This is How to Create a Successful Nonprofit Volunteer Strategy – Part II

This is part 2 of a series. See part 1 for more on the volunteer lifecycle.

Last week, I shared a detailed breakdown of the key decisions you should make for each step the volunteer lifecycle. This week, I’m continue the theme with Part 2, where I offer the basics on how to establish a solid foundation for nonprofit volunteer programs.

Operations Planning for Nonprofit Volunteer Programs

If you don’t know where you’re going, chances are you won’t get there. So, a key element to successful nonprofit volunteer programs is to develop a volunteer program model.

An Operations Plan for volunteer services can help organizations think through their entire strategy – soup to nuts – and build a roadmap for success.

As human resources and talent, for the organization, volunteers are a vital fuel to getting things done. So, the plan should relate directly to the agency’s strategic plan and be aligned with the goals and objectives for the coming years.

The Context of an Operations Plan for Nonprofit Volunteer Programs

nonprofit volunteer programs

While most nonprofit staff believe they don’t have the time for planning, a well-considered strategy for nonprofit volunteer programs can actually save time in the long-term by pinpointing possible barriers to success so they can be dealt with in a proactive way.

An Operations Plan for volunteer services can also help clearly describe to potential funders how you involve the community directly in your mission, what resources are required for full volunteer engagement, and how you are a responsible steward of funds.

So, set aside dedicated time to develop a complete Operations Plan for Volunteer Involvement that will serve as a blueprint. Like other strategic plans, it should be reviewed and approved by the agency’s governing board before it is implemented.

Once the plan is complete, brief staff on what it contains and what their respective roles are with respect to the plan and volunteers. Supporting volunteers is everyone’s job, and all employees need to understand their roles and responsibilities with respect to their interactions with these supporters.

Operations Plan Components

nonprofit volunteer programs

Nonprofit volunteer programs’ Operations Plans should include the following elements:

  • Scope/duration (generally annual)
  • Purpose (to improve the impact of volunteer services)
  • Lifecycle (to coincide with the agency’s fiscal year)
  • Planning Team (volunteer coordinators, executive leadership, key volunteers, consultant, etc.)
  • Agency Strategy (how the Operations Plan aligns with the agency’s current Strategic Plan and direction)
  • Philosophy of Volunteer Involvement (statement regarding the value of volunteers and why they are considered a strategic asset)
  • Core Values (the vision and ethical foundations that drive the plan)
  • A Logic Model and Key Performance Indicators (theory of change, expected outcomes, and how its performance will be assessed)
  • Environmental Scan (or SWOT Analysis of local context; what will affect volunteering)
  • Advertising/Promotions/Marketing (for volunteer program branding and volunteer recruitment, also includes the digital presence)
  • Operating Budget for Volunteer Services (cost and funding sources with 10% contingency, can also include planned in-kind resources)
  • Service Delivery (volunteer roles in service delivery and customer service standards)
  • Staffing and Chart of Accountability (CoA) (human resources that will support the volunteer strategy and who is ultimately responsible for which tasks, including paid staff and key volunteer roles)
  • Resources (material sources that will be leveraged or purchased to support volunteer involvement from across the agency)
  • Plan Evaluation (methods and planned schedule)

Dedicated Volunteer Services Department or Part of an Existing Team?

When developing a nonprofit Volunteer Program Operations Plan, the question often arises about where the volunteer function should live in the organization. Should it be included as a part of the Development Department, human resources, as separate programs throughout the agency, in its own department? The options are varied.

If volunteers are a fundamental key to your success across your organization, then a dedicated Volunteer Services Department may be a good idea.

A focused team can help sustain, diversify, and grow involvement without distraction and can help standardize volunteer processes and support coach staff as they implement them.

In terms of the number of staff required, it will depend on the strategic goals and activities the department will assume, and the specific tasks required to meet those goals.

At the very least, based on the current scope of volunteer involvement and the goal of diversifying and integrating volunteers across the agency, the department should be led by a Director of Volunteer Services who should have a seat at the management table.

Options for Locating Nonprofit Volunteer Programs: Pros & Cons

The final decision as to where nonprofit volunteer programs should live within an organization’s structure should be made carefully, but decisively. Volunteers are often uncomfortable with changes to staff and management procedures. So, all efforts should be made to implement only one move, if it is deemed necessary.

The location of choice should be based on the primary goals for volunteer services, where the maximum integration will most likely occur throughout the agency, and where there is departmental capacity, understanding, and enthusiastic support for the volunteer function.

There are pros and cons to where the volunteer services department is placed within the organization. Below are some options with things to consider:

OPTION 1: Stand-alone Department Reporting to Executive VP/Human Resources

  • Pros
    • Communicates that volunteer involvement is of primary, strategic importance to the agency
    • Volunteers are recognized as a vital element of mission delivery
    • Seat at executive leadership table, thus increasing first-hand knowledge of volunteer program progress and needs
    • Better coordination with paid staff human resources systems
    • More likely viewed as a solely human resources specialist for unpaid staff
  • Cons
    • Isolates volunteer services
    • Risk of becoming siloed and reducing agency-wide “ownership” of volunteer strategy
    • Staff may feel that volunteers belong to the department and are not the responsibility of other staff
    • May reduce levels of collaboration and trust in sharing concerns and needs
    • Volunteer management staff may be diverted to other work, unrelated to volunteers
    • Volunteer involvement needs creative resource management, paid staff models generally have set budgets, may create tension

