Building Capacity: Strategic Volunteer Engagement

Feb 22, 2017

This post was written by Teri Johnson, senior vice president of strategic partnerships, training and consulting for Points of Light.

The nonprofit sector spends a lot of time agonizing over organizational strategy and how to meet mission with increased demand and fewer resources. Though volunteers seem like an oversimplified solution to the problem, through strategic volunteer engagement, they can be viable and, oftentimes, necessary assets to nonprofit capacity building.

The good news is, people want to volunteer! According to the 2016 CNCS Volunteering & Civic Life in America Report, 1 in 4 Americans volunteer through an organization. The report also indicates that volunteers are twice as likely to donate money to organizations compared to non-volunteers. Why, then, are some organizations unhappy about the idea of volunteers knocking on their doors?

Great volunteer engagement is done strategically, as a part of the organizational culture; however, this approach takes an investment of time and energy that many organizations don’t feel they have. The result is a resistance to developing a more vibrant volunteer engagement program. Even some of the strongest nonprofits with vibrant programs engage volunteers either episodically, or because they are mandated to do so. When you engage volunteers with a fill-the-gap approach, without a needs assessment, compared to one of strategy, it’s harder, more time consuming, and generally less fulfilling for both the organization and the volunteer.

However, organizations that build a culture of volunteerism, and purposefully embed volunteerism into their strategy, experience stronger retention rates, increased volunteer engagement and higher return on volunteer investment. Service Enterprise organizations, for example, experience a 23 percent average increase in new volunteers in their first year after being certified by implementing strategic volunteerism practices. 

Strategic volunteerism means embedding volunteers as capacity builders into your operational and programmatic strategies. Any organization, regardless of size, is capable of engaging volunteers strategically. It takes time and commitment, but the outcome is stronger mission delivery. Here are a few tips for helping your organization tune in to a culture of volunteerism:

  1. Enlist the support of senior leaders and decisions makers for volunteers to be more integrated into your organization.
  2. Perform an internal needs assessment to determine where there are gaps.
  3. In every program design or strategy session ask the question, “How can we engage volunteers to help us achieve this work?”
  4. Commit to a codified recruitment, training and recognition program for your volunteer program.
  5. Track your volunteer efforts and report on outcomes and outputs.

When volunteers are an afterthought, it can be challenging for everyone involved – but when volunteerism is a part of organizational culture, your efforts will return bigger results. Volunteers will be your ambassadors in the community, your capacity builders and some of your greatest assets. Volunteers will step in to fill the necessary gaps to allow your organization to make a bigger impact.

Robert Montgomery