5 Ways to Build a Rockstar Volunteer Base with Quality Communications

Creating a Volunteer ProgramWhether they are raising awareness, picking up trash or engaging with those in need, volunteers are one of the largest and most valuable assets to nonprofit organizations. With limited manpower and tight budgets, we’re grateful for the time volunteers donate and usually assume that is all they want to offer. In reality, they have much more potential.

A loyal, committed and engaged volunteer group takes their work as seriously as paid employees and will benefit both your nonprofit’s cause, and the lives of those involved. One key to building a rockstar volunteer base is communicating the right way. How you communicate with volunteers defines your organization’s volunteering culture and determines how your volunteers feel about the work they accomplish.

These five tips will ensure your nonprofit organization is on the right track to building a volunteer dream team:

1. Building John Doe Volunteer

Trying to communicate with everyone at your organization all at once creates a generic, boring message that doesn’t resonate effectively. Since our minds are designed to communicate with people one-on-one, a great way to fix the barrier is by creating a volunteer character profile.

Take some time to identify the characteristics that best fit the majority of your volunteers or the volunteers you want to connect with the most. How old are they? What are their interests? Are they in school? Are they retired? What do they do on the weekends? Why do they like your organization and want to volunteer?

Example: Mike (John Doe) is a young professional that just got out college and wants to spend his years doing good for his community and having fun before settling into a nine to five job and starting a family. He is tall, brown hair and really likes working with children and the outdoors.

From there, print your character profile’s face and name with his description on paper. Talk to this character every time you craft an email, social media post or flyer. Your message will resonate with the lives of your volunteer base and grab their attention.

Extra Tip: Don’t assume a lawyer that is volunteering will want to do legal work for your organization. Don’t pigeon hole your volunteers in their career skills because chances are they’ll volunteer more if you give them a vacation from their day job, not an extra shift.

2. Crafting the Right Message to Motivate Volunteers

The reason your volunteers take action and the reason they support your cause are often very different. In many cases, you can assume your volunteer base already supports your organization philosophically. To maximize results, focus on what motivates your John Doe volunteers to spend their free time coming to your event and supporting your organization.

For our character profile example, Mike, he may see this volunteer group as an opportunity for socializing. In this case, instead of an email headline for a beach cleanup stating, “The ocean needs your help!” try, “Get some sun, make friends and make a difference.”

Other volunteers may be looking to develop skills, build their resume or try new things. If they already support your cause, speak to these needs first and watch your attendance rise.

3. Build a Volunteer Tribe

The best volunteers not only feel connected to your cause, but also to staff members and fellow volunteers. Your volunteers need to see everyone as a friend rather than an acquaintance. Ensuring your volunteers feel comfortable is key to getting them excited, returning more often, sharing ideas and going above and beyond.

To build a sense of camaraderie, you can create t-shirts, get-togethers and happy hours after volunteer events. For your most loyal volunteers, invite them to staff brainstorms and bonding activities. Incorporating the personality of organization and staff members into your communications will help them feel like they are part of the tribe.

Extra Tip: Team up with other like-minded nonprofit groups to host volunteer gatherings and events and create a larger, united team. You’ll offer your volunteers more opportunities to get involved and extend the reach of your communications.

4. Cohesive Message in All Channels

People learn through repetition. Once you have perfected your message to resonate with the right people, standardize it across all of your media channels and re-use your content. With repetition, your brand’s message will become its identity.

It will also save you valuable time and money and ensure your message is of the same caliber, whether it’s your executive director or your social media intern broadcasting it.

For example, my client, San Diego Coastkeeper, regularly produces flyers, event information, environmental tips and press releases. All have the organization’s logo and mission statement, “protecting and restoring fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters in San Diego County,” on all content.

5. Following Up

All communications professionals will tell you, follow up is key! Whether this is the first time the volunteer showed to get their hands dirty, or a volunteer you have a relationship with because they continue to return—follow up and make them feel important.

