Volunteers Wanted: How Your Organization Can Boost Programming By Promoting Volunteerism

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve served as a volunteer in some capacity at least once or twice.    And if modest salaries and grueling hours are a norm within your nonprofit, there’s a chance you feel like you’re volunteering all of the time!

In any event, volunteerism is part and parcel to most successful nonprofits.  Without volunteers to canvass neighborhoods, stuff envelopes, and share their time with the communities served by nonprofits, there’s a good chance many nonprofits would be forced to go under.

Winston Churchill expressed the volunteer spirit nicely when he observed that “[w]e make a living by what we do, but we make a life by what we give.”

The purpose of this post is to look at current trends in volunteerism and provide you with information that your organization can use to further your mission by enlisting the help of volunteers.

One-Time “Day of Service” Emerges as Trend in Volunteerism

With Kermit the Frog as its spokes-amphibian, Disney launched a new volunteering campaign dubbed “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” in which volunteers who dedicate their time were given a one-day pass to a Disney theme park.   Participants were able to search through volunteer opportunities on the Disney Web site and manage their volunteering accounts.  The campaign, which has now come to an end, was successful—reaching its ultimate goal of finding 1 million volunteers.

According to a recent article in the NonProfit Times, Susan Ellis, president of Energize, Inc., in Philadelphia, said the Disney giveaway and other days of service “validate that you only have to do the minimum” and that, however well-intentioned they might be, they could be sending the wrong message.

With days of service increasing in popularity, the question becomes one of quality versus quantity.  Some might argue that efforts to promote volunteerism need to be more sustainable—focusing more on fostering long-term commitments to a cause rather than generating large turnouts.   But, on the other hand, many nonprofits would welcome any new volunteers—even if they were only there for a day and only to get the free Disney tickets.

How to Grow Volunteerism in Your Organization

Regardless of where you stand in this debate, your organization, like most nonprofit organizations, is always looking for more volunteers.  So what are some practical tips you can use to attract and retain volunteers?

First, figure out what roles you need to fill with volunteers.  Depending on the nature of your activities/programming, this could be anything from picking up trash on sidewalks to performing surgeries at no cost.  The task of determining which positions will be filled by paid staff and which will be filled by volunteers is not an easy one.  Clear communication and full participation among all board members is a key part of this process.

Second, once you have identified roles for volunteers, the next step is recruitment.   There are many different strategies that could be employed here.  Larger nonprofits that can afford it may want to consider using an advertising campaign as a tool to attract volunteers.  Smaller nonprofits with tighter budgets can still draw a lot of attention to their volunteer opportunities by using free social media tools such as Facebook.  Organizations both small and large may also want to consider teaming up with other nonprofits and for-profit organizations by taking part in a “day of service” program or other coordinated volunteer efforts.

Finally, once you have attracted volunteers, you will need to devise a strategy for retaining them.   Incentive programs such as the “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” program are good at attracting volunteers, but they might have limitations in terms of retaining volunteers.  Organizations interested in retention will want to spend some time discussing different ways to recognize and reward volunteers.   Some ideas include: volunteer gifts, recognition in a newsletter or website, volunteer appreciation dinners, or other special events.

Some Good Economic News (Finally!)

On a somewhat different note, there’s good news coming out of the Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier this month.  According to a new poll of more than 500 donors, donors are showing increased confidence in their ability to give to charity as the economy shows signs of stabilizing.    Almost half of donors surveyed said they would give at least as much as they did in 2009.   According to the survey, the majority of donors said the economy was the main influence on their giving.   The most robust outlook for nonprofits was in the faith-based sector.  According to the survey, donors to religious charities scored 94.9 on a 100-point scale, compared with a score of 88.4 for nonprofit groups as a whole.

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