Starting a Nonprofit: Have a Volunteer Plan in Place

This article is an expansion from an article originally posted in our March/April edition of the Nonprofit Hub Magazine. This is the third in a five part series on overcoming the struggles of starting a nonprofit organization.

Before you announce your new nonprofit to the world, here’s a heads up on something you may not have considered: People will be stoked about your nonprofit and want to help. Be prepared to harness that energy and excitement. In other words, get a somewhat solid volunteer plan in place right away. If you have a good idea, community members will be willing to help you out, not just financially, but with sweat equity, as well.

When we announced our plans for the Nonprofit Hub’s co-working space, we had to quickly determine how we could use the energy of our announcement to engage as many people as we could. You probably have a lot that needs to get done—start identifying tasks now and determining how you’ll get volunteers involved from the get-go.

Volunteers provide a necessary resource for most nonprofits, and there’s no better time to begin recruiting than when the buzz about your new organization is traveling through the community. Here are three initial things to consider when you begin to form a plan for your volunteer program:

1. Why will people want to volunteer?

Because they want to help your new organization, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, they believe in your cause—but most volunteers have other reasons, as well. Maybe they want to meet new people or learn new skills. Maybe they want an outlet for creativity. Or maybe they want to get in on the ground floor of a new venture. Ask volunteers right away what they want out of their experience. This will help you plug them in where they’ll be happiest.

2. How can you make volunteering convenient?

You might feel like you want volunteers to commit to working a certain number of hours per week or month, especially if you feel overwhelmed about how much there is to do. But that might limit your choices. Especially as you begin, adapt to what works for your volunteers—don’t be too rigid in your expectations. Your willingness to work with their schedule will endear them to you, and you’ll keep them around for the long haul.

3. How can you make things fun?

No need to create a party atmosphere, but you don’t want to make volunteer work drudgery, either. For example, if you have a new space that needs a ton of paint work, don’t make it as boring as, well, watching paint dry. Plan a “paint day” and make it an event—order food, play some tunes, and make it less work and more play. Find fun ways to engage your volunteers; it’ll help your street cred going forward as an organization with a great volunteer program.

Best case scenario: You have more volunteers initially than you know what to do with. Realistically, however, I get that won’t happen with every new organization, even with all the positive buzz circulating about your announcement.

That’s okay. You can still take advantage of the momentum, you might just need to nudge a few people and, of course, make it as easy as possible to get volunteers on board. Here are some ways to beef up your initial volunteer list.

  • Make it easy to volunteer through your website (which should be up and running when you make your announcement). In general, people are hesitant to try new things and meet new people. The easier it is to sign up and offer their services, the more willing people will be to step out of their comfort zone.
  • Personally invite people to volunteer. Studies show that people are more likely to give of their time when personally asked by a friend.
  • Give people options on how to volunteer. Some people are looking for a simple one-time activity, others want an ongoing commitment. Some are behind-the-scenes people while others prefer to be out front. Be sure to promote a variety of volunteer opportunities for all different personality types.
  • Recognize and thank volunteers publicly. Send thank-you notes, post photos on your website and social media, create a Volunteer of the Month program—anything that gives your volunteers the kudos they deserve.
  • Connect with corporations. Ask them to sponsor a team or an activity, and you’ll get a ready-made team of volunteers that might already know how to work with each other.

Put yourself in your volunteers’ shoes and think about what would appeal to you. What would motivate you to give up your time for an organization? Then recruit from that point of view.

Just don’t wait to plan until after you have a group of people standing there, asking, “How can we help?” Know beforehand how you’ll harness that energy and take advantage of the wave of momentum that will occur with your announcement.


Randy Hawthorne

As the former Executive Director and Editor for Nonprofit Hub and a Professional Certified Marketer, Randy shares his passions of marketing and education with nonprofits to help them implement marketing and organizational leadership principles so they can grow their organizations. Randy lends his marketing and organizational leadership expertise to a number of nonprofits in his community. Outside the office, Randy works with high school and college students and mentors young professionals to develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

March 27, 2015

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