A while back I gave you the high-level version of what caused the Tarrant Makers nonprofit to fold, and volunteerism was a large part of the equation. Nonprofits, especially those just getting underway, simply cannot function without an army of passionate, committed volunteers… from the bottom up.
I deliberately started with the bottom because your “entry-level” volunteers are far more important than your leaders. I’ve seen many instances of ad hoc grassroots efforts developing leaders as they defined their goals– but I’ve witnessed far more failures going the other way, by directors neglecting to effectively engage and lead their human resources. And I say this as a former Director of Marketing.
These folks are committing their time to you, so make sure they’re treated well. That includes the following:
You would think defining this is a no-brainer, but I’ve seen organizations plow deep into a project without clearly identifying and/or communicating the goals beforehand. “We’re going to hold a fundraiser!” isn’t a goal. “We’re going to hold a fundraiser for X to do Y” is. You may know this, but it’s got to be communicated all the way across. Every single volunteer should know the overarching purpose and of course their individual role.
The saying goes that “those who fail to plan, plan to fail”. Truer words were never spoken. Planning is a must. You don’t need to involve every volunteer in every aspect of development, but you should have an all-hands assembly at least a week prior to their actual deployment. Why at least a week? You’ll need time for volunteers to digest the plans and have time to provide feedback if they discover gaps, conflicts or other challenges. In fact, I’d recommend a minimum of two weeks, and include a dry-run before the event.
This is critical, and it doesn’t have to cost you much, if anything… although it certainly never hurts to hit up your sponsors for volunteer rewards. Often volunteers are just happy with the tee-shirts you provided for them to wear during your event (you DID remember that, right?). It could actually be anything emblematic of the event. Just try to avoid the sort of swag that tends to end up in landfills… unless, like anything printed on seed paper, it serves a dual purpose.
And get creative! Research what others have done for their volunteers, especially peers in your space.
Closing the project or event loop after conclusion by soliciting feedback from volunteers is also crucial. Don’t just leave them hanging out there, when they’re bound to have ideas on what could go better next time. Hold an event post mortem and let them air out grievances (without argument or judgment on your part!) and offer suggestions.
Speaking of Closing…
Those are the four that immediately come to mind, but maybe I’ve left something out? Feel free to help shape the discussion in comments below!