Volunteer Management Practices to Take Your Nonprofit to the Next Level

By Peter Gamache, Ph.D. & Jackie Sue Griffin, MBA, MS, Turnaround Life, Inc.

RCS Pinellas is a 53-year-old nonprofit in Tampa Bay. You might remember that we profiled them in a previous article exploring their adoption of a very specific business model to transition from a struggling organization facing liquidation to a thriving nonprofit with $8.5 million in assets.

One factor in their undeniable success is their volunteer base. RCS provides help and hope for 130,000 individuals per year with a staff of 80—and a volunteer force of 2,500. In 2019, alone, RCS volunteers contributed 20,000 hours to the mission of feeding the hungry, helping families facing homelessness return to self-sufficiency and empowering survivors of domestic violence. This represented an annual savings of $300,000, which means that approximately 90 cents of every dollar raised goes back to the RCS mission—and not into overhead.

COO Melinda Perry shared how they approach volunteer management—from recruitment and orientation through training, appreciation and retention. They’re practical—and proven—approaches that could also serve your nonprofit well.

Volunteer management is an organization-wide priority. “All of our staff has responsibility related to RCS volunteer management,” Perry explains. “Every one of us is charged with recruitment, training and acknowledgment: We bring in friends, family, peers. Many of us work side-by-side with volunteers as part of our daily operations, so we’re also involved in their training–and in the perfect position to sincerely recognize their efforts.”

But key staff do have more specific roles in volunteer management. At RCS, volunteer management happens at the program level. The Executive Directors and their staff direct the volunteers in their respective programs. The organization recently hired a Volunteer Development Manager, replacing a more task-driven coordinator position. The HR Specialist identifies a potential volunteer’s best program match, performs background checks, and schedules orientation. In total, 10 RCS staff members have direct responsibility for the organization’s 2,500 passionate volunteers.

Setting expectations and sharing the mission is key. “We make sure we do a good job explaining what it’s like to volunteer with us:  requirements for background checks, orientation, regular meetings as well as opportunities for cross-training and connection.  During orientation, a video of our President and CEO Kirk Ray Smith explains the mission and our programs, and a PowerPoint really introduces them to all that we do—and how they can impact that.”

Because RCS operates a certified domestic violence center, The Haven, volunteers in that program must complete 30 hours of training before they can interact with guests. “We explain the time commitment aspect of it, but we’re informing, not deterring; the training will help the volunteer feel more comfortable and confident in their work.” At RCS, these specially trained volunteers answer the 24-hour domestic violence hotline; perform administrative tasks; help lead support groups; review police reports with staff to identify individuals at high risk of death, whom staff then contact and invite into the program; and work within court system to help survivors file restraining orders and support them during legal proceedings.

Use what you’ve already got: seasoned volunteers. “We make a point of partnering a new volunteer with a more seasoned one.” In this way, RCS frees up valuable staff time and creates mentoring relationships among volunteers. “Our volunteers say it’s very beneficial to be paired up during training—and beyond. They enjoy meeting new people. Peer-to-peer recruitment is also very effective for us. You can hear about a volunteer opportunity on the radio, but that appeal has less strength than a peer recommendation.”

Don’t forget your closest and most informed volunteers. RCS’ 14 board members and 85 volunteer committee members are not counted in their already impressive 2,500 figure. Board members contribute financially, of course, but also lend expertise, skill and connections. Committee members do the heavy lifting of event planning and production and sponsorship solicitation, leaving RCS staff to concentrate on day-to-day operations.

Never lose sight of what’s in it for them. In a word: socialization. Recognizing this need and building it into your volunteer program can result in increased retention and peer recruitment. “A lot of our volunteers want to connect with other people. So we help them do that.” As we mentioned, RCS pairs volunteers and fosters mentorships, but they also offer regular volunteer meetings in the breakroom with the dual purpose of sharing information and fostering communication and new connections. RCS also works hard to make sure volunteers feel their work is impactful, but they’re not locked in. “This is a volunteer opportunity; not a job.”

Be sincere, generous, spontaneous–and strategic—in your appreciation of their work. “It’s not a personal metric, but as an organization, we’re mindful of the power of individual, spontaneous ‘thank yous’ to our volunteers. As you’re working next to someone or you see someone at work, telling them you appreciate them goes a long way.” RCS also recognizes volunteers who go above and beyond with a “spotlight,” a photo and profile on social media that’s also posted in the breakroom. Another strategic appreciation tool is their annual volunteer luncheon.

RCS boils it down to three words: engage, support and appreciate. “We strive to build personal relationships and engage each volunteer as a person,” Perry says. “Then we listen to and support what they want out of their experience—giving additional training, working within their schedule, etc. And we show sincere appreciation—often and in big and small ways.”

Here at Turnaround Life, Inc., we aim to help organizations and programs that make it possible for people to turn their lives around. For more information about us, visit our website.

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