Following up can be as simple as a personal email or thank you card. Thank them for their time and let them know how they impacted your organization and the community. Honors and awards also keep volunteers motivated. Award a new volunteer as “Volunteer of the Month.” Display this award in a high-traffic area and share across social media channels to motivate other volunteers and reinforce their value.







Deploying Talent and Expertise Through Your Top Volunteer Leadership

Organizing Volunteers“An environmental scan is the first step I recommend,” said consultant Steve Farbstein. “Let’s get a group of your stakeholders together and we can talk through our plan for the day long board retreat.”

Steve is the nonprofit sector’s new consultant.  Highly skilled, mission motivated, organizationally aware, and best yet, pro-bono.

Steve, in this case, is a member of the March of Dimes National Volunteer Leadership Council.  The Council is made up of expert volunteer leaders, a diverse group of men and women, who have made their way through the March of Dimes ranks. These leaders have done their time as committee members; event chairs; committee chairs and even as Chairs of local market boards.

They are the organization’s brain trust. They have institutional memory all the while having a vision for our future.  They are the lead consulting agency for the organization, albeit without the hefty price tag.  These individuals are empowered to drive our business using a peer to peer, volunteer to volunteer approach.  They are trained at the National level, but have the practical experience of local leaders.

In the March of Dimes model, the Council has a primary focus of providing consultation services on the subjects of recruitment, retention and engagement of volunteer leaders.  Council members are experts on the topic of building boards. Every market needs to have an effective board and many are challenged at building one.  These volunteer Council members are an invaluable resource to their volunteer peers around the country.

Most recently, these volunteer consultants took an “invest in your best” approach, traveling to support local volunteers in key markets including Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Houston to help strengthen their board development approach.  They met with the local market board chair and local staff to plot out a strategy to take these high potential boards to the next level.

It’s not a one-off engagement, rather it becomes a partnership.  Think of it as a retainer-based model, paid for in good will.   The construct allows the local market chair and local staff member to have ongoing access to the volunteer consultant.  The consultant learns the market, learns the opportunities and challenges and becomes a fixture in the lives of the local team, lending their knowledge of his or her own market and others around the country.  Small fees may apply associated with travel.  But even for those nonprofits on a shoestring budget, the consultation engagement can take place by phone or video chat.

In following standard volunteer development tenets, it is a proverbial win / win for the organization.  These volunteer consultants are satisfying their own volunteer motivations while serving and benefitting others. Every organization has these leaders. And every organization can deploy them.

Why does the model work?

  • These volunteer consultants have seen and experienced the “best practice” model. They were selected for service on this Council because of their success in their own market.  They are able to “talk the talk” having previously “walked the walk” when they served in that lead local role.
  • They understand the organization – its strengths, its weaknesses and its political realities. This form of volunteer consultant knows what is feasible and what is fantasy.  In his 25 year association with the March of Dimes, Council member Frank Wall of Oregon has traveled the country for years as a March of Dimes volunteer consultant.  When Frank cautions a group of board leaders on the pitfalls of one strategy over another, they tend to listen.
  • The model brings corporate pragmatism to the nonprofit board room door. These outside volunteers are corporate leaders during their day job. In this model, they truly are regarded as consultant experts, bringing new vision and enthusiasm to an existing board. My former colleague liked to quote the adage, “You can’t be a prophet in your own land.” But you can be a prophet at someone else’s board meeting.
  • The deployment of these volunteer leaders supports local staff who sometimes have to navigate challenging situations with their local board leaders. From a pure communications vantage point, inserting a volunteer to handle a volunteer challenge is much more effective than interjecting a well intentioned staff member.  Ask Council Member Sandy Lish, who runs her own corporate communications firm in her day job. (We often forget that these volunteers actually have one!)
  • These volunteer consultants are expanding their own reach. It provides them with an opportunity to impact a market well out of their own geographic range.  They can prove out their own model by testing it in other areas across the country.  The added bonus is the opportunity for this volunteer consultant to network with leaders in another geography.

We have already seen the fruits of this effort, with the aforementioned local boards noting an increase in board engagement, new recruits, and an expanded understanding of the best ways to leverage relationships for purposes of mission implementation and revenue production.

