What Motivates the 300-Hour Volunteer?

It’s exciting when you witness someone discover their passion through volunteering. Kathy Kelley started volunteering a decade ago at the Morton Arboretum, a 1,700 acre outdoor living museum in suburban Chicago. Through the years, her identity and pride as an Arboretum volunteer has grown tremendously. So, what made volunteering there take root? 

We sat down with her to learn more about her incredible volunteer experience and what keeps her coming back, year after year.

 

What inspired you to start volunteering at the Morton Arboretum?
Kathy: This is my 10th year volunteering at the Arboretum. One of my good friends was volunteering one weekend at a big fall festival and I got hooked on it. Now, the process of becoming a volunteer is much different; you apply and have an interview. The Arb has 1,592 volunteers in all capacities. They have people who work every week taking out invasive species. They have people who help with mailings. They have all ages. You find your niche. My first year, I did 3 hours and 30 minutes. The second year I had 27 hours. This year, I will have over 300 volunteer hours.

 

Do you get any perks as a volunteer?
Kathy: You’re considered an active volunteer if you volunteer 40 hours or more a year. You get 20 percent off at the store and free admission for two people for the year. Every quarter you can get 20 percent off a class and every year they have a big volunteer appreciation dinner. You get a voucher for a free drink every time you volunteer for a coffee or soft drink. They provide special volunteer parking and entrances. They’re always saying ‘Thank You.’ Even when you’re driving out, there’s a sign that says “Thank You Volunteers.” 

 

What’s your relationship with the volunteer coordinators like?
Kathy: They’re wonderful. There’s two people – Kristin and Lucy – and they’re very appreciative. They’re very accommodating. I always bring them a box of candy at Christmas, just because when you’re working with 1,500 volunteers you get some crankypants. You log-in and post your hours on their volunteer portal, but it’s interesting because I work now a lot with special events, so they’ll text me and ask if I want to work certain things. 

 

What motivates you to volunteer so much?
Kathy: It’s my happy place. I love walking there every week, and their mission. As my professional and caregiving responsibilities lessened, I have had more time to give. [The Arboretum] is where I have chosen to spend my extra time. It’s a beautiful place, it’s a calming place. It’s also less than a mile from my house, but I know people who drive in from all over. It’s social. Some people you’ll work with just once, but others you get to see regularly and know. There’s also pride in ownership, when I take on tasks, like overseeing 5K shirts. It’s a self-motivation. I always try to see if I get a few more hours. I like working special events. I like being able to be part of the experience. 

 

Why is volunteering important in your life?
Kathy: I’ve always been a volunteer. It was instilled in us when we were little. It’s the way we were brought up. I don’t have a lot of the financial means to support something, although the Arboretum is where I have donated, but I have always thought it’s just a way of supporting an organization you believe in.

 

 

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Nurturing Volunteer Relationships 

Volunteer coordinators know that developing relationships with volunteers takes time and intention.

 

When there are endless roles to fill, it can be important to make sure every contact isn’t an ask, and that there’s a blend of informing volunteers on developments at the organization and appreciating how much they give in the mix, too.

 

“I definitely see the value in reaching out to volunteers outside of asking them for something,” says Jana, a longtime volunteer coordinator at a homeless youth shelter. “We try to send birthday cards each year to volunteers and at least one other personalized note or small gift outside of that. That could be a quick hand-written note sent to them in the mail or a small gift with an agency branded mug, shirt, or other small token of our appreciation. These other touch points are usually not connected to an anniversary or milestone, rather just an opportunity to check in. I think it’s important to build a personal relationship with our ongoing volunteers, but I have the luxury of being able to do that more easily than an organization that works with thousands of volunteers yearly.”

 

Jana says that enlisting the help of the clients you serve can also send a meaningful message to volunteers. Think of ways the “thank you” can come from the collective voice of the organization, rather than just your position. 

 

“Because the majority of our volunteers work withthe kids here in the shelter, we will sometimes ask the kids who work with them to sign a card or even create their own. If we know a volunteer is ill or injured, we may send get well cards to let them know we are thinking of them. Our organization also has quarterly talent shows where the kids in the shelter perform songs, skits, live art installations, and more. We invite our volunteers to attend these shows as a way to celebrate the achievements of the kids they work with and we’ve had a great response from the volunteers who attend.”

