Thursday Thoughts: building a great nonprofit volunteer experience
Welcome to another installment of Thursday Thoughts, a dedicated space for our friends in nonprofit sector leadership to reflect on reports, statistics, and other trends—because when our community shares knowledge, we can all do more good. Check out our last installment here!
As spring unfolds and the days get longer, many nonprofit supporters are ready for opportunities to show up—in person, virtually, or both!—and take action for your cause. What are some strategies for giving nonprofit volunteers a great experience and building your program? Here’s what three of our friends said.
Strong relationships with your volunteers are the foundation of every successful nonprofit volunteer program. As supporters look to re-engage with causes they care about—either virtually or in person—organizations should use supporter data to strengthen relationships with their volunteers and bring their programs to scale. Here are a couple of ways you can get started:
- Track: within your supporter management database, use Survey Questions and Activist Codes to understand what each of your volunteers cares about and how they want to be involved so you can build a comprehensive profile for each one. For instance, you can use Activist Codes to track when someone donates and how many times they donate. If you have an online store, set up a Merchandise Order Survey Question tracking the type of merch a supporter buys so you know when they buy a shirt, mug, or sticker. Does your organization use online forms to drive online actions? Use Activist Codes to track those signups so you know the type of form someone filled out.
- Recruit: as your supporters re-engage with your organization, use their activity data to have more impactful conversations. Acknowledge their donation, purchase of a new mug, or their recent signup. Talk with them about what motivated them to engage before asking them to take an action or volunteer—this will strengthen your relationship with them and lead to a more successful ask.
- Report: set up a basic report that looks at what actions are being taken by each activity type and what activities drive the most engaged supporters so you can optimize them. If donors aren’t volunteering as much as supporters who buy a shirt, refocus your efforts on those buying shirts and see if that works. Testing—and reporting back on those tests—will help you develop a stronger program overall.
There are so many more supporter actions that you can track, but the ultimate goal is to centrally collect and store data to bolster your volunteer relationships and grow your volunteer base over time.
Burdade Strategies LLC is a Hispanic- and LGBTQ- owned boutique data and analytics firm based in Washington, DC. We work with progressive and mission-driven organizations and political campaigns to democratize data, analytics, and technology. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sean Hoey is a leader for Democratic campaigns and progressive organizations. Most recently he helped lead the 2022 Nevada coordinated campaign that played a major role in re-electing Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. In 2020, he served as the Midwest Organizing Desk on the Biden-Harris campaign.
After the infuriating SCOTUS decision to gut Roe in 2022, Planned Parenthood saw a huge desire from supporters to take direct action but a lot of confusion and hopelessness on what everyday people could actually do in addition to donating.
Enter: Planned Parenthood’s National Volunteer Program (NVP!) From the summer to the end of the year in 2022, the program grew in size, scope, and influence—with lessons we can apply to nonprofit volunteer efforts of all kinds.
NVP focused on investing in and developing volunteers into leaders to keep momentum going around winning back abortion access. But volunteer leadership doesn’t just show up out of thin air. The main feature that helps NVP find success in keeping supporters engaged is consistency—consistent programming, consistent staffing, and a consistent home for volunteers to have whenever our bodily autonomy is being attacked or when supporters want clear ways to take action to make abortion accessible for everyone.
Here are some key strategies NVP used:
- Hosting weekly mobilization calls to welcome all volunteers into NVP and ensure people are getting plugged into immediate actions in less than 24 hours of event attendance.
- Volunteers self-selecting into text banking, phone banking, social media, community mobilization, and/or storytelling. Each team has a weekly team call with multiple opportunities for volunteers to step up to be coaches for newer team members.
- Peer-to-peer texting keeps people plugged into opportunities within each team and is a primary source of information for volunteers.
- Running large Zoom calls for all volunteers to help deepen their understanding about abortion stigma, get skills-based training to become better storytellers or host teach-ins on their own, learn how to lobby, and participate in phone banks that support states at the local level to stop anti-abortion legislation.
- Having volunteers lead calls, facilitate meetings, speak out about their own experiences, and have a sense of ownership over the success of their teams.
- Organizer staffing and team management: Ensure there is a staffing team that can support your scaling volunteer program. An organizer is an essential part of a scalable snowflake model, and on average one organizer can manage 10-20 volunteer leaders, a volunteer leader can coordinate with an average of 5 volunteers, which can result in one organizer supporting a volunteer team size of 50-100 volunteers.
The upshot: this isn’t a transactional relationship. The Planned Parenthood team has built a community that they nurture with content and skills. As a result, volunteers see the program as their home, in part because they are the ones leading it on a regular basis. Volunteers show up because they’re growing as activists and finding a community that’s proven will always be there. Which is a good thing—because the fight we’re in is long, and we need everyone to do what they can.
Marium Navid is a campaigner and strategist at fundraising, advocacy, and marketing firm M+R. She has spent the past 7 years working on various types of base building strategies, including working with Planned Parenthood’s National Volunteer Program. She has experience working with labor unions, nonprofits, and think tanks across issue areas.
Sarika Kumar spearheaded Planned Parenthood’s National Volunteer Program and has spent the past three years working to refine volunteer pathways at the federation to make room for supporters to meaningfully engage with reproductive rights work. Sarika brings expertise around volunteer leadership development through the context of national organizing.
Volunteers can bring a wealth of knowledge, skills, and experiences to your nonprofit organization—for example, they may have expertise in marketing, fundraising, event planning, or other fields that line up with the work your nonprofit does. It’s important not only to recognize and respect the unique skills and abilities that each volunteer brings to the table, but also provide opportunities for volunteers to learn and develop their skills further so they can contribute more effectively to your organization’s goals.
One way to provide learning opportunities is to offer training sessions, workshops, or webinars on relevant topics. For example, if your organization is focused on environmental conservation, you could offer a training session on sustainable agriculture or wildlife conservation. Providing nonprofit volunteers with access to educational resources such as articles, videos, or podcasts can also be beneficial.
In addition to providing learning opportunities, involving volunteers in decision-making processes can help them feel more invested in the success of your organization. You can ask for their opinions on key issues, involve them in planning meetings or brainstorming sessions, or even give them leadership roles on specific projects. This can help volunteers feel like they are part of the process and that their contributions are valued.
Overall, providing learning opportunities and involving volunteers in decision-making processes can help build a strong sense of community and a shared sense of purpose. This can lead to more engaged and committed volunteers who are motivated to contribute their skills and expertise to the success of your organization. Volunteers are the backbone of the movement and we need them in order to succeed.
Commvey is a marketing, communications, public relations, organizational, and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) strategies firm working with the intention of fostering positive connections with organizations nationwide, always with the goal to collaborate on projects with meaning and impact.