Next, their focus will turn to the key initiatives associated with Prematurity Awareness Month this November.  Our Pledge Purple for Preemies online campaign will ask individuals to commit to take action during November to help us raise awareness and fight premature birth, the #1 killer of babies. Fundraisers, prematurity summits and purple lightings across the country will help spread the word and the March of Dimes efforts to find the unknown causes of premature birth and prevent babies born too soon. Visit www.marchofdimes.org.

The consulting world has employed this model for years.  It’s time to apply it to the nonprofit sector with a slight twist.  Identify your best leaders, connect them to one another, stay out of their way, and let them work their magic.

Effective Volunteer Training Focuses On Behavior

Great Tips on Setting Up a Volunteering Program & Training“You don’t solve other people’s problems for them, it is hard enough to handle your own.  You don’t save another person’s life, you help him or her get through a moment, this moment, now.”

This is the opening statement used in the training program for new volunteers applying to become hotline staff for the Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center in New York City, a role that, should they satisfactorily complete the  program, will result in their taking some of the 85,000 calls Samaritans responds to each year from people in crisis.

Besides setting the tone that will be utilized in the 32-hour intensive training to follow, the statement presents the potential volunteers with Samaritans’ philosophy and approach and, most importantly, the behaviors the organization requires from those who will, ultimately, be on the front lines providing our emotional support and crisis response services to people who are depressed, experiencing trauma, self-harming and suicidal behavior.

This focus on behavior is at the heart of Samaritans training—in both our hotline volunteer programs as well as the professional development training we have done for over 40,000 lay and professional health providers in New York City and environs over the past 25 years.

It is based on our own experience—as part of an international suicide prevention network with over 400 centers operating in 42 countries that have responded to tens of millions of people in crisis over the past 60 years in the US, Europe, Asia and Africa—as well as communications theory, research studies on rapport-building, stigma, at-risk individual’s resistance to seeking care and, dare I say (though in this evidence-based world this is an unpopular comment),  common sense.

Basically, we have learned that if people who are in distress are not comfortable with you, if they do not trust you, if you cannot communicate clearly with them; it does not matter how smart or caring or well-intentioned you are.  You are not going to be in a position to help.

Added to this is the fact that working on a confidential 24-hour hotline is akin to an extremely challenging professional job, just in this case the work is performed by people who do not get paid (think nurses who volunteer at hospice centers, volunteer fire and rescue team members, emergency service and disaster responders).  So the need for the individuals who are to staff the 24-hour hotline to be punctual, attentive, focused, accountable and able to follow directions, whether they understand them or not, is paramount.

Therefore Samaritans training does not wait to see how volunteers will perform once they have the position, we simulate and replicate that environment in training class.

The need for a behavioral-focused approach to training is by no means unique to Samaritans though we are, admittedly, very demanding of our volunteer staff due to the nature of our work.  But the fact is that many executive directors and volunteer coordinators of charities and nonprofits will admit in quieter moments, off the record, that though the enthusiasm and motivation of volunteers is extraordinary (frequently better than their paid counterparts), it is a tremendous challenge to separate the individuals who are sincere and devoted and are able to help within the confines of the organization from those who (whether they realize it or not) are more focused on helping themselves.

Most volunteer applicants when being interviewed will say that they are responsible, punctual, team players, open-minded, etc., but determining which candidates can actually behave that way is a necessity throughout both the recruitment and job training process.  I have met countless executive directors and volunteer program managers over the years that have expressed their envy of Samaritans’ ability to provide 24-hour hotline coverage 365 days a week, all with un-paid volunteer staff.  “How do you do it?” they ask.

The answer?  “We remove people who come late to training class.”  It’s that simple.

“I couldn’t do that,” they reply.  My response, coming from a business-focused cost-benefits perspective (for at the end of the day, no matter how wonderful the cause we represent, we are only going to be able to help people if we run an effective business): “So, what is it costing you in time, paid staff, organizational resources if you cannot count on volunteers to do their job?”

