Let’s Turn National Volunteer Week into Volunteer Engagement & Retention Week

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This past January, I joined the ranks of Americans across the country who show up in masses on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to participate in volunteer service projects in their communities. That morning, a hundred or so eager volunteers and I gathered in a local elementary school cafeteria, ready and willing to spend all day boxing up nonperishable food donations to ship out to local food banks and pantries.

The result? Turnout was so great that we finished the project in just over an hour and then went home to enjoy a lazy Monday off work.

Adam White, John Glenn Fellow, National Council of NonprofitsWhile I patted myself on the back for getting out of bed and paying tribute to Dr. King’s legacy, I knew my individual presence had almost zero impact on the amount, quality, or timeliness of the work we had just completed. Even worse, the room was so crowded and the project flew by so fast that there was little opportunity to make strong connections or learn about the organizations I was serving. Needless to say, I walked away from the experience feeling somewhat unfulfilled.

Three months later, as National Volunteer Week (April 10-16) approaches, I am hoping I can make the most of my MLK Day experience by using it as a friendly reminder of how important it is for nonprofits to maintain a focus on volunteer engagement and retention in preparation for major service events.

Nationwide days of service like MLK Day and National Volunteer Week are great because they inspire people who don’t usually volunteer to come out of the woodwork and engage with the needs of their communities. Unfortunately, as any nonprofit employee or seasoned volunteer is acutely aware, community needs don’t only spring up in January and April. They persist year-round and for many nonprofits, mobilizing volunteer labor is the only way to meet those needs. National Volunteer Week, like MLK Day or any other major service event your nonprofit may be planning, presents a tremendous opportunity for nonprofits not only to take advantage of free labor for a day or week, but also to recruit, engage, and retain new volunteers for the long haul.

So if your nonprofit is planning a service event, whether it’s next week, next January, or anytime in between, take some time during the already hectic planning process to develop a strategy for not only building volunteer turnout on the day of the event, but to inspire those volunteers to continue to dedicate their time to your nonprofit’s mission year-round. To get started, here are some great ideas from the HandsOn Network’s Volunteer Management Guidebook.

Before the Project: Motivation

  • Be thorough in the description of the volunteer duties. Manage expectations. Help volunteers be prepared by mentioning any special clothing or equipment they could bring with them that could make their volunteer service more comfortable. It can also be very motivating to point out outcomes a volunteer is likely to experience or observe, so that prospective volunteers can be anticipating the service day with enthusiasm.
  • Use this opportunity to teach potential volunteers about the issue area, who they will be serving, and the potential impact of the project.
  • Use names often; this helps develop a personal connection.

During the Project: Engagement

  • Welcome volunteers as they arrive and provide a designated check-in area. Use nametags and get to know your volunteers while also introducing them to one another to encourage interaction.
  • Offer a brief orientation that includes an overview of the organization’s mission and services, and how volunteer support is contributing to that mission. Discuss the community issue that is being addressed by the project, possibly including a brief history of the issue, current statistics, or current events relating to the issue. Orientation makes volunteers feel connected to the agency, clients, or their community, makes their work feel more meaningful, and in turn makes them more likely to engage in future service.
  • After the orientation, give an outline of the project and what volunteers will be doing during the project, so that everyone knows what to expect and what is expected of them. Be sure to allow time for training volunteers for any specialized tasks or skills the project will require.
  • Make sure everyone has something to do. Underutilization is one of the biggest threats to retention. If people do not feel needed, they will not come back.
  • If you encounter any “problem volunteers,” it is important to recognize the problem quickly and handle it professionally. If you ignore the problem, it will affect other volunteers and their experience, and may influence them negatively.

After the Project: Reflection

  • After completion of the project, review with the volunteers what they accomplished so volunteers have a clearer idea of the impact of their service.
  • Taking time for reflection allows volunteers to stop for a moment, think about what they’ve accomplished, share their experiences, and offer feedback for future projects or ideas for how they can continue to address the social issue.
  • Ask specific questions. What did you learn today? How do you feel about the project? Was it time well spent? What would you change about the project? Do you plan to stay involved on the issue?
  • Reflection helps volunteers to more fully understand how their service impacts the community, which will hopefully encourage them to be involved in future projects!

The National Council of Nonprofits’ website offers more resources on volunteer management.

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