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Starting a Volunteer Program: October Question of the Month Results

A solid volunteer program can contribute greatly to a nonprofit organization's success and effectiveness. As Scott Winter of the Walker Art Center commented, "Volunteers can be a valuable asset to your work load and your bottom line." So what should a nonprofit organization consider when establishing a volunteer program?

The October Question of the Month asked GuideStar Newsletter readers, "If you were to recommend one thing to a nonprofit organization starting a volunteer program, what advice would you give?" A majority of our respondents—62 percent—were both volunteers and people at nonprofits who work with volunteers. The remaining respondents were individuals who work with volunteers (27 percent) and volunteers (9 percent).


Question of the Month participants advised organizations starting volunteer programs to:

Set clear guidelines 34%
Give recognition 19%
Provide skilled management 14%
Screen volunteers carefully 13%
Keep volunteers busy 10%
Train volunteers 6%
Model from success 3%
Other 15%

Providing structure by setting clear guidelines benefits both volunteers and the nonprofits they assist. Adrienne Trout of the USO of Metropolitan Washington recommended, "Take the time to develop written materials first. Necessary materials include a volunteer job description, a volunteer handbook and an agenda for volunteer training." Defining these parameters beforehand will attract volunteers whose goals match your own needs as well as keep the program running smoothly. "Be deliberate and make sure new volunteers know exactly what the time and talent commitment is," suggested John Cocciolone of Easter Seals-Michigan.

An anonymous respondent emphasized the importance of not devaluing the work that volunteers do when thanking them for their time, effort, and commitment: "This may seem obvious, but I've heard experienced managers say, 'Thank you so much for doing this work, I know it's menial, I know it's a bore, but we really appreciate it.' It is so much more effective to simply thank a person, and let them know that the work is important and necessary." Andrea Egger of TBA Theatre urged, "Express gratitude sincerely and often. Little gestures have infinite value when cultivating a devoted volunteer corps." Such acknowledgments can range from "a personal note" to "t-shirts," "snacks," and "ice cream socials." Showing appreciation is vital, Karen C. from H.E.L.P. Animals Inc. noted, because "You NEED THEM (volunteers) and not the other way around."

Having experienced management was also identified as key to a successful volunteer program. Rachel Ethier Rosenbaum of Carroll Center for the Blind, Inc. warned that without "a competent paid director of volunteers," a program "will fizzle out." Many other respondents suggested that the volunteer coordinator be paid—and able to commit the vast majority, if not all, of his or her time to overseeing volunteers. "Volunteers need clear direction, plenty of attention, and deserved appreciation, and these things should not be 'extra duties as assigned' for staff already working full time," Maire Rhode of the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation advised.

Volunteers should also be screened and trained carefully. The screening process ensures "a high level of enthusiasm and belief in the organization's mission, effective networking capabilities, and the volunteer's availability of time to devote to such a project," said Tom Brooks of Toledo School for the Arts. From an interview to background checks, a nonprofit should put as much effort into selecting volunteers as hiring employees. Once volunteers have been chosen, they need adequate training "not only about their role, but about the nonprofit organization's mission, vision, history, organizational structure, raison d'etre. ... increase their knowledge and familiarity and you increase their commitment to your organization," observed Marcia M. Rocco of the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

Additionally, volunteers need to be kept busy with appropriate and interesting tasks that emphasize their individual strengths and backgrounds.

Why Is All of This Important?

It may seem like a daunting task to take all of these concerns into account when starting up a volunteer program. "Be patient," suggested Rulon Eames of Phoenix Services. "Finding reliable volunteers is a long, painstaking, frustrating process with many reverses."

The process also provides rewards. As Mary Maronde noted, "A volunteer corps can bring to your organization better representation to and of your community, increased visibility of your organization, and the opportunity to provide genuine social and educational opportunities to a dedicated and enthusiastic group of people. Sure, volunteers serve your organization but you also serve them ... a win/win situation!"

Lauren Nicole Klapper-Lehman, November 2005
© 2005, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Lauren Nicole Klapper-Lehman is an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary and currently a communications intern at GuideStar. At the end of her internship, she will provide an evaluation of her volunteer experience to William and Mary's Local Internship Program.
Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice