a volunteer program:

  1. What is there to discover about your organisation
  2. What the organisation needs from the volunteer community
  3. Getting to know your volunteers
  4. What rules and regulations should you put in place

1. Discovery: getting on the same page with your whole organisation

Understanding your role and position in the organisation is a priceless starting point when you’re starting out as a volunteer coordinator. And having a good overview of the whole system is a jackpot for starting off with the right foot. Your organisation may have good onboarding processes where you may be handed this information on a silver platter. Lucky you! More often it’s still likely you need to go full-on into detective mode and figure out the state of things yourself.

If it’s the latter, it’s best to invest in a shiny new notebook and dig out your favourite stationery – mapping everything out for yourself is a first step you won’t regret.

Start your volunteer program with a clear overview

Don’t overlook the obvious, and write things down – even if it’s just for your own reference. Things become much clearer when they’re on paper. Do a mind map, if that’s your thing, or doodle some relevant illustrations if that makes things more clear for you. Making everything make sense for yourself should be your ultimate first goal, so don’t be shy with acquiring the information you need to piece together a coherent puzzle.

Having a brief personal interview with all of your new colleagues is a great way to source the necessary information. Be persistent to meet everyone, even if they claim they “won’t have anything to do with the volunteer program”. Think of ways to convince them that the program is not detached from the rest of the organisation. Even if they won’t have direct contact with the volunteers, you should be able to answer questions that may be related to this specific department.

Who are the other members of the core team?

Figuring out what everyone is responsible for is especially crucial when you’re coordinating the volunteer efforts on behalf of them, so try to achieve a very practical understanding of what it is exactly that your colleagues do. Fancy titles can be misleading. Knowing that someone is a “marketing assistant” is much less useful than knowing that they “write the weekly blog and are responsible for all the webinars”.

Don’t forget to map out the possible larger collaboration partners, too. Not all key roles may be covered within the core team, so it could be important to understand who else is contributing in a meaningful way. Is there an agency that you often work with? Are there some major sponsor deals in place? Who else is a major shareholder in the processes, possibly influencing upcoming situations?

What is the goal of your organisation?

Your job will become much easier if you understand the goals of your organisation and its major departments. Do you already have an official mission statement, or is there a sentence that your colleagues will agree with?

Speak with the rest of the team to understand their ambitions. Your volunteer program cannot support their goals if you don’t know what they are!

Try to specifically understand their definition of success, especially when it comes to the short-term goals. If you’re out to support the organisation with the power of community, it’s important to understand where the whole thing is going.

The success of your volunteer program is in the details

Even if you’re the founder of the volunteer program, you may not be the first person on scene. It is dangerous to assume that other team members will proactively pass on any existing information. If anything practical is already in place, you need to figure this out or agree on a process how you will know when the information becomes available.

Look at the calendar – are there any events or important events or dates that are assumed common knowledge within the organisation? Are there recurring things that everyone else may consider obvious events?

If there’s a major event being planned, try to find out as much as possible about it, especially if it involves volunteer support or general community engagement. You really don’t want to figure out at the last moment that someone in your organisation thought your team would be there to support, and you just didn’t know!

Draw a mind map or a schedule of everything you learn, and add additional details when you receive them. You may later need to answer questions from your volunteers or prepare reference materials for them. You may also later thank yourself for the ability to determine possible conflicts or opportunities early in the game, which will definitely be impossible without being on top of the big picture.

Either way, it is usually worth knowing as much as possible about what’s going on!

2. Understanding the needs of the whole organisation

Most people are not very enthusiastic about planning for things that aren’t directly their job. This is why it’s not likely to get very clear input from different departments about what kind of help or engagement they expect from the volunteers before it’s time critical.

In other words, it’s most likely that a colleague will tell you only at the last moment that they want to involve a lot of people in an activity. But some good planning and pre-work can prevent a lot of these panic calls!

Have thorough conversations with the team

When mapping out the general plans and activities within an organisation, you can also scope the approximate needs and expectations for community engagement. Ask your colleagues what they have imagined, and how you could help them meet these plans.