 

Volunteer coordinators at non-social service organizations can also get creative. Environmental organizations might send volunteers an annual calendar with nature photography. An animal shelter could create thank you videos that get everyone’s tails wagging. Enlist your marketing and/or development team to help come up with creative touchpoints that aren’t an ask. 

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10 Truths about Volunteer Coordinating

Every volunteer coordination position is a little different than the next.

But there are some truths that are consistent across all organizations. If you are or have been a volunteer coordinator, you probably already know a lot of these to be true:

 

 

  1. Your best volunteers can turn into personal friends. You’ve spent countless hours together, so, why shouldn’t they?
  2. Finding a skilled volunteer who follows through on commitments is like finding a four-leaf clover. They expand the capacity of your organization and make a huge impact. 
  3. Seeing how passionate your volunteers are makes up for the times you’re feeling burnt out. They’re putting in time and effort because they believe in the mission.  
  4. Nobody on your team really understands how much you do until you get sick right before a big event. 
  5. Coordinating volunteers can be like herding cats, but luckily you could teach a Master’s class in cat herding. It’s all about knowing how to communicate, motivate, and organize. 
  6. Coming up with creative ways to recognize people is part of your D.N.A. From thank you notes to nominations from national awards, you know the power of appreciation. 
  7. The pay isn’t great, but the rewards are huge. You might not be pulling in a six-figure salary, or might be operating on a nonexistent budget, but you are building important relationships and making meaningful experiences. 
  8. Vintage training manuals and videos are one part terrible and one part entertaining. Word to the wise – keep those current! 
  9. Your public speaking 101 course comes in handy frequently. Whether it’s reporting on volunteer data to the board, or giving instructions to a group of volunteers while standing in the bed of a truck, you know how to deliver a message. 
  10. Volunteer management platforms trump random spreadsheets for tracking and reporting, any day. (You are reading this list on the VolunteerLocal blog, after all!) 

 

 

 

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Three Questions to Ask a Company About Their Volunteer Program

Most larger corporations that take social responsibility seriously will have an employee volunteer program. As a volunteer manager, it’s important to get to know the contacts in your community to leverage all that workplace volunteering can offer. Some companies are very targeted in their outreach, and others offer more liberal volunteer time off/community service leave. Oftentimes, the volunteers themselves are unaware of or unfamiliar with their company’s policies. Including a workplace question on a volunteer application can help you identify opportunities to grow corporate partnerships.

 

If you can identify and reach out to the community relations contact, ask these three questions to maximize the potential of recruiting workplace volunteers

 

Ask: Does your organization offer a financial match for volunteer hours?

Some companies make an additional financial commitment if they have employees engaged as active volunteers in an organization. Many companies see value in group volunteer activities as team building opportunities and many value long-term volunteerism as a leadership development tool. If a match is offered, make sure you know how large of a group and how many hours are required to qualify, and the process for requesting it. Other companies focus matching money on board engagement. Board members might be eligible for additional funds by reporting hours on a company volunteer tracking platform. If you’re asking a workplace question in your volunteer signup, or scanning email addresses for a corporate handle, you can let volunteers know how they can help you by reporting their hours back to their company.

 

Ask: What’s the best way to let your employees know about our volunteer opportunities?

Some companies will post volunteer opportunities on their intranet, and others might have a separate volunteerism platform. Some might share through a newsletter, or word-of-mouth through a volunteer committee. Being able to paste the simple VolunteerLocal link to an event signup into an email can make workplace volunteer recruitment a breeze.

 

Ask: Can I present about our volunteer program at your company?

If your mission aligns well with a business goal (say, you offer STEM programming and are approaching an engineering firm) or your organization is very near to a corporate headquarters, look for opportunities to put on an in-person presentation for employees. Some invite speakers to lunch & learns, or volunteer fairs, or to provide a testimonial during their United Way campaign. If you have the opportunity, try to highlight people from that workplace who are already making an impact with your organization. Emphasize your shared values and how easy you make it to get involved. It’s always great when you have an event coming up that you can ask people to commit to as you close out your presentation, too.

