How to Prepare Your Nonprofit for Volunteers

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You'd never recruit paid employees until you had actual jobs for them, job descriptions, knew how to supervise them, and clarified your expectations of them.But, sometimes nonprofits start recruiting volunteers before the organization is ready.

Bad move. Even if just one volunteer has a lousy experience, it could set back your efforts for years. Better to put in place a "human resources" plan for volunteers, similar to what you have for paid staff. Before you start looking for volunteers, make sure that you follow these steps to get your organization ready.

Understand Your Nonprofit's Culture and Work Environment

Each nonprofit organization has a personality. For instance, is your organization formal in the way it sets up boundaries and chains of command? Or is it open, friendly, creative, and value-driven?

Perhaps it is chaotic and free-flowing. Are employees serious or relaxed, humorous and friendly, or stiff and cold? Is the situation stable with staff feeling secure in their jobs or is it anxious and unstable with everyone worried about their future? Is this a place you would recommend to friends or family as a good place to work or volunteer?

Make the Match Between Culture and Volunteer

Hopefully, your organization is pleasant and friendly, but with clearly structured processes and expectations. In any case, your organization's culture will determine the type of volunteer you recruit. If your office is hierarchical, you may want to find people who are comfortable following procedures and policies.

If it is loosely organized or entrepreneurial, you will want to look for individuals who are self-starters and who enjoy working with less structure and direction. Analyze your workplace before you recruit volunteers, so you will be able to make a better match between volunteers and the organization.

Prepare Your Organization for Volunteers

Does top management support volunteer work and appreciate the value volunteers can bring? Is the staff prepared and willing to help with interviewing, orientation, training, and supervising volunteers? Does your board of directors value volunteers?

Have you thought through the kinds of work you can give to volunteers? Are there volunteer position descriptions in place? Have you prepared recruitment materials such as brochures, flyers, and a volunteer handbook? Is there a place for volunteers to work, with necessary supplies and available equipment? Are there policies, procedures, and record keeping systems in place?

Identify and Resolve Legal Issues

Have you spotted any legal and liability issues about volunteer involvement? Are there systems in place for running background checks? For evaluating the performance of volunteers and measuring the outcomes you'll expect? Is your insurance up-to-date and does it protect volunteers and the organization?

Train and Prepare Your Staff

Is your team ready to respond when potential volunteers contact you? Can they speak knowledgeably and enthusiastically about the mission and work of the organization? Does your website have information about how to volunteer, who to contact, and photos of volunteers? 

Even when no specific recruiting has been done, your organization may hear from potential volunteers. Make sure that everyone in the office who receives calls from people expressing an interest in volunteering knows who is in charge of volunteer management and is prepared to transfer the call or forward a message. 

Never ask a volunteer to call back! The quickest way to miss out on a great volunteer is to leave him or her dangling. A volunteer will probably not make a second attempt to reach you. She will go on to the next nonprofit on her list.

Educate Staff About Recruiting Volunteers

Many of your organization's employees see potential volunteers every day. Do they know about the range of service opportunities available in your organization and where to refer individuals who express an interest in volunteering? Are you staff members ambassadors for your organization? If you want to attract young volunteers, such as teenagers, use the ones you have to do outreach to their peers.

Once you understand your organizational culture and have all of your systems in place, it is time to get on with your recruitment plans.