Jennifer Bennett is Senior Manager of Education & Training at VolunteerMatch, directly managing volunteers and creating and revitalizing volunteer programs. Jennifer started her work with nonprofits in the wildlife rehabilitation and conservation field, where she rescued wildlife in the field, ran wildlife hospitals and served as an advisory board member. She currently volunteers with Save the Bay and Project Homeless Connect.
Bennett: Retention is an outcome of proper volunteer screening, training and relationship-building practices.
Volunteer engagement is about making sure a volunteer is a good fit for a role/your organization, training them to be successful and then supporting them in their work to ensure they find the work meaningful. Not every volunteer wants to do the same type of volunteering activity for months, years or decades!
Volunteer engagement leaders also need to reassess what successful retention looks like — a completed project or minimum time commitment met is a success. Just because a volunteer completes a project and moves on to another project or organization doesn’t mean it was a failure on the part of the previous organization.
SUG: How can an organization appeal to individuals who may want to start volunteering but aren’t sure where or how to start?
Bennett: When recruiting volunteers — whether they’re newbies or seasoned — it’s important to be transparent and honest about the role, role responsibilities and time commitment.
Don’t make prospective volunteers hunt for information or guess which skills you seek. Make sure you include information about why this work matters and how it helps your organization or clients. If you provide training and support for the role (and you should!), include that information as well.
It’s always a good idea to use common everyday language and avoid jargon.
SUG: How can organizations maximize volunteer hours to most efficiently support their operations?
Bennett: I think many organizations believe that more volunteers, or more volunteer hours, are always a good thing, but the key to optimizing volunteer engagement is really about matching volunteer time and talent with impacts and outcomes.
Before you begin recruiting volunteers, rehearse what needs to get done, how long the task(s) will take and who can best do it. This might mean scoping the project, designing training and gathering supplies before your volunteers arrive, so they're equipped to hit the ground running.
Remember, volunteers are giving you their most valuable resource — their time.
There’s nothing more frustrating for a volunteer than feeling like their time is wasted. If they end up standing around waiting for paid staff to get their activity organized or watching staff scramble to find something for them to do, they probably won’t volunteer with you again.
SUG: What are ways that organizations can set up and sustain volunteer training programs that are time-efficient and effective?
Bennett: There are so many great ideas and best practices for workplace learning we can adapt to train volunteers. As adults, our brains aren’t wired to learn things just because we’re supposed to. Nor are we very good at remembering things we can’t directly apply to our work.
Rather than delivering all of your training in one long session before a volunteer starts, think about ways you can offer bite-sized “just in time” training for your volunteers as they progress through your organization.
These trainings could be one-on-one on the job training or even a short video they could watch on their phone when they’re ready to learn more. Tapping into technology is a great way to deliver information at a time and location that’s convenient for volunteers.
Also, consider inviting your existing, experienced volunteers to participate as subject matter experts who can help provide a more customized learning experience.
SUG: Any tips on how organizations can show appreciation to volunteers and help them feel valued?
Bennett: Volunteer appreciation should be layered and customized. We can’t recognize all volunteers the same way once a year and expect our volunteers to know how important they are to our organization.
When onboarding volunteers, I include “point of contact” so they know who to go to for support. I instill ongoing acts of appreciation through training or milestone celebrations when a project is complete, a season over or a goal accomplished.
Whenever possible, appreciation and recognition should include specific impacts or outcomes. For example, what specifically did that volunteer do that was important or what mattered most about their work? Sharing that, and including feedback from others (like clients or paid staff) can really help recognition and appreciation resonate.
Many thanks to Jennifer for sharing her volunteer management expertise! Check out these volunteer appreciation theme ideas to show your volunteers how much they matter.