 

 

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Keeping Longtime Volunteers In Your Corner

 

In many cases, longtime volunteers don’t just help tell your organization’s story – they ARE the story.

If you have volunteers who’ve been connected since your organization’s founding, they can help frame the problem your org set out to solve and outline how successfully initiatives have fulfilled the mission over the years. Like strong finances, volunteer retention can help paint a picture about the health of an organization.

 

Effectively managing and motivating volunteers means you’ll save time and effort with recruitment and training. But don’t simply count the years of service and print them on a certificate to present at your annual recognition event. Leverage that knowledge to ‘promote’ volunteers to take on a leadership role.

 

United Way of Central Iowa does just that with seasoned volunteers in their VITA tax preparation program. Of nearly 200 certified volunteers, about 20 are tapped to serve as site leaders.

 

“We look for long-timers and people who are natural-born leaders,” says Holly Sagar, who manages the program. “We have a former head of the county health department and a CFO. People who have stepped up their entire lives.”

 

These site leaders go through extra training, but Sagar says that in her 10 years of volunteer management experience, relationship-building and engagement is what converts casual volunteers into dedicated team leaders.

 

“We put a white board in the break-room where we ask ‘What do you see?’ and ‘What do we need to change?’ – and then we try to make it happen, Sagar says. She thinks this attitude is what gives their program an 86% retention rate.

 

Having a deep bench of seasoned volunteers provides many advantages – but it’s helpful to be aware of some potential drawbacks, too.

 

There are huge benefits to having the institutional knowledge that comes from volunteer longevity, but it also means new initiatives might be met with resistance. Identify longtime volunteers who can serve as advisers and champions of change if, say, your mentoring program wants to institute annual background checks or other best practices that haven’t been traditionally used. Ask them how they think the new policies and procedures impact their fellow volunteers, and test messaging with them to make sure your communication hits the right mark.

 

Relationships are key to fundraising, and longtime volunteers might have stronger community ties than a new executive director. Perhaps this means they can open doors for development staff, or fill in gaps about past communications with donors.

 

 

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Incorporating Influencers Into Your Event


Attracting “influencers” is all the buzz in marketing these days. The practice centers around building relationships with the people who can help build relationships for you. (Think:
Kylie Jenner Instagramming a pair of jeans that all her followers then rush to buy.)

Your organization probably doesn’t need to ink a deal with the Kardashians to raise funds for your cause, but cultivating key volunteers with a big reach/audience in your area can be an amazing asset.

If you’re a volunteer manager, building relationships is probably already your jam. There are a few things that you can do to help convert good vibes into social promotion:

 

Look to your board. These people are likely well-connected in the community, and if they don’t have the active social media presence to position them as “influencers” per se, many are connected to companies with significant followings. Tag the business in a thank you post for their leadership.

Many organizations also form a separate advisory board comprised of younger supporters who might not have the cash or clout, but have a certain level of cache as an up & comer. If an invitation for one of your organization’s events comes from a popular peer, it might have more power.

 

Try a takeover. If you have a limited staff, it can be hard to decide which social media channels are worth your time. As Instagram gains popularity and functions such as stories, empowering influential volunteers to do a weekly “takeover” can be a way to gain new followers. A selfie serving at one of your events speaks volumes, as people look for a meaningful way to connect. Bonus points if you can enlist a local celebrity / news personality to take up your cause.

 

Make it easy. Embedding social sharing buttons into your newsletters is a no-brainer. Feel free to point them out more explicitly, with a call to action at the end of the email. “Please use the buttons below to forward this message to five friends you think can help!” “Like us on Facebook to see 25 pictures of last month’s field day.”

 

Celebrate who showed up. Pictures of real people, engaged in your organization go a long way. Maybe it’s a gallery of gala attendees sent to the local glossy “society pages.” Maybe it’s a simple Facebook post capturing a basic board meeting. People love to see the faces behind an organization – and that creepy recognition technology built into social media makes it easier than ever to put names and networks to those faces. Get permission, snap and share!  