OPTION 2: Development Department, Reporting to Director of Development

  • Pros
    • Better coordination of supporter communication and resource cultivation
    • Better collaboration around outreach, partnership development, specifically corporate donors
    • Encourages acknowledging the reality of volunteers as donors
    • Better likelihood of accurate tracking of in-kind support
    • Increased efficiencies if a software system is shared
  • Cons
    • Danger of volunteers viewed as an ancillary resource, versus revenue generator, and thus under-supported
    • Department is not directly linked with service delivery, but volunteers are
    • Risk of volunteer perception that they are valued for financial contributions over donations of time and talent

OPTION 3: Marketing & Communications Department, Reporting to VP of Marketing & Communications

  • Pros
    • Sends the message that volunteers are the “face” of the organization
    • Better coordination of email communications and social strategies and schedule for both recruitment and recognition
    • Better relationships with reporters and the press
    • Better collaboration around outreach and partnership development, specifically event sponsors
    • Faster updates of the web site landing page(s) related to volunteers
    • More coordinated Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy to raise the agency’s organic search ranking
    • Can get help designing professionally-branded volunteer application and training materials & help with effective copywriting
    • Increased efficiencies if contact database and communications software is shared
  • Cons
    • Risk of focusing primarily on volunteer program branding and recruitment versus management and retention
    • Can appear that volunteers are “for show” versus a mission critical element of the agency’s operations
    • Other staff may lack understanding of the unique messaging required for the volunteer audience
    • Danger of lack of attention and resources in a busy department where ticket sales may have priority over volunteers

OPTION 4: Outreach & Community Partnerships Department, Reporting to VP or Program Director

  • Pros
    • Acknowledges volunteers as valued community partners and viable service providers
    • Appropriately sits at the nexus between the organization and the community
    • More focus on corporate social responsibility and employee volunteering opportunities
    • Promotes ongoing partnership development and maintenance, a key tactic for diversifying volunteer base
    • Better collaboration around outreach and partnership development
    • Reduces duplication through better alignment of strategic partnership goals and community engagement plans
    • Better solicitation of in-kind support from community
  • Cons
    • May not be sufficient room for volunteer services in a smaller department, without the capacity to focus resources and support
    • Department is not directly linked with service delivery, but volunteers are
    • Risk of becoming siloed and reducing agency-wide “ownership” of volunteer strategy
    • Risk of focusing primarily on partnerships and recruitment versus management and retention
    • Danger of prioritizing partner needs over nonprofit volunteer programs’ needs in order to maintain external relationships

OPTION 5: Guest or Client Services Department, Reporting to VP or Program Director

  • Pros
    • Recognizes volunteers as a key element of the customer or client experience
    • Can better coordinate customer service and recovery standards across paid and unpaid teams
    • Can more quickly address customer issues
    • Can more quickly address potential burnout in volunteers
    • Can coach volunteers on the fly at close quarters
  • Cons
    • Focuses primarily on volunteers as direct service help versus a broad range of roles
    • Volunteers may become hidden in this department and endanger the opportunity for widespread integration
    • More prone to a blurring of roles between paid staff and volunteers
    • Paid staff may (irrationally) fear volunteers will usurp their roles and be less supportive

OPTION 6: Special Events Department, Reporting to VP or Program Director

  • Pros
    • Faster response to upcoming event recruitment needs
    • Recognizes volunteers as a key element of risk management and customer safety
    • Can better coordinate safety and security standards across paid and unpaid teams
    • Can quickly update volunteers on security upgrades and policy changes
    • Easy access to the upcoming event schedule
    • Ability to build camaraderie amongst episodic event volunteers through a single department structure
  • Cons
    • Risk of becoming siloed and reducing agency-wide “ownership” of volunteer strategy
    • Volunteers may become hidden in this department and endanger the opportunity for widespread integration
    • Can appear that volunteers are more one-off event help or a security team than an integrated agency resource
    • Some volunteers are reluctant to perform security or event tasks
    • Focuses primarily on volunteers as event staff versus a broad range of roles
    • May be easy to get “lost” in a large department with high-paced daily production needs
    • No connection with the human resources side of volunteerism

In the end, there is no “right answer” in terms of where nonprofit volunteer programs should be placed within the organization’s structure.

However, volunteer coordination and program administration are best consolidated into one department to reduce duplication of effort, to better coordinate volunteer communications and training, and to centralize data collection and reporting.

In addition, the volunteer function should be memorialized in an Operations Plan that is known not only within the department primarily responsible for volunteers, but throughout the organization as a whole.

Finally, while a single department may be accountable for the majority of operations, it should be made clear to all teams and staff how each is expected to support and champion nonprofit volunteer programs and efforts.

Need Benchmarks for Your Operations Plan? We’ve Got You Covered!

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Each year, we launch the Volunteer Management Progress Report survey, the largest crowdsourcing of volunteer management data on the planet. This year our theme is “Benchmarking” and we’ll be reporting on topics such as:

  • Top challenges for leaders of volunteers
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  • Current capacity levels of volunteer organizations
  • Average ratio of volunteers to direct supervisor
  • Technology use and trends
  • Salary & budget trends, cross tabbed by agency characteristics
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