Volunteers are golden. They bring fresh energy and outside-the-box ideas. A communications volunteer will recognize immediately when I’m writing in acronyms or preaching to the choir. Volunteers keep me sharp, too, by recommending audiences or tools or strategies I may never have considered.

Not sure if working with communications volunteers is right for you? Or do you want to work with volunteers, but you’re not sure how to begin? Read this article on effectively engaging communications volunteers.

In my role as Communications Manager for HealthConnect One, I love working with volunteers and I want to keep them coming back. But how?

I’ve made a lot of mistakes with volunteers over the years. For example:

Once, I was approached by a volunteer who worked from home and wanted to be around people while contributing to the “greater good.” She liked moms and babies (what’s not to like?) and thought we might be a good fit. YES! I told her. I desperately needed help culling 25 years of pictures for an anniversary video, and I didn’t have time to do it myself. She agreed, probably because she wanted to work with us and I didn’t present her with other options. I was so excited! I felt like she’d fallen from the sky like a gift. Within the week, I had her set-up at an intern station, handling the photo project once a week. On her own. Sorting poorly framed and poorly lit photos. Browsing through files and re-arranging boxes. She made some real progress. But not surprisingly, she was gone within the month and we never heard from her again. It didn’t matter that she agreed with the mission of our organization. Her goals and her project didn’t mesh. She wanted PEOPLE around her and I shoved her into a workstation far away from even my own desk hollering, “Thanks!” as I walked away.

 Oops!

It’s not always easy to manage volunteer relationships, especially when you’re in a time crunch, and you’re short-staffed, and … [fill in your own challenges here!]. But here are a few things I’ve learned along the way. Maybe some of this will help you, too.

1. Understand why volunteers choose to help.

Volunteers often approach nonprofits for very specific reasons – personal, professional, social, educational. Try to match their talents, skills and motivation with your organization’s goals, campaigns, and needs. It may take time, but it helps with retention!

2. Start small.

Start with a project that doesn’t cost your agency much if it fails. I don’t mean something so far out of bounds that no one cares about it – because you want your volunteer to shine if they succeed. But don’t ask a new volunteer to write copy for your annual report. Why not? You might not use it, and then you’ll both feel like crap. Ask for something that helps you get to know one another, learn one another’s strengths (and weaknesses), and gives you both the information you need to build a relationship over time.

3. Check in often.

Ask how it’s going. Ask if your volunteer has the information she or he needs to feel successful. Ask if the project meets her goals. Make sure he understands your agency’s goals for the project, too. I find it useful to schedule weekly check-ins with communication volunteers. Sometimes, we need more frequent check-ins, depending on what we’re working on together, but meeting at least weekly keeps us both motivated, and addresses any trouble before it brews to the boiling point.

4. Give and request specific feedback.

Like anyone else, some volunteers are quite vocal with their feedback. Others aren’t, and you may have to coax it out of them. If you ask specific questions – their level of interest in the project, how closely or loosely they like to be supervised, etc. – you can often get them talking. Also, giving and receiving specific feedback can help you build trust.

5. Integrate into team so they feel valued by the organization.

If you can, give volunteers access to your colleagues. Suggest they reach out to your program colleagues for a quote to use on social media. Ask your colleagues to collaborate with communication volunteers on specific tasks.

I had an IT volunteer who wanted to create memes for social media. She and I brainstormed for a few minutes until I realized that I was planning to vet all her ideas through a colleague the following day. She’d been volunteering with us for a few weeks by then, so I suggested instead that she brainstorm directly with my colleague and I’d look over the memes they wanted to run with. Together, they developed memes that were far more shareable than any I might have designed or encouraged, and the experience transformed her relationships with all of us. She felt good. We felt good. And our social media audience grew.

Together, we were on fire.

When the synergy between my organization and a communications volunteer sparks a (metaphorical) fire… THAT’s success.

6. Adjust if necessary.

If it’s NOT working, change it. If the volunteer needs a different project, change projects. If she or he needs to work with someone other than you, make the introduction! If the time he or she is spending on volunteer activities is too much or too little, adjust!

I once worked with a volunteer who was absolutely incredible at his task. He was rapidly becoming vital to the team. He was learning from me. I was learning from him. It was a fulfilling relationship all around. But then, he started coming in twenty minutes later than expected, thirty minutes… he started missing whole shifts. I struggled for awhile. We weren’t paying him, after all – I mean, what could I say!? Finally, I sat down with him and told him just exactly how valuable he’d become and how much I wanted to continue working with him, but I needed to depend on him when he said he’d be there. We adjusted his schedule, shaved down his hours, and I don’t think he was ever late again. Two years later, he was a full-time salaried member of staff.

Adjustments are AMAZING.

7. Stay nimble.

Let’s say your volunteer completes in two hours something that often takes you a day to finish. After you jump up and down, grinning madly, and offer to take her/him out for drinks, you may want to offer a new project or task. Do you have a few projects or tasks in mind that you can easily pass along? What if she or he is slower than anticipated? If you’re checking in regularly, you’ll be able to recognize this in time to make a back-up plan.

8. Reflect on each completed project.

Reflection may not take long, especially if you’ve been checking-in along the way, but setting aside even 10 or 15 minutes after completing a project to discuss what worked and what didn’t can be immensely valuable in planning the next project.

9. Gradually increase level of responsibility.

If you’re purposely building trust and familiarizing yourself with the volunteer’s work style, talents, passion and strengths, then this will come naturally. You’ll begin to rely on them for specific kinds of things. I call this a win-win.

10. Conduct exit interviews whenever possible.

Inevitably, volunteers will come and go. They may find paid employment, or go back to school. They might move. Or they may simply be ready for something new. Regardless of the reason for their departure, I find it’s useful to spend 30 or 45 minutes on the last day to ask things like:

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t?
  • Would you recommend this organization to friends or colleagues who are looking to volunteer? Why or why not?

This is all valuable information – and some of it, you can even put on your website (with their permission, of course). Some of it, you may prefer to write on a small slip of paper and burn during a cleansing ceremony – but either way, their feedback can help you prepare for the next volunteer who walks through your door.

For more on working with communication volunteers, check out:

What helps you to ensure success when managing communication volunteers?

 

RoiAnn Phillips

RoiAnn Phillips

Communications Manager at HealthConnect One
RoiAnn Phillips manages HealthConnect One's website, email, print, and social media communications - advancing respectful, community-based, peer-to-peer support for pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and early parenting. After-hours, she is also a performance poet and avid blogger on parenting, transracial adoption, and LGBTQ families.
RoiAnn Phillips