The more specific your questions are, the better you can collaborate with actually getting the volunteers involved with great results. If your colleague is planning for an event, you could try a funnel of questions from generic to more specific. This will also help them understand that deciding on things in advance is actually important for best results.

For example:

  • What roles do you see our volunteers could take?
  • Which of these roles include activities before the event, and what are tasks during?
  • What are the specific tasks in this role?
  • Are there any prerequisites to fill a role? Skills, interests, prior experiences?
  • How many hours would it take to complete the minimum set of tasks for this role?
  • Do we need to plan for additional guidance or training?
  • What are the rewards for successful participation?

Writing down these answers will give you the input you need for recruiting, engaging and motivating volunteers. Asking these questions early will give everyone a chance to actually think these through, and come up with sense-making answers.

It’s not uncommon to over- or under-estimate the volume of expected participation, if there’s no time for actually considering the details. And without really understanding the situation, you easily end up with a last moment panic of having to find more people, or a terribly over-crowded situation and unhappy volunteers.

The more clear you are about what roles and tasks are available (or could be available) in all departments, and what they actually entail, the easier it will be to do everything else about your job.

Lead your volunteers and suggest ideas

As a leader of volunteers, you are the one in charge of starting the volunteer program. You may (and should!) have much better insights into what roles could be filled with volunteers, so don’t be afraid to suggest activities to your colleagues that may be interesting or challenging.

The demand for activities can also come from the community – volunteer engagement shouldn’t be just about sourcing free labor for a set of necessary tasks, it’s about accepting as much support as possible from the people who care about your organisation.

For example, if you know there are supportive people actively interested in graphic design, you can suggest ways for the marketing department to start collaborating with the community and run design challenges with volunteers.

If you don’t yet have good channels for getting the volunteers’ input, set up polls and questionnaires to learn about what they would like to help with. People may surprise you with generous offers that you can then take to the relevant team members.

3. Understanding your volunteers

The core job of a volunteer manager is thoroughly knowing the volunteers. If you’re new at the job, it is crucial to go through the existing information about the people supporting your organisation, and understand who they are. If you have a database, take a day or two to compile reports for yourself to answer most interesting and relevant questions.

Depending on your organisation, the relevant questions can be different – but they should help you learn about people in your community.

Demographic questions are not good for actually understanding and figuring out your volunteers. While there may be some reporting value about the age, location, religion or marital status of your volunteers, this data won’t help you understand their goals and reasons for supporting your organisation.

Good questions are more difficult to answer, but will help you engage your volunteers in a better way and really meet their needs. For example:

  • What are their interests, passions and personal goals?
  • What is their reason for belonging to your community?
  • What are their activity patterns as a volunteer? When and how do they contribute?
  • Are there any obvious categories for different volunteer types? Are there extreme outlier personas that are different from all other volunteers?

Make an effort to get to know the volunteers

If you don’t have a way to answer these questions, it’s probably a good idea to put some new processes in place to learn about your volunteers. Send out surveys and schedule some interviews to gain an understanding about who you’re working with. You will not be able to lead your team without the effort of getting to know them.

While you want the data about your volunteers to be quantifiable, be cautious to not source useless demographics again. When compiling volunteer forms and surveys, start from figuring the insights you want to actually achieve. Asking useless questions will strain both your volunteers and yourself.

Good insights can start as research goals, for example:

  • Who could be a good match for representing our organisation?
  • Who are the top 1% supporters who will be there for us no matter what?
  • Who are there for the rewards and external motivation only?
  • Who are up for contributing with their professional skills?

When you’re determined what are the relevant goals for you, start deducting the best questions you need to ask to get some real answers.

If your volunteer community is huge, you probably want to use questions that give you quantifiable data with multiple choice questions. This will however radically limit your answers to what you already know or are guessing to be the truth.

