Volunteer Engagement Strategies

Volunteerism: Matchmaking Nirvana?

If you’ve ever volunteered, you’ve likely had an enriching experience or one that’s left you shaking your head wondering why you got involved in the first place. Although volunteer engagement strategies might be something those of us outside of the health care and not-for-profit sectors easily dismiss, thinking they don’t really apply to our organizations, the fact is, those strategies do matter. Is your organization committed to corporate social responsibility? Are your employees encouraged to volunteer? You do know volunteering provides fantastic continuous learning and professional development opportunities, right? Factors of immense weight when it comes to engaging employees and getting a good bond going, yes?  Well, you’ll agree then, that there are plenty of reasons why a solid volunteer engagement strategy is vital, from both sides of the fence.

From the not-for-profit perspective, volunteers are the lifeblood. They organize galas, raise funds, coach little league teams, bring their professional expertise to boards, stuff envelopes, advocate and network, deliver meals, keep company with the sick and elderly.  A sound and solid not-for-profit knows this. It’s ingrained in their DNA. Over time and with experience they develop strategies and hire professionals who know how to attract and retain volunteers that will get the jobs that need doing, done.

Finding the right fit

Successful volunteer engagement strategies, like successful employee engagement strategies, begin from the very first interaction.  What does the prospective volunteer want from their experience? Why are they drawn to the organization? What are their strengths? Where do they believe they can make a difference? Is there something they’d like to try outside of their skill sets? What’s the best fit? This rapport continues throughout the volunteer’s tenure.

Take the example of a meek and mild-mannered admin assistant working for a large contracting firm. Jane volunteered with the Lung Association at the grassroots level in her community. One of her family members suffered from asthma; a personal motivation. In due course that commitment saw Jane move on to representing her community on a sub-committee of the Board. She’d fly to Toronto headquarters from her northern hometown to participate. Her motivation and dedication drew an invitation to join the Board. Jane’s employer, fully supportive, accommodated volunteer time commitments away from the office. Eventually Jane was asked to join the Executive, becoming Chair of the Board at a time of financial and administrative turmoil. She oversaw the hiring of a new CEO, led strategic planning sessions for the Board and senior leadership team, dealt with financial hurdles, spoke at conferences, kept it all together and got the Association back on track, strong and stable. Jane’s career responsibilities mushroomed in tandem. By the time she stepped into the role of Past-Chair, she was running the contracting company as General Manager.

The Lung Association understands volunteer engagement strategies and the need to provide a purpose, a challenge, an opportunity to learn and grow. Most members serving on its volunteer Board contribute several years of dedicated service. A good many are stars in their professions: MBA professors, executive leaders representing top communication firms, accounting gurus, vice presidents of marketing, top lawyers, award-winning researchers. They make new social and business connections, feel fulfilled, return in a volunteer capacity year after year, applying take-away lessons to their personal and professional lives.

From the perspective of employers, this kind of volunteering can ease some of the pressure when career growth opportunities are limited. If your organization doesn’t have a formal Employee Sponsored Volunteer program, a simple volunteer engagement strategy might entail:

  • Checking in with employees to find out where they’re volunteering, what they’re volunteering involves, what they’re learning
  • Following employee volunteering experiences, monitoring progress
  • Applauding achievements and putting lessons learned to work in the workplace – where skills can be challenged and stretched.

Unfortunately, some not-for-profits, most often smaller grassroots types, make the mistake of taking on volunteers for the sake of having volunteers to call on when the need strikes.  Without a defined roll, without a sense of purpose, people who find themselves in these situations end up disappointed. Whatever commitment or enthusiasm they brought gets left at the door when they walk away. Had volunteer engagement strategies been in place, frustrating incidents like these would be few and far between.

Is Employee Sponsored Volunteering a viable strategy?

For organizations that supplement their staffing requirements with volunteers, and organizations that supplement their employees’ professional development needs through volunteer placements, a growing challenge is to be able to accommodate one another. According to a Statistics Canada survey, Giving, Volunteering and Participating, nearly five million of 12.7 million volunteers in 2013 were supported by their employers. Four years later data presented by Elizabeth Dove, Director of Corporate Citizenship with Volunteer Canada reported 68% of Canadians, given a choice between two jobs, would choose the one with a strong volunteer culture.

Employee Sponsored Volunteering is building momentum as millennials take on a greater presence in the workforce and bring Corporate Social Responsibility expectations with them. Volunteer engagement strategies must take this bigger picture into account.  Dove stresses reciprocity: an approach that’s mutually beneficial to workplaces and community organizations, where partners understand and have a commitment to meeting each other’s needs, goals and objectives.

A triple-win game plan, Employee Sponsored Volunteering delivers personal experience for employees, Dove says, and when approached strategically from both sides of the fence:

  • Builds relationships
  • Helps workplaces achieve their strategic goals (including strengthening image, brand, and stakeholder relations)
  • Builds capacity in charitable and non-profit organizations, and
  • Contributes to strong, inclusive and resilient communities.

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