Our previous letter discussed why a nonprofit may want to involve more volunteers in their operations. This letter discusses the six key elements of a successful volunteer program. The names of these elements form the acronym “ERRORS”.

The “E” stands for clearly defining your expectations of a volunteer; when and where they have to go to do the volunteer work, and what they are expected to do. For example, a Board member should obviously be told when and where the Board meetings are that they should attend. But they should also be informed of the responsibilities of that position, how much time they must spend doing what to prepare for each meeting, the effort that they are expected to invest to prepare for and attend committee meetings and any additional work they are expected to do (project work, fundraising, etc.). They should also be told what size donation they are expected to make to the nonprofit, and if they are expected to raise additional funds. Many of our clients wonder why their Board is so passive. A common cause of this problem is that nonprofits don’t tell prospective Board members everything that theyexpect their Board members to do.

The first “R” stands for the relationships that are a part of the volunteer role. If I think about all the volunteer positions that I have held over the last 40 years, the relationships that went with the role were at least as important as the role itself. For example, I enjoy giving presentations, and coaching and mentoring goal-oriented people. However, my most frustrating experiences as a volunteer were when I was asked to perform those roles with teenagers.

Every volunteer is likely to differ in the relationships they prefer as part of doing their work, from being left alone to wanting to work with dozens of people of all ages and backgrounds. Because relationships are a key to satisfying volunteers, it is important to think through what kinds of relationships you will be offering a volunteer, and then tell them about the relationships that go with their role.

The second “R” stands for recruiting. Where will you get your volunteers? One approach is through the personal networks of people already involved with your nonprofit. Another might be through alliances with other organizations. Once you define where to recruit, you need to define who will do it, the process for identifying prospects and developing them into successful applicants, and how you will motivate people to actually do the recruiting.

The “O” stands for orienting recruits. Some of your new volunteers might not have had any work or nonprofit experience, and most are not likely to be very familiar with your nonprofit’s culture, the work it does, its finances, the work they are expected to do, and the relationships involved in doing that work.

One element of an orientation program is the written materials organized into a manual that might help a new person get oriented. Our Resource Book for our volunteers contains:

  • A description of the processes and principles that coaches can use in their work
  • Copies of all the educational and promotional materials that we have published
  • The process and materials we use to orient new volunteer coaches
  • Biographies and contact information for all our volunteers and staff members
  • A list of our clients and illustrative strategies that coaches developed for each client
  • Our nonprofit’s mission, vision and strategy, and the evolution of our organization as

    documented in monthly progress reports and annual revisions to our strategy.

I used to think that a comprehensive volunteer manual was the key to orienting recruits. I eventually learned that it is merely documentation of what needs to be personally covered in orientation sessions. Full time people get most of their orientation by interacting with other people at the work place. This is not available to most volunteers.

Orientation needs to include a series of sessions where volunteers can interact with staff and other volunteers until they feel comfortable with the culture, the work and the people they will be working with. If this is not done, volunteers may feel disoriented and unable to contribute at their full potential, resulting in disappointment for both the volunteer and the nonprofit.

The third “R” stands for recognition. The value of a nonprofit employee is recognized by their salary and fringe benefits, their office and access to equipment and support staff, and the other amenities that a nonprofit may provide. These forms of recognition are not offered to most volunteers, most of whom would also like to feel valued.

Recognition might include giving volunteers excellent orientation materials and briefings, a nice place to work or meet, a “thank you” for their help, involving them in decisions that affect their work, and a note of appreciation or a memento of their service. Volunteers who feel well utilized and appreciated are likely to continue to work for a nonprofit and be a source of positive word-of-mouth publicity for it. Those who are not typically leave and take some negative feelings about that nonprofit with them.

The “S” stands for assessing and occasionally doing something to improve volunteersatisfaction. You might interview your volunteers to find out what are their important sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. You can also conduct surveys to identify trends in the importance of various elements of the program, and the satisfaction they produce.

Finding out how your volunteers feel about their role is another way of recognizing the importance of your volunteers. Sharing the results of the survey, and doing something to improve satisfaction is an even better way of showing volunteers how valuable they are to your nonprofit.