If your community is small, it may be worthwhile to ask a few open-ended questions and let your volunteers surprise you. It will take you a day to read them through, but you may find answers that really change the way you want to run your program. For example:

  • What would you say is your main motivation to volunteer with us?
  • Which part of our organisation do you think is most underrating volunteer engagement and could use the additional help?

Alternatively, opinion scales are a great way to get meaningful quantifiable data. For example, on a scale of 1 to 10…

  • How likely would you be to recommend our organisation to a friend?
  • How likely would you postpone a personal commitment to volunteer with us for a day?
  • How would you rate the clarity of communication with volunteers during our last event?

Figure out ways to maintain and analyse the collected data. While it’s most important for yourself, and will really help you with starting the volunteer program, it can be a motivating presentation to the rest of the team, and bring your whole organisation closer to the larger community.

4. Setting goals and communicating them clearly

A large part of leading volunteers is being a neutral intermediary between the core of the organisation and members, from close collaborators to occasional fringe supporters. The better you are able to communicate the why, what, where and how, the better success you will have.

The best teams are united by a common purpose, so try to set one. Why should everyone be excited about the volunteer program? You can review the goals of the whole organisation (you did figure that out in chapter one, right?) and phrase a meaningful reason for your volunteer team in relation to this.

Good goals have active and specific words in them. The job is not to create catchy and meaningless slogans, but actually explain why we’re all here and what’s the reason for us doing this together. Write multiple paragraphs if the point doesn’t come across in a single punchline, clarity is much better than brevity when you want to make sure that people are on the same page.

For a sustainable grocery initiative, the goal could be as specific as:

“Our volunteers are actively involved in executing the daily operations and educational initiatives of The Local Shop by contributing their time and skills. The main areas of volunteer engagement are event management and daily activities in the shop and community garden. Our core motivation is to upgrade awareness about food-related sustainability issues among young community members, and provide better access to sustainable food within our district. ”

With a clear goal, recruiting and engaging volunteers to your program becomes a simple task. As a matter of fact, doing your whole job well becomes a lot easier when you are clear about the goals.

Don’t forget about rules and boundaries

Having a good idea about what your volunteer program is not about can be important as stating what it is. Making house rules in advance will help you keep order in the long run. Whenever multiple people come together to collaborate, it’s only a matter of time when you need to start solving the first misunderstandings and disagreements.

Volunteering is a major act of trust, so being transparent and clear about the playground rules is critical. While it’s counterproductive to have a long and detailed code of conduct, you should have a couple of bullet points ready about how internal issues are to be solved.

Whenever there’s a problem, you can refer to these neutral house rules instead of having to enforce your personal authority and potentially stir up additional emotions. Some of the more common aspects of house rules could be…

  • Expected, minimum or maximum hours per person for distributing the workload somewhat fairly.
  • Clear milestones for rewards and perks to guarantee transparency of distributing these benefits.
  • List of uncalled behaviours and activities (for both volunteers and staff), and the appropriate escalation process when these occur.
  • Accessible processes for problem reporting, and appropriate expectations for processing them.

This type of house rules aren’t meant for micromanaging details, or listing do this / don’t do this type of instructions. You can never guess all upcoming issues in advance, or solve them before they occur. House rules should provide trust in having steady problem-solving procedures in place – for yourself and for the volunteers.

Keep your notes updated

As most of these meditations and exercises end up in some sort of private or public notes about your volunteer program. Don’t forget to share the relevant notes with your volunteers, and revisit these as often as you need to.

There is magical confidence to be found in clarity and documentation. Once ideas are written down, they become a bit more true than when we’re just thinking about them. When shared with the rest of the team, the ideas become actionable.

How we can help

At Zelos, we’re providing daily support to volunteer teams that take action together. We believe that doing things together is a powerful way to achieve things, and experience shows that the most successful leaders are those who are able to communicate things in a clear and coherent way.

This is why for many years we have been building software for volunteer engagement at scale. If you’re about to start a volunteer program, and are looking for better ways to communicate with your team – give our volunteer management app a try.

Any questions about features or best practices? Get in touch with us as let’s discuss!