Innovations in Volunteer Management: The Core Four

Excited VolunteersVolunteer management isn’t often an area many of us have formalized training in; yet it is an integral part of any nonprofit program. As young nonprofit professionals, many of us find ourselves involved in volunteer management in some capacity or another, and as it is one of the best places for an organization to innovate, it may be worth a deeper look. 

At the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Annual Conference, Mary Quirk, executive director of Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration, and Zeeda Magnuson, associate director of HandsOn Twin Cities, outlined some of the most notable changes in what volunteers are looking for, including shorter term commitments, building and utilizing work place skills, flexible hours, and group volunteering opportunities.

Here’s a closer look at some of my biggest takeaways from the conference:

Comprised of students, interns, young adults, job seekers, boomers and retirees, it’s no surprise volunteers in today’s fast paced world are more commonly seeking short-term opportunities. Organizations should aim to offer a variety of short-term assignments; arranging one-time or speed volunteering activities while also ear-marking projects volunteers can work on for up to three months. When starting out, consider breaking existing volunteer positions into smaller, shorter-term pieces, and scaling orientation and training to the position. Another great place for organizations to turn to when brainstorming possible volunteer opportunities are back-burner projects. What are the things you’ve always wanted to do, but just haven’t quite gotten around to?  Compile a list and break them down by the amount of time estimated to complete each task.

By tackling your half-baked ideas, volunteers are also more likely to be presented with opportunities to build upon their current skill sets. Play the role of a matchmaker. Consider asking prospects what their background is in and what skills they either possess or would be interested in building upon. A great place to turn for this is your current staff. Engage and enlist all current employees in identifying potentially skilled roles after testing in your department. One piece of advice set forth in the workshop and applied by the Minnesota Children’s Museum is to set the expectation, formally or informally, that volunteer management falls under everyone’s job description.

Top trends in volunteerism also include flexibility in hours. Busy schedules mean not only are volunteers looking for projects that can easily be done remotely, but also evening and weekend opportunities. It may be possible, and sometimes necessary, to adjust staff to cover volunteer support on evenings or weekends. One example highlighted in the presentation was a case study of Neighbors, Inc., a nonprofit providing emergency and supportive services to the communities of northern Dakota County. When Neighbors, Inc. found their volunteer base was made solely of individuals ages 75 and older, they realized it was time to “adapt or die.”  The first step they took was to work within their organization to make changes that appealed to larger groups of volunteers. Their prior structure required volunteers to commit to recurring two to three hour scheduled shifts. By shying away from this rigid structure, they were able to appeal to all ages and expand their group volunteering opportunities, nixing the long-term commitment.

The final shift we are finding amongst volunteers, as I’m sure we can all attest to, is the increasing interest in volunteering as a group. This is commonly seen not only with youth and civic groups but with corporations as well. Fostering new group experiences can lead to an increased access to connect with higher funding potential amongst both new and existing funders. After identifying potential group projects, organization should build partnerships with companies that have interests that align with your mission. For example, at Way to Grow, an early education nonprofit focusing on prenatal through grade three school readiness, one of our major corporate partnerships is with General Mills, a company that already has a vested interest in children.

Though initial restructuring and ideation can be time consuming, it can and often does reap great rewards. The first step, as with any case for change, is to make sure your organization is open to it. Research what other organizations have been doing, building case studies highlighting what has worked for them. In the end, just remember, we all are likely to be faced with the same choice, to adapt or die.

Ivy received a scholarship for the MCN Annual Conference as a member benefit of YNPN-TC. Thanks to Minnesota Council of Nonprofits for their partnership in providing discounted membership and scholarship tickets to YNPN-TC members.

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