International Volunteer Managers (IVM) Day is coming up on November 5. This special day was started back in 1999 to celebrate the profession of volunteer engagement.
The theme for this year’s IVM Day is “be the voice.” This got me thinking about being the voice for volunteers in our organizations.
Charities often rely on volunteers to carry out our important, high-impact work. The reality is, we simply cannot pay for all the work that needs to be done to make change in our communities. Volunteers are very much the backbone of charitable organizations, donating their time, efforts, and talents to us.
Unfortunately, volunteers aren’t always valued as such – they can seen as just an extra set of hands, as too much work to supervise, or as less important than paid staff. As leaders of volunteers, how can we serve as advocates for the volunteers in our own organizations?
I compiled my top six tips for being a voice for volunteers at your organization. (Note: This advice may be targeted at volunteer program managers, but it’s really applicable to any nonprofit professional who works with volunteers!)
1. Be intentional in position design
Being an advocate for volunteers starts from the moment of volunteer position design. If you want volunteers at your organization to be meaningfully engaged, you need to ensure the roles they’re being placed in are going to allow for this in the first place.
As a leader of volunteers, it’s important to have oversight and standards for volunteer roles at your org. Are your positions attractive, interesting, and motivating? Is there a clearly articulated connection to the mission?
Having standards for volunteer role development can help you avoid poorly-planned requests for volunteers. It will also discourage roles that only involve menial work – which are unlikely to be motivating.
2. Foster volunteer leadership
Seek out opportunities for your volunteers to be positioned as leaders within the organization. Is there space for volunteers to leading, coach, or supervise other volunteers? Advocate for your most committed or highest performing volunteers to take on new responsibilities, grow, and pursue personal development plans.
When volunteers are seen stepping up to the plate and taking on more duties – and excelling at it – it’s more likely that the value of volunteers will shine throughout the organization.
3. Pursue training opportunities for volunteers
Professional development isn’t just for paid staff! Invest in your volunteers’ learning and growth. This might mean finding room in the volunteer program budget – or other programs’ budgets – for volunteers to access training opportunities outside your organization.
If a volunteer has a particular career or educational goal, you can also find opportunities for them to connect with and be mentored by other staff who can support them in these goals.
4. Organize staff-volunteer relations training
Ensure staff are equipped to engage meaningfully with volunteers by organizing staff-volunteer relations training. This type of training is helpful not just for staff who directly supervise volunteers, but all staff who interact with volunteers, even indirectly. Having the tools to foster collegial and productive relationships will go a long way.
5. Get volunteers a seat at the table
Ensure volunteers’ voices are heard by asking that they always get a seat at the table. For example, reserve spots on special committees or taskforces for volunteers, and include volunteers in your strategic planning processes. For any major organizational decisions or planning, ask that consultation with volunteers be mandatory, so that their perspectives are always taken into account.
With that being said, ensure that when your organization does consult with volunteers that this consultation is truly meaningful. Don’t just ask for the sake of asking – volunteers will notice if none of their ideas are listened to. Also avoid setting unrealistic expectations of how much volunteers’ ideas will be implemented, and risk disappointment.
6. Seek out leadership and growth opportunities for yourself
Empowering volunteers within your organization might need to start with empowering yourself as a leader of volunteers. Raise your hand to sit on committees and working groups. Pursue opportunities for your own growth. If you’re able to have a voice, you can bring the perspectives of volunteers, as well as volunteer engagement best practices, to important discussions at your organization.
Thinking long-term, this might also mean striving for upward mobility within our organizations. If those of us trained and experienced in volunteer engagement aim for executive and leadership roles, we can be even better positioned to advocate for our volunteers.
Co-Founder, Charity Savant
Sasha Elford is a volunteer manager, fundraiser, and communications professional who has many years of experience working with nonprofits, from the local to the national. As the brains behind Karma Careers, Sasha’s passion is developing and engaging human capital – volunteers and new talent – in the nonprofit sector.