Volunteer Managers Share The Lessons They’ve Learned

Many volunteer managers stumble into the position, and wind up learning on the fly. We asked a small group of volunteer managers for some of the most important lessons they’ve learned in their jobs so far.

Caryline manages 100+ volunteers for the American Cancer Society in communities across Iowa. It took her a long time to learn to trust her volunteers to help her accomplish the organization’s goals – and find some semblance of balance in the process:

“It’s so important to let the volunteer feel valued and to give them the tools to be successful without doing the job for them,” she says. “That’s how they stay connected to your organization’s mission and that’s how you as a staff partner ensure a healthy work-life balance. I worked from home my first few years so it was easy to stay working late into the night and on weekends. By working like this, I was not only hurting myself but also my volunteers. They didn’t feel empowered because I was trying to micromanage them. I was so focused on hitting my goals and being successful in my job that I was stepping on all of their toes. It took me a couple of years of learning from my co-workers and building trust with my volunteers before I realized my errors. I started to let small things not stress me out and I took up yoga.”



Joy works with United Way of Central Iowa, an affiliate of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and has found communication preferences to be different with her volunteers in the 55+ demographic:

“Many older volunteers use email and social media, but prefer phone conversations and face-to-face meetings,” She says. “I find a fair number of volunteers will reply to an email with a phone call. Flexibility is key. Using a singular method of communication with this age demographic won’t get the message across to everyone. It is truly being thoughtful of all methods of communication and using it efficiently. It does mean your message may reach one person twice in different forms, but it helps ensure you reach everyone. And while technology is pushing us to more virtual communications, I’m prepared to have a longer phone conversation with these volunteers.”


Chris, who has held roles in community engagement and volunteer management at several large nonprofits and currently works with the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, says his biggest takeaway has been how integrated volunteer goals need to be with the mission and work of the whole professional team:

“The entire staff – those who work with volunteers every day and those who may only work with them a few times a year – need to be a part of engaging them, and if the leadership is not role modeling that behavior, then we are just wasting our time,” he says. “In my time in volunteer management, it is evident that few Presidents/Executive Directors or Boards are truly aware of the potential available from a strong volunteer program. Or if they’re aware, they ask too much but do not show support. Resources like money, staff time, etc. are always nice, but if volunteer engagement is not a priority that ALL staff commit to, volunteer engagement/retention will matter very little. If the volunteer manager is the only one doing it, we are just spinning our wheels.”





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Three VolunteerLocal Shortcuts Every Volunteer Manager Needs

When I started using VolunteerLocal, it took me awhile to figure out the best steps to set up events to maximize my ability to create signups, recruit and communicate with volunteers. I’ve learned a few tricks, tips, hacks – whatever you want to call them –  over the years that I’d love to share with you:


You can create custom urls for various jobs. There are some events I put together that have 10 or more different specialized jobs, and I want to recruit for them with targeted groups. So I break out individual jobs by tacking &job_name= onto the end of the event url. So, I can recruit specifically for hospitality roles by sending out the link that ends with &job_name=hospitality. Or any VIP job could be tagged &job_name=VIP. This has majorly cut down on confusion, especially when jobs are reserved for people with different skill sets.


You can replicate recurring events using the “copy information from another event” feature. Whether it’s a weekly or annual event, cloning events is as easy as a few clicks. I like to use the “copy volunteer information” option when creating many events to ensure I don’t forget to capture the info I need for my volunteer data exports. Just make sure that you take the original event out of archive before you attempt to replicate it, and make tweaks to any of the information that has changed year-over-year! If you have events that reoccur, it’s helpful to name them with the year or month and year, so you can have a better data record.


You can export data from multiple events to get a big picture of your volunteers. Each year, our accounting office asks me for the total number of unique student volunteers we’ve had during that fiscal year. I used to cringe when I’d get that question and make a major coffee run, because it meant sifting through a bunch of varied signups. Now, I run everything through VolunteerLocal and gather the same data for each event. I select all of that year’s events and export them as one big batch. Using some quick Excel wizardry learned thanks to YouTube, I could remove the duplicates easily and, viola, have my totals in a breeze.


Do you have tricks and shortcuts that have saved you time – or sanity? Send them over to support@volunteerlocal.com and we might just share them with the rest of the community!



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Why Volunteer Name Tags Totally Rock

Investing in nametags is a great way for volunteer managers to build relationships and stay organized. As Dale Carnegie of How to Win Friends and Influence People fame once said,

“A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”

But creating volunteer nametags might rank near dead last of to-do list tasks that a busy coordinator wants to take on. Nametags can be drama: lanyards or sticker tags? Do the tags go into the printer face-down or up? Who has time to alphabetize, anyway?