 

 

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Community vs. Student Volunteers

Volunteers come in all stripes. As coordinator, it’s your role to empower them all to help achieve your organization’s goals. Students and community volunteers might have different motivations, schedules, communication styles and levels of experience that impact what they bring to the table. While volunteers from either group should certainly be seen as individuals, here are a few questions to ask:

 

Training: Come to you, or go to them?
When you’re working with community volunteers who may be connected as individuals, on-site trainings tend to be best. But if you’re working with a big corporate team, or a large group of students, it can be nice to reserve space on their campus for your volunteers’ convenience. Or, build in a little extra time into the beginning of a shift for “just-in-time” training on your site.

 

Skilled volunteers, or power in numbers?
Oftentimes, groups of students are used for low-skill, heavy lifting kinds of jobs, and seasoned professionals are recruited to fulfill more skilled roles. Especially with marketing tasks, it can be tough to recruit from a professional pool. Don’t overlook the potential in students, who might be eager to gain experience in everything from graphic design to writing press releases. Same goes for retirees. Some might not be up on the latest social media trend, but they could have project-related skills to contribute. If you have 500 T-shirts to fold, you might want to ask who has experience in retail.  

 

Who gets copied in the email chain?
If you’re working with a group of student volunteers, it could be helpful to copy in a contact from the school – be that an advisor, coach or community engagement professional. Retention of student volunteers is strongest when there’s continuity in the contact, since students move in and out every few years. If you’re late in the game and still recruiting volunteers, ask your best community volunteers to forward your needs to others in their network – perhaps fellow Rotarians or Chamber members.  

 

Here for the service hours, shirt or something more?
Recognition can definitely help with volunteer retention. An excellent student volunteer might benefit from a letter of recommendation for a scholarship. A community volunteer, rather, might be touched by a personal letter sent to their home.

Working with student and community volunteers isn’t very different. It all comes down to building relationships and playing to a volunteer’s strengths.

 

 

 

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Volunteer Managers Share The Lessons They’ve Learned

Many volunteer managers stumble into the position, and wind up learning on the fly. We asked a small group of volunteer managers for some of the most important lessons they’ve learned in their jobs so far.

 
Caryline manages 100+ volunteers for the American Cancer Society in communities across Iowa. It took her a long time to learn to trust her volunteers to help her accomplish the organization’s goals – and find some semblance of balance in the process:

“It’s so important to let the volunteer feel valued and to give them the tools to be successful without doing the job for them,” she says. “That’s how they stay connected to your organization’s mission and that’s how you as a staff partner ensure a healthy work-life balance. I worked from home my first few years so it was easy to stay working late into the night and on weekends. By working like this, I was not only hurting myself but also my volunteers. They didn’t feel empowered because I was trying to micromanage them. I was so focused on hitting my goals and being successful in my job that I was stepping on all of their toes. It took me a couple of years of learning from my co-workers and building trust with my volunteers before I realized my errors. I started to let small things not stress me out and I took up yoga.”

 

 

Joy works with United Way of Central Iowa, an affiliate of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and has found communication preferences to be different with her volunteers in the 55+ demographic:

“Many older volunteers use email and social media, but prefer phone conversations and face-to-face meetings,” She says. “I find a fair number of volunteers will reply to an email with a phone call. Flexibility is key. Using a singular method of communication with this age demographic won’t get the message across to everyone. It is truly being thoughtful of all methods of communication and using it efficiently. It does mean your message may reach one person twice in different forms, but it helps ensure you reach everyone. And while technology is pushing us to more virtual communications, I’m prepared to have a longer phone conversation with these volunteers.”

 

Chris, who has held roles in community engagement and volunteer management at several large nonprofits and currently works with the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, says his biggest takeaway has been how integrated volunteer goals need to be with the mission and work of the whole professional team:

“The entire staff – those who work with volunteers every day and those who may only work with them a few times a year – need to be a part of engaging them, and if the leadership is not role modeling that behavior, then we are just wasting our time,” he says. “In my time in volunteer management, it is evident that few Presidents/Executive Directors or Boards are truly aware of the potential available from a strong volunteer program. Or if they’re aware, they ask too much but do not show support. Resources like money, staff time, etc. are always nice, but if volunteer engagement is not a priority that ALL staff commit to, volunteer engagement/retention will matter very little. If the volunteer manager is the only one doing it, we are just spinning our wheels.”

