Episode #019: Improve the Volunteer Experience with a Journey Map

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you. 

I’m happy to say that I’ve begun traveling again. You know, after long hiatuses due to lockdowns, I’m happy to be able to be meeting people in person and it’s been great, but it’s also been a reminder of how challenging air travel can be.  

Think about the last time you traveled in an airplane. Maybe it was two years ago. Maybe it was last week. Think about it. Check-in, tagging bags, going through security. Finding food along the way, using the restroom, checking your flight status. Getting to your gate, boarding the plane.  

Getting settled in, watching the safety video, getting snacks on board. Watching movies, checking your flight status, getting ready for landing. Landing and departing, picking up bags, finding your ride. I mean, it goes on and on and on, right?  

So many different stages to our journeys. What if though, every one of these steps in that journey were improved? What if even half of them were? Maybe announcements at the gates were more friendly. They didn’t feel like the PA system was overly loud and people were yelling at you.  

Or maybe you could pre-order snacks for grab and go as you rush through the airport. And snacks that met your ideal dietary needs. You know, maybe you’re gluten-free or maybe you’re a vegan. Maybe you’re allergic to nuts.  

Wouldn’t that be great if you just had those snacks ready to go and you could just cruise through? Imagine how much more pleasurable air travel would be if we could make just a few miniscule changes.  

Well, you know, every experience has a beginning and an end. It has a journey. it’s populated by touch points with others, either in person, digital, over the phone.  

At each step, we both have emotional and informational needs. And if we take the time to understand these and make micro improvements, we can make great strides in improving an experience exponentially.  

In this episode, I want to talk about how we do that for the volunteer journey. And we use a process called journey mapping. It’s one of my favorite processes for improving the volunteer experience.  

It’s a really fun process to do. And I think it’s a great team sport to do with some of your volunteers. It also can be used to improve the experiences of your clients, customers, service beneficiaries, patrons, donors, community partners, and anyone else your nonprofit interacts with. So it’s a fantastic process for all kinds of reasons. 

But what is it exactly? What is journey mapping? It was originally used for improving customer service in the corporate world, but it can be applied to improving how volunteers are onboarded and at every step of their journey. It is arguably the most vulnerable time in a volunteer’s tenure with you.  

And so you want to make sure that it’s very, very smooth, that volunteers are happy and that they become engaged right away. So when we start journey mapping related to the volunteer experience, we want to become more purposeful in how we approach the design of that experience.  

I like to call it becoming an architect of the volunteer experience. That in fact, you have a lot more control over how a volunteer experiences their time with your nonprofit, more than you actually might think. And so it’s really good to think about what are the building blocks, what tweaks can I make to make this experience a wow experience?  

So it starts by asking, what are the key steps in your process? When are you most likely to lose volunteers? And what improvements should you make? It also helps you pinpoint and address issues in the volunteer experience that lead to volunteer turnover.  

So specific issues, not just general issues. Volunteers aren’t completing their training, for example, Okay, we’ve experienced, we figured out that’s a pinch point. What’s not working with that particular step in the volunteer journey?  

So let’s take a quick pause for a break. And after I’ll share how to create a journey map, step-by-step with key questions you’ll want to answer. So don’t go away and I’ll be right back.  

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Our exclusive training, tools, and templates, aligned with our monthly jobs-to-be-done themes, help organizations build out essential program elements in less time, and with greater confidence. To learn more. Visit volpro.net/join.   

All right, gang. We are back.  

Before the break, I covered what journey mapping was and how it can help you improve the volunteer experience. In this section, I really want to talk about how you can get into actually creating a journey map. I’m going to give you a step-by-step process.  

So as I said before the break, this is a team sport. You may want to invite a small group of volunteer leaders to help you out. It’s so much better to have others’ perspectives as you create your journey map.  

There are things that you, as the leader of volunteers or the nonprofit staffer or executive just don’t have experience with. And so it’s hard to imagine, and you need to work hard at imagining what that experience might be like, but why not include people in the process? Who’ve actually been through it and can speak from their own lived experiences. 

If you have multiple volunteer roles and the volunteer experiences are very different, then you might want to create a journey map for each of those roles. But if in general, most volunteers follow the same pathway or journey, then you can create one journey map for your entire volunteer experience.  

So let’s talk about your volunteer journey mapping instructions. So first of all, find a wall with lots of space and grab a bunch of post-its and markers for folks to write. They’re going to be writing one idea per post-it, so you want to make sure you bring a bunch of post-its and markers.  

Brainstorm first the touch points for the volunteers and write one at each step across the top, you know, row at the very top of each column. So these are the touch points that volunteers are currently experiencing. Not what you’re doing in the future, but what’s actually happening now.  

Then create rows with the following labels on the left-hand side. So you’ve got your brainstorm, all the steps across as many post-its as you need across the top. And then on the left-hand side, create rows with these labels. So one label is “informational needs.” One is “emotional needs.” One is “barriers and gaps.”  

One is “team tasks,” and one is “improvements” you can make to their experience at each step of the way. Okay? So just “improvements”. You don’t need to put all that stuff in there, just improvements.  

And we will include this list in our show notes so don’t worry about that. You can see that in the show notes. So if you’re driving or not able to take notes right now, don’t worry. We’ll put it in the show notes.  

Once you have your framework set up, your grid so to speak, you’ve got the steps at the top. You’ve got these areas that you’re going to take a look at on the left-hand side. First start with identifying the key emotional and informational needs at each point.  

So what are informational needs? So think about when do volunteers get confused or stuck? What specific information do they need at each step versus all at once? we often think of everything that volunteers need, this well volunteers need different things at different steps of the journey.  

