Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lessons from the Field: Investing in Your Volunteer Program & The Reading List

Here at Metro Volunteers our mission is to mobilize and cultivate volunteers as a vital force in our community. For over 16 years, we’ve been helping connect organizations to potential volunteers and training nonprofits to maximize engagement of volunteers to build capacity and to use their volunteer assets strategically.

Like the rest of the community, the economic calamity in the fall of 2008 caused us to look closely at our bottom line as need for services increased while funding decreased. It led to difficult choices here at Metro Volunteers, including a staff reduction in January of 2009 when we went from 8 ½ fulltime employees to 3 ½. The need to fully engage volunteers became not only good strategy – but necessity. However, was our volunteer infrastructure ready? Aside from our board and committees, our volunteers were either in the field acting as project leaders for other organizations, or AmeriCorps volunteers supporting staff efforts. It was time to increase the responsibility of our current volunteers, increase our base of internal volunteers, and activate tools and processes to fully integrate volunteers in our work. In essence, to rebuild our staff – with both paid and volunteer positions. Over the past 15 months or so, we have taken our own advice and matured our volunteer program. We did this in several ways.

We created task teams and operations teams that raised the expectation and responsibility of volunteers. For example, our Volunteers with Impact and Purpose (VIP) program is a new program run by a volunteer operations team with minimal staff support. These volunteers developed the program, oversaw the pilot, and have now launched the first cohort.

We elevated the roles of our AmeriCorps members from program support to program oversight and delivery. Our Project Leadership Program is now managed by an AmeriCorps/VISTA member, under whose guidance it has flourished. For sustainability, we are building an Operations Team of volunteers to continue to deliver and grow the program once our national service member has completed her term of service.

We created significant new volunteer roles using our own best practices and tools. We conducted an assessment of our internal needs and identified tasks that could be owned by volunteers. Our new Client Services team fill a variety of roles in our organization: The front desk volunteers field inquiries, greet visitors, and provide program support; a database volunteer has organized and updated our records, and a membership specialist has grown our nonprofit membership by 40% in just six months.

Not all of our internal volunteers commit to regular hours. Most of our training courses are taught by skilled volunteers with specific expertise who serve a few times a year. Other volunteers come in for specific short-term projects, such as organizing the store room, planning an event or assisting with a marketing effort. We have found the best way to recruit and retain volunteers is to ask questions. The more you know, the more you can align the project to benefit all parties.

Of course, it hasn’t been easy or gone completely smoothly. In the course of one year, we’ve recruited, trained and placed five Client Services volunteers who left their positions in less than six months for various reasons. For some, who came to us because the economy made finding work difficult, a paid position came along. Although delighted for them, we were disappointed but don’t consider their departure a loss. We made valuable connections with community members who can now act as ambassadors for us, who understand our work, and who can connect others to our programs and services.

Investing in your volunteer program – staff, supplies, training – may seem to be a drain on resources. But with good planning, your return can be far greater than the costs.
Implementation of our expanded internal volunteer program has been a tremendous success. We have created capacity for our paid staff by putting volunteer staff in significant roles. We stay focused on maximizing our volunteer program, continuing to recruit, train, and recognize our volunteer staff. We understand their true value and are grateful for their support of our work and our mission.

There are many resources available to help you develop your volunteer program. At Metro Volunteers, we are experts in the field of building organizational capacity via volunteers. Now, using the tools, best practices and processes that we’ve offered other organizations over the years, we have created our own volunteer program that enables us to increase our scope and scale and better achieve our mission. Please review The Reading List for helpful online tools and articles.

The Reading List: Engaging Volunteers

HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector: Staff Volunteer Relations

The Huffington Post: Don’t Let Goodwill Slip Through The Cracks

Energize, Inc. Hot Topics from Susan J. Ellis

The Cost of a Volunteer - Recognizing that “Volunteers aren’t free,” the Grantmaker Forum on Community & National Service decided to explore the question: What does it cost to mount an effective and high quality volunteer program?

Using Volunteers Effectively: Turning Short Term Volunteers Into Long Term Resources by Christina Jones

1 comment:

  1. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, eh?

    Particular kudos for increasing the stature of your AmeriCorps volunteer to run programs, a la the capacity building work modeled by the VISTA program. Here's to well wishes for the sustainability that such program management can bring to MV.