Our belief, and 30 years of training over 3,000 hotline volunteers confirm this: If you cannot get to training on time for a job you say you want; if you cannot be responsible and follow directions; then it would be a mistake to “hire you” to do the job when it counts.  And that is not to be cynical or negative, for volunteers are the lifeblood of Samaritans and have been since its inception in the early 1950’s, a period of time that we have collectively answered tens of millions of calls from people in crisis.  In fact, I began as a hotline volunteer over 30 years ago, which led me to change careers and become associated with some of the finest people I have ever known.

But not every person who wants to work in a certain environment is a good match for that organization and its needs.  This is true in the volunteer sector, as it is in the academic and corporate world.  Otherwise, I would be a world-renown jazz guitarist and no one would be reading this piece.  People have different strengths and weaknesses, different capabilities and it is up to the training program and the staff who implement it to do the best they can to match motivated candidates with the organization’s mission, focus, image and services.

So, again, at Samaritans, we find that it always comes back to behavior; and that is a thread that runs through our volunteer recruitment, training and, ultimately, individual performance evaluations.  We find that people who are able to satisfactorily practice certain behaviors tend to be successful in our environment and those who can’t, no matter how nice, well-intentioned, educated or sincere, do not.  You are either part of the problem or part of the solution, said a famous social activist.

The ability to communicate effectively, a behavior that plays a significant role in the functioning of every nonprofit volunteer organization, as well as the services they deliver, is a prime example.  Over the past 25 years, I can tell you that, almost without exception, every person who has applied to be a hotline volunteer has started out considering themselves to be open-minded, non-judgmental and a good listener.  I can also tell you that, after the first day of training, almost every one of them was in utter shock to learn how self-directed their communications were, how many assumptions they made and how much they tended to talk instead of listen.

The same is true with the behaviors of being collaborative, a team player, having a good attitude.  We have learned over the years to utilize exercises, roleplays and interactive discussions into the program (some of them using natural work teams; others, actor-trainers; still others, tools used in survival training, corporate communications, Zen practice) to see how people respond to simulated job environments.  These are easy behaviors to confirm in good candidates and even easier to identify in those who do not exhibit them or present the opposite—the monopolizers, the proselytizers, people who get sullen when they don’t understand something, the constant hand-raisers who interfere in a program’s progress, etc.

Every organization knows from experience what behaviors and attitudes work in their environment and which undermine and compromise.  Identifying them, creating environments where they can be played out and tested, where people can be viewed interacting individually, on a small team level, as part of a larger group; these exercises reinforce the behaviors and attitude an organization wants people to practice as well as uncovering those individuals who struggle with them (and may need additional help) as well as those who just don’t fit in.

Parallel to the behavioral aspect that is a thread throughout the training program, there is a step-by-step process that takes the candidates through the information and skills they will need to utilize to do the job.  On that front, as we begin, we make sure to tell every participant that they are all starting at the same level and it does not matter what their individual background, education or experience is.

Practicing the positive and accepting behavior we preach, we say: “If you just approach training with a positive attitude, participate in the exercises and follow directions you will get through this program fine.  Don’t worry about it, we are here to help.  But you must do the work.”

Then we start with the basics.  For the communications module, we define listening.  We draw diagrams showing that our focus is always on the receiver of the message, not the sender.  We outline what a declarative sentence looks like (because, whether you like it or not, the average American college graduate has an 8th grade reading level).  We use practice pairs (like exercise partners), we do drills (like music teachers having students practice scales), we utilize team exercises where they do group problem-solving (reminding them that everybody plays).

We work cooperatively and collaboratively and have assistant trainers observe who works well together and who does not.  After every exercise we debrief as a group, providing an outlet for their feedback and for them to express the challenges they are dealing with (and we observe these behaviors as well).  We explore together how things went, what was effective and what was not and what we need to work on.  We joke about how it felt going to the gym for the first time believing we needed to get in better shape, only to learn after the first workouts what really bad shape we were in.