So think for each step, what are their current informational needs at that point in their journey? What will keep volunteers progressing? What information benefits, values, et cetera, will help them move forward? Okay, so you’re thinking about their informational needs. So go through that for every step in your process.  

Next return back to your first step and do the same thing, but with emotional needs. Now, what are emotional needs? Well, emotional needs are the fears, doubts and uncertainties as well as joys that volunteers face in their volunteer experience. So what excites them? What worries them? What doubts do they have?  

So at each step along the journey, you want to think about what those things are because in the end, emotion is what drives many of our decisions. And so we want to not only take into account information that they need, but also how can we address any emotional needs that they have? 

When you’re done with information and emotional needs, then you want to go through and figure out what barriers. Contemplate the barriers and gaps that your volunteers have in the volunteer experience at each step. Be honest with yourself. Every single volunteer-driven organization has gaps and challenges. 

There is no perfect experience out there. So you want to figure out where those bumps in the road are. And you know, to do that, you might check with some of your recent newcomers. You might speak with folks who are leading volunteers. Just get a broad range of perceptions about your experience and you can start to see where the themes are. 

And also if you’re doing this, again as a team, you can start to confer and confirm with one another whether or not these are real issues or just issues for a few people. So talk about barriers and gaps and identify them, and put them each on an individual post-it and put them within the framework.  

So also it helps sometimes when you’re doing this type of brainstorming, I like to have folks brainstorm one idea, propose it on their own silently, and then post them up on the wall. So you can start to gather and group similar ideas and folks who aren’t as outgoing will also have their ideas on the table.  

If you just rely on the most vociferous people and the most outgoing people to share their ideas, then those people who are more introverted, their voices aren’t going to be heard. So often I’ll do that two-step process. I’ll have people brainstorm on their own and then we’ll start to post on the wall together.  

So when you’re thinking through barriers and gaps, here are some questions that you might ask yourself. So what’s missing right now from the process for the volunteer, for the team, what language or jargon does the volunteer not understand? what gets in the way of successful engagement? These are all barriers and gaps in the volunteer experience.  

Is your paperwork cumbersome? Is your wait time too long? Do you not have enough information upfront to decide whether or not you’re going to join before you’re asked to create an account to log on?  

I see this a lot in volunteer recruitment websites, where folks are asking people to give them their email address and create a camp and account before they’ve even really given that perspective, volunteer enough information to decide whether or not it’s the right opportunity for them.  

If you want to learn more on suggested improvements you might make to your volunteer recruitment pages, you can check out our Volunteer Nation podcast, episode five, “Eight Ways Your Nonprofit Website is Failing to Attract Volunteers.”  

If you go to TobiJohnson.com/005, you can find that podcast. So, if you’ve already identified that, you know what, our website is an issue, there are barriers and gaps, listen to that episode and we’ll give you more ideas as well.  

Once you’ve figured out emotional needs, informational needs, you’ve figured out what are the steps along the way, the next thing you’ll want to do is figure out what are the team tasks. So currently, what are your different team members doing to support the process?  

So it might be that it’s a coworker that’s conducting something. For example, making welcome calls, for example, or it might be a volunteer team or a volunteer leader. So, who’s doing what at each step of the way.  

Now, at this point, you’re still thinking of your current processes, but what this does is helps you unearth new roles and tasks for volunteers that help improve the volunteer experience. So, you might decide you want to form a volunteer welcome team, a recruitment copywriting team. You want to have somebody collecting, volunteer testimonials, et cetera.  

So, the reason you want to figure out team tasks that are happening currently is to start to build insights into other ways volunteers might be involved. So, team tasks is another row in your journey map.  

After you have completed this entire analysis of your current state of affairs, then, and only then should you move to the final row. And that final row is all about possible improvements.  

Often people will be tempted to start brainstorming improvements, but I really encourage folks to take a step back and say, you know what? We’re not doing improvements right now. We’re actually deeply analyzing our process. And once we complete the deep analysis of our process, then we’ll get into possible improvements.  

And if folks are getting really excited, just ask them to write their ideas on a post-it and you will get to it at that step of the process. If you do your brainstorming of improvements too early, you will shortchange your analysis process. You’ll take shortcuts and you really won’t think it through fully. And so you’re not really doing your work due diligence.  

Also consider how you will know your improvements have made a difference that they’ve been successful. What can you do to track at each step If it’s working? In some cases, we call this micro conversion.  

So for example, in a recruitment process, what percentage of volunteers are taking the next step and the next step and the next step? So those are micro conversions or along the way.  

Think about the data that you might need to collect to gauge whether or not you’re successful at each step in your possible improvement steps. And sometimes when you start to brainstorm improvements, you will either skinny down the number of steps to simplify the process.  

Or you may add steps. Be prepared, you don’t have to stay within your current touch points or your current steps in your process.  

So there you have it. My favorite method for better understanding and improving the volunteer experience. Journey mapping offers a load of insights and is super fun to do. By taking the time to walk in your volunteer shoes, you can better understand what they’re going through and what is fatiguing cumbersome or frustrating. 

Kind of like my air travel. Or is it more like going to a spa where you feel pampered and cared for every step of the way? Isn’t that the way we’d like to have our volunteer experiences go?  

So let know how it goes in the show comments or tag us on social at VolPro.net. And that’s our show for this week. So I hope you’ll join us next week. Same time, same place on the Volunteer Nation. 

The Volunteer Nation Podcast is produced by Thick Skin Media. Be sure to rate, review, and follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more tips and notes from each episode, check us out at TobiJohnson.com.