Trends and Strategies for Leading your Volunteers

By Danielle Rocheleau

Heading into National Volunteer Week, we’ve been thinking a lot about the role volunteers play in the health of our non-profits and our communities.

Over the recent years, we’ve engaged thousands of people across Ontario, many of them volunteers. We’ve heard from organizations about how there have been declines in volunteerism and that the demographics of those offering their time has changed – and with it their expectations, the types of volunteerism they hope to do, and the amount of time they have available to commit.

In a report issued in 2020, Stats Canada noted that, “In 2018, almost 12.7 million Canadians engaged in formal volunteering, with a total of approximately 1.7 billion hours of their time given to charities, non-profits and community organizations—equivalent to more than 863,000 full-time year-round jobs.”

But of course, as with everything, the pandemic has had a profound impact on volunteerism across Canada.

So, the question that needs to be addressed – What now? (are we tired of that question yet?)

Impacts of the Pandemic on Volunteerism

Work has Moved Online

In the early months of 2020, many volunteer programs were forced to halt or amend their operations for public health reasons, while ad-hoc requirements for community-level assistance sprang up overnight to assist vulnerable people impacted by closures and lockdowns. The very nature of the work changed, with much of it moving online and into tech-centric roles.

Fewer Staff are Managing Volunteer Engagement

As well, organizations struggled to re-imagine their purpose and service in this new environment, staff in roles dedicated to managing volunteers were redeployed to other areas or furloughed. Research conducted by Volunteers Canada based on data gathered in fall of 2020, showed that 37% of volunteer engagement staff indicated their duties had been changed to non-volunteer engagement tasks.

The Demographics of Volunteers have Shifted

Over the last few years, there has been a growing concern with being able to attract and retain volunteers in communities and in organizations. The expectations, available time, and reason for volunteering has changed as younger groups of people have been volunteering with increased frequency.

Since COVID, this change has accelerated. Older, COVID-19-vulnerable populations have moved into greater isolation as per instruction from public health. This demographic includes “super volunteer” or those most likely to give 132 hours of volunteer service a year, or more.

Looking Forward: What to do Now?

While the pandemic rages on, we have by now learned how to work within safety guidelines and many volunteers are waiting to volunteer again. More than 80% of previous volunteers intend to return if health and safety practices are in place.

Reimagine Roles

So, if your program has lapsed, but you have capacity, how can you begin to restart? The first step is to reimagine those roles. What can volunteers do for your organization and for those you serve that adds value while keeping everyone safe?

For example, are there indoor activities that can be moved outdoors? In-person events that can be moved online?

The previous volunteer positions just may not be possible in a socially-distanced world. Just as your organization has adapted to an online service model, so too can your volunteer program.

Speak to Others

Remember, you are not alone in this.

Who in your network or delivering a similar service may be experiencing a similar challenge? I encourage you to reach out to them. Ask how they are faring, what they are planning, and what strategies they are using to engage their volunteers.

We are all in this together, and in our experience, and that of many of our clients – there is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and a willingness to share. You just need to ask.  

Launch New Programs

Volunteer Canada’s research showed that organizations felt that only 46% of their existing volunteer base would be interested in supporting any new programs, and 45% would be a fit for those new programs. Depending on your volunteer demographic, many may lack access to required technology, or lack skills necessary to fulfill new requirements.

More than 40% of organizations indicated they had – or would be developing – new programs and services and would need volunteers with different skills and more technological ability.

The volunteer journey that needs to be considered when developing a strategy.

How to Best Reengage Your Volunteers

If you have looked at your current strategy and understand what you require from an updated volunteer program, your next step is to reengage your volunteers.

As you likely know, Laridae offers practical information, tools, and approaches through the consulting and training services we provide our clients. Our goal is to build capacity, and in order to ensure our clients can experience sustainable results, we help them build transferable skills.

For example – when we teach about building your team, setting expectations, offering feedback and motivating direct reports in our Management Training Program – we know that the commonality that enables transference of skills are the people. Volunteers are a valuable asset, and they need to be engaged with the same level of consideration as paid staff.

I encourage you to think through how you would go about attracting staff, onboarding and orienting them to a role, and celebrating their contributions as you reimagine the future and redevelop your volunteer strategy.

Communication Strategies

Engagement and communication are key! Sharing information and listening to feedback is the miracle formula required. This simple recipe, although requiring thought and time, will allow you to achieve program buy-in and reignite interest in the cause.

Pick up the phone, host a Zoom meeting or get that newsletter running again. Your volunteers care deeply about your success. Fill them in on how things are going and where you need help and take notes when they offer suggestions. Even better, put the best suggestions into effect and share that this was done.

Explain New Opportunities

Volunteers who once spent time in long-term care settings, or who hosted group activities will understand that times have changed. Spell out the new opportunities, provide training, set expectations and pay close attention to how it goes. Ensure you’re plugged in and aware of all the successes – and all the challenges — and adjust your operations accordingly.

Chances are, a volunteer who cannot see a fit for themselves in your new strategy will refer you to someone else.

Like any relationship-building exercise, it will take some time and effort to remotivate or recreate a new base of volunteers. If you can afford to recall or re-redeploy your volunteer-whisperers into focused roles, now is the time.

Looking for Help?

If you’re looking to reinvigorate your volunteers, we’re here to help. Get in touch and we can setup a free discovery call to discuss your goals and potential next steps.