We balance being serious with being light-hearted, constantly reminding people this is a process and not to look over their own shoulder, that we are nowhere close to evaluating anyone.  We are just working together, doing our best to practice the behaviors we know are the key to doing hotline work effectively and remind them that everyone has gone through this process and they need to go through it, too, but we are going to help them every step of the way.


Creating a Successful Volunteer Program

create volunteer programThe backbone of a nonprofit is its volunteers. I was once told that it takes many hands and many hearts to complete our mission. That is so true of many nonprofit organizations, including Wreaths Across America™. By working together, great things can be accomplished. Unity provides a strength that is denied to the individual. At Wreaths Across America, our strength lies in our volunteer system. We could not exist without it.

When you think about it, volunteerism in America is as old as the country itself. It’s in the very fiber of who we are. From barn raisings to collective harvests to the creation of local schools, fire departments and hospitals, volunteering — to help a neighbor in need or those less fortunate, or simply for the common good — defines who we are as Americans. This civic commitment continues today in many forms: community involvement, fundraising, adult education, special needs assistance and environmental cleanup, to name a few.

We’re a generous and giving people by nature, and faced with the opportunity to give back for all of the blessings we enjoy as Americans, many answer the call. The real challenge of creating a successful volunteer program is coordination — tapping into a vast pool of talent and expertise and matching the volunteer with the assignment that will produce the most efficient use of that person’s time and abilities, to best benefit the organization while keeping the volunteer active and engaged.

People have as many different reasons to volunteer as there are opportunities to volunteer. Certainly, they all share a common desire to “give back”; they’re good-hearted people who want to help in any way they can. Many are looking to expand by meeting interesting, new people. Of course, many are drawn to causes that have touched them personally. Some are simply looking to fill a void in their lives or develop new skills.

At Wreaths Across America, we have been blessed with a large, committed and dedicated group of volunteers. We’ve enjoyed substantial year-over-year growth in the number of active volunteers, and, frankly, sometimes I step back in amazement at how generous people can be with their time and resources.

I suppose it began in 1992, when my husband, Morrill, owner of Worcester Wreath Company, had a surplus of 5,000 wreaths. He had the idea of taking them to Arlington National Cemetery and placing them on veterans’ graves. The experience was life changing, and before he left he vowed we would continue to bring wreaths to Arlington each December.

We received some unexpected news coverage several years later in 2005, when a U.S. Air Force photographer took a photo of the 5,000 wreaths resting against the stones in a light snowfall. It was posted on the Internet with a poem, and, amazingly, went viral. By January 2006, we had received over 6,000 emails from people all over the country who wanted to participate and help — who wanted to be part of what we were doing. We were faced with trying to figure out how to organize a burgeoning volunteer force. Soon a second problem emerged. In addition to wanting to join our cause, people kept sending in donations — lots and lots of donations, which, of course, we couldn’t accept. We wound up hiring a person to return the money, along with an explanation of why we couldn’t accept it.

Requests for wreaths and wreath ceremonies came in from all over the country. We were able to coordinate with the Civil Air Patrol, as well as groups like the Patriot Guard Riders, veterans organizations, the Maine State Society of Washington, D.C. and American Gold Star Mothers. By December 2006, things had changed dramatically.

We formed a board of directors and Wreaths Across America became a 501(c)(3) in 2007. Since then, the volunteers have come to us in droves. We put together a program that clearly separated the Worcester Wreath Company from Wreaths Across America.

The number of locations where we’ve held ceremonies has grown from 583 locations — including 24 overseas — in 2010 to more than 1,000 locations — including 27 overseas — in 2014. Our volunteer fundraising groups have grown in number from 1,100 active groups in 2010 to 2,047 active groups in 2014.

Volunteers in donated trucks delivered every single wreath that was donated this past year to more than 1,000 locations nationwide. Volunteers organized every single ceremony held last year. All our volunteers come to us with a singleness of purpose. They all ask, “What can I do?” They all share in their gratitude to the brave men and women of the military who have sacrificed so much for the freedoms we enjoy every day.

