Creating a Successful Volunteer Program

The 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.”

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