Effectively Engaging Volunteers-New Ideas for a New Generation of Volunteers

Volunteering is up! Yeah! Many folks who have been laid off are using their new found “free” time to give back. Question is, are you ready to engage with them effectively and make it a great experience for them and you? This post offers some alternative ideas to engaging volunteers; use your human and financial resources effectively and cultivate them as donors.

Let’s start with organization and management. If you have people calling and asking to help or you posted to Craigslist or Volunteermatch and are getting more responses than you have tasks or time for, maybe a volunteer manager would be useful.

If you are fortunate enough to have a full or part-time volunteer manager – good for you and skip to the next great idea. I know many organizations that do not. I think this is a great assignment for one or two really organized volunteers who have the time. Be serious about this selection. It requires time on their part and some training from you. But once you get them going, life will be easier.

Maybe you want an application/interview process for this position but you mark it unpaid. How many hours you would like or need has to be matched with their availability and willingness. Many who are recently out of work are contemplating a move to the non-profit sector. This is the kind of opportunity that can give them a feel for the industry and for you to potentially make a case for funding the position later. Could and should be a win-win. But by having an application/interview everyone knows this is a committed volunteer opportunity, not a one shot deal. The other opportunity here is involving a volunteer in the process and having their feedback and ideas on how the program could work most effectively, from intake, to tasks and recognition.

Beyond managing volunteers you have to have the tasks for them. It is very important that these tasks actually make a difference to the organization and/or those you serve. While office work such as filing, data entry or updating materials might not seem to be the heart of what you do, to some volunteers that is just the kind of “work” they are looking for. And it is important that we explain why this work is important so they don’t feel like we are giving them busy work. You probably have program opportunities to keep an army busy, so I am going move onto other opportunities you may or may not have considered.

Virtual Volunteering

In this age of social media and networking, do you have someone on staff who is managing your messages across Twitter, Facebook and/or MySpace? Is your website updated weekly? Are you seeking new ways to use Facebook Causes or Fan pages? These are tasks a virtual volunteer can do for you. They can do it from their home or come into the office. You could create a Twitter profile with them that focuses on a certain message you want shared. Of course all messages need to be approved or developed as a package they can work from. Scary thought letting go? Like in the volunteer manager position, you need to find the right people. For great examples see Best Friends Animal Shelter opportunities.

Guilt-free Episodic Volunteering

Episodic volunteering had become more the norm than long-term volunteering commitments. In the late 90’s New York volunteers formed New York Cares. They found a market for busy professionals who did not have the time to volunteer on a regular basis or make a long-term commitment. (Remember the go-go years of the 90’s when everyone was working so hard?) They collaborate with other non-profits to create, lead and manage short-term volunteer projects that make a difference. Chicago Cares followed shortly after New York Cares was founded and together they formed HandsOn Network (HON)to work organizations and people who wanted to follow their model. Today HON has affiliates nationwide including volunteer centers, online matching and training. Take a look at some of the short-term volunteer opportunities the HON groups have created. Perhaps it will give you some ideas of how to engage volunteers or how you can partner with one of their centers.

From this model, I found a group called VolunTourism. This takes episodic volunteering one step further. We all may be familiar with ecotourism or volunteering to clear trails at national parks or building homes with Habitat for Humanity. At VolunTourism they have an opportunity for non-profits, travel agents, tourists, hotels, tour operators to collaborate on offering volunteer activities while traveling.

For voluntourism or episodic opportunities to work, you either need to break a big project into pieces or look at the work you need done in pieces that can completed in stages. Collaborating with the tourist industry is another opportunity to make connections in your community, gain some volunteers and get some work done.

In this age of real and social networking your volunteers never know who they will meet who might be able to help them in their job search while they are making a difference. In addition, they can use their social network to help get your message out and recruit others. It’s a win-win opportunity for everyone. As in my previous post, remember, cultivating a relationship with volunteers is key to keeping them coming back and potentially their financial generosity in addition to their time.

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