Whatever the reason they come together, and whatever the focus of your organization, it is important to help your volunteers verbalize exactly what it is they hope to get from their volunteer experience. Matching the volunteer to the appropriate task not only gets needed work accomplished, but it also satisfies the volunteer’s desire to feel needed and useful. In the case of WAA, this is successful because of the dedication of our location coordinators and fundraising groups.   Having community members as “boots on the ground” is important. They know they do the lion’s share of the work. A shared cause that results in a shared accomplishment and sense of satisfaction will keep your volunteers coming back year after year.

Avoiding confusion among volunteer ranks is also very important. Be sure to clearly define everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Provide training if necessary and emphasize that there are no small tasks — every aspect of their duties is important. Be clear on how much time is required to complete tasks and the importance of communication and commitment. Do not be afraid to delegate authority when appropriate. Be humble enough to realize that your volunteers may be experts in areas you are not, and let them put their talents and experience to good use. And provide lots of positive feedback. Fostering a sense of team is key. “We’re all in this together” is not a cliché. It’s human nature to want to be a contributing member of a larger whole, and the satisfaction it produces creates a sense of self-worth that is payment in itself. We all want to feel as if we’re making a difference.

Wreaths Across America has grown on the passion of our volunteers, and we listen to each and every one of them. We are also ever mindful of other charitable causes.  When our active duty service members or veterans return to their communities, they do not live in a vacuum. Many face challenges like illness and poverty, so working with other charitable causes, in turn, advances our mission. We’re just a group of regular people who run a wreath business in Washington County, Maine. Many of our organization’s most successful ideas came from those who do the real work of organizing and carrying out our WAA ceremonies in their hometowns. These are our volunteers. We have nearly 600,000 of them now, and they make us strong. Together we stand firm in our mission to Remember, Honor, Teach. We are committed to stay true to our mission. An American Gold Star Mother who serves on our Board of Directors inspired us with these words that helped her in her healing, and has given us direction for the future: “In order to find yourself, first you must lose yourself in helping others.”



Volunteer Management – Firing a Volunteer

Volunteer Management Firing a VolunteerMy last article “Tips to Having an Excellent Volunteer Program” assumed that volunteers were competent and cooperative. In my experience, most volunteers are.

But in the real world, an occasional volunteer is neither competent nor cooperative.

What are your options?

Begin by taking steps to improve performance. In nearly every case, it is more productive to improve performance that to take steps to fire a volunteer.

Every volunteer (and paid worker as well) should have a supervisor. It makes no difference whether the supervisor is paid or not. Each special event, for example, should have a chairperson, and the individuals undertaking the various tasks to make the event successful should report to the chair.

The first way to improve performance is for the supervisor to recognize the unacceptable performance and tell the volunteer how to improve it. For example, the volunteer may have had an important task e.g., driving an individual to a doctor’s appointment, and the volunteer did not show up. The supervisor quietly should tell the volunteer that in the future, if the volunteer has an assignment they can not make, they must notify the supervisor at least one day in advance.

If the inappropriate behavior continues, the supervisor should document the behavior in at least three instances. Then the supervisor asks for a private meeting with the volunteer.

The supervisor begins the discussion by specifically noting the three instances of unsatisfactory performance. The supervisor does not use negative words but just describes the behavior. “Last Tuesday afternoon, you screamed at a client” or “You were late for your Monday assignments at the day care center the last three Mondays.”

The supervisor then tells the volunteer what acceptable behavior would look like. In many cases, the volunteer will state that the behavior will improve. The supervisor then thanks the volunteer and ends the meeting.

In other instances, however, the volunteer refuses to change behavior.

One option would be to give the volunteer a different assignment. “You can not drive the children to the day care program any more but we would be pleased if you
would assist the teacher in reading to the children on Tuesday mornings.”

As a last resort, the supervisor must “fire” the volunteer. Before doing this, the volunteer must again be given an opportunity to improve performance. However, if the volunteer refuses to change, the supervisor must tell the volunteer and confirm in writing that “You can no longer volunteer to assist in the day care program.”

Remember the general rule. The volunteer represents the agency the same way the paid worker does. Unacceptable behavior should not be tolerated.


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