 

 

 

 

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Three VolunteerLocal Shortcuts Every Volunteer Manager Needs

When I started using VolunteerLocal, it took me awhile to figure out the best steps to set up events to maximize my ability to create signups, recruit and communicate with volunteers. I’ve learned a few tricks, tips, hacks – whatever you want to call them –  over the years that I’d love to share with you:

 

You can create custom urls for various jobs. There are some events I put together that have 10 or more different specialized jobs, and I want to recruit for them with targeted groups. So I break out individual jobs by tacking &job_name= onto the end of the event url. So, I can recruit specifically for hospitality roles by sending out the link that ends with &job_name=hospitality. Or any VIP job could be tagged &job_name=VIP. This has majorly cut down on confusion, especially when jobs are reserved for people with different skill sets.

 

You can replicate recurring events using the “copy information from another event” feature. Whether it’s a weekly or annual event, cloning events is as easy as a few clicks. I like to use the “copy volunteer information” option when creating many events to ensure I don’t forget to capture the info I need for my volunteer data exports. Just make sure that you take the original event out of archive before you attempt to replicate it, and make tweaks to any of the information that has changed year-over-year! If you have events that reoccur, it’s helpful to name them with the year or month and year, so you can have a better data record.

 

You can export data from multiple events to get a big picture of your volunteers. Each year, our accounting office asks me for the total number of unique student volunteers we’ve had during that fiscal year. I used to cringe when I’d get that question and make a major coffee run, because it meant sifting through a bunch of varied signups. Now, I run everything through VolunteerLocal and gather the same data for each event. I select all of that year’s events and export them as one big batch. Using some quick Excel wizardry learned thanks to YouTube, I could remove the duplicates easily and, viola, have my totals in a breeze.

 

Do you have tricks and shortcuts that have saved you time – or sanity? Send them over to support@volunteerlocal.com and we might just share them with the rest of the community!

 

 

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Why Volunteer Name Tags Totally Rock

Investing in nametags is a great way for volunteer managers to build relationships and stay organized. As Dale Carnegie of How to Win Friends and Influence People fame once said,

“A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”

But creating volunteer nametags might rank near dead last of to-do list tasks that a busy coordinator wants to take on. Nametags can be drama: lanyards or sticker tags? Do the tags go into the printer face-down or up? Who has time to alphabetize, anyway?


I’ve got a blank space baby…And I’ll write your name.

First, decide what kind of nametags work best for your event. If you want volunteers at a large event to look like they have authority, lanyard nametags could be the way to go. Lanyards can be pricey, but with an effective check-in and check-out system, you may be able to re-use them. Some volunteers love to collect snazzy branded event lanyards as a souvenir, if that’s in the budget. Classic sticky label nametags are a convenient choice. Use a mail-merge feature to pre-print batches of names and logos or other information on the tags. If you’re running a home building construction site, though, sticky won’t be the way to go. Consider designing a nametag area into the volunteer T-shirt so volunteers can DIY with permanent markers, no sweat. Engraved pin or magnetic nametags are a meaningful recognition gift for super-volunteers who put in lots of hours each year.

Say my name, say my name.

You’ve invested energy designing and organizing your nametags, so make sure to put them to use and actually call volunteers by their names when you offer them direction or praise them for a job well done. If you notice Sue is amazing at event setup but Rick should never be allowed to hold a roll of tape again, it’s a lot easier to make sly notes for future assignments than to have to ask around to find out the name of the guy who put up all of the crooked signs.

Hi! My name is (what?)…My name is (who?)…

Nametags aren’t just for your convenience as a volunteer manager, though. It’s helpful for a group of volunteers who are working a long shift together to have a backup after initial introductions go in one ear and out the other. If your volunteers are facing attendees or working with participants, nametags help you get better feedback on who was helpful or who might be lacking in customer service skills.

Don’t get rickrolled by unidentifiable volunteers. Build time into your planning schedule to create and organize nametags – and rock on. [And, ahem, VolunteerLocal offers a nametag feature as part of the Conquer Plan to help you save time on this pesky but practical task.]

 

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