I’ve got a blank space baby…And I’ll write your name.

First, decide what kind of nametags work best for your event. If you want volunteers at a large event to look like they have authority, lanyard nametags could be the way to go. Lanyards can be pricey, but with an effective check-in and check-out system, you may be able to re-use them. Some volunteers love to collect snazzy branded event lanyards as a souvenir, if that’s in the budget. Classic sticky label nametags are a convenient choice. Use a mail-merge feature to pre-print batches of names and logos or other information on the tags. If you’re running a home building construction site, though, sticky won’t be the way to go. Consider designing a nametag area into the volunteer T-shirt so volunteers can DIY with permanent markers, no sweat. Engraved pin or magnetic nametags are a meaningful recognition gift for super-volunteers who put in lots of hours each year.

Say my name, say my name.

You’ve invested energy designing and organizing your nametags, so make sure to put them to use and actually call volunteers by their names when you offer them direction or praise them for a job well done. If you notice Sue is amazing at event setup but Rick should never be allowed to hold a roll of tape again, it’s a lot easier to make sly notes for future assignments than to have to ask around to find out the name of the guy who put up all of the crooked signs.

Hi! My name is (what?)…My name is (who?)…

Nametags aren’t just for your convenience as a volunteer manager, though. It’s helpful for a group of volunteers who are working a long shift together to have a backup after initial introductions go in one ear and out the other. If your volunteers are facing attendees or working with participants, nametags help you get better feedback on who was helpful or who might be lacking in customer service skills.

Don’t get rickrolled by unidentifiable volunteers. Build time into your planning schedule to create and organize nametags – and rock on. [And, ahem, VolunteerLocal offers a nametag feature as part of the Conquer Plan to help you save time on this pesky but practical task.]


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5 Tricks and Tools to Survive a Volunteer Fair

Volunteer Fairs are a common practice for employers and groups looking to connect their people with causes. But how can you stand out among a veritable smorgasbord of service opportunities? Keep these tools in mind when prepping for success at a volunteer fair.


A way to capture volunteer information: You can go old-school with a pen and paper general interest form. Or, if your organization has a tablet, consider encouraging them to sign up on-the- spot for specific event shifts using your VolunteerLocal page. (Just make sure you can access guest internet, or bring a mobile hotspot along.)

Treats & Takeaways
Lure the volunteer fair lurkers to the table with candy or swag. Think about ways to make them work for it, though. Come up with a few trivia questions about volunteer impact to inspire them to learn more. Brochures and handouts, or specific event postcards and fliers are helpful takeaways, too.

Smile and stand, if you can
Volunteer fairs can be exhausting for coordinators who want to keep up their pep for the entire event. Resist the temptation to work on e-mail or multitask during the event and try to make eye-contact as people walk by. If you can’t stand, think about a pop-up banner or tabletop display that gives your organization’s logo some added height.

Pickup lines aren’t just for the bar. It’s great to have a ready question or one-liner you can use to hook people in. They don’t have to be cheesy! “Did you ever have a mentor as a kid?” “Do you have an interest in fighting hunger?” “You look like you have some construction experience!” Sometimes you’ll get a laugh or a head-shake, but sometimes you’ll strike a chord and encourage an attendee to share a personal story about an affinity with your cause.

Enlist a familiar face
If you have an all-star volunteer from a corporation or organization where you will be hosting a table, see if she or he is available to work the table with you. Social capital goes a long way in recruiting volunteers. People will be surprised to see a colleague on the other side of the table, and you have someone who can give testimonials to how being engaged in your organization is meaningful to them.


Don’t forget to ask the volunteer fair coordinator the basics, if it’s not clear. You’ll need to know whether to BYO table, whether you have internet access, and a map of the space is helpful so you can plan ahead and pop up your display with ease.




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Diagnosing and Curing “Volunteeritis”

Volunteer management is a significant part of my community relations role at a medical school. Our students are incredibly brilliant, generous, and hardworking people. I’m fortunate to have a highly motivated volunteer pool, but I have come to realize that my success in coordinating them corresponds closely with the other stressors in their lives (biochemistry tests, for example).

If we have a big event on the eve of an exam, there is likely to be an outbreak of “volunteeritis,” as I’ve dubbed the disease of last minute “something came up” cancellations from my volunteers. Here are a few tactics I’ve come up with to prevent this event-crippling disease:

Photo Credit: GettyImages
  1. Pad your volunteer slots – slightly. Deciding upon the right number of volunteers in a job is as important as administering the right dose of a medication. Too many in a position and your volunteers feel like you’re wasting their valuable time and might not feel they’ve had a good experience. Too few and you’re in panic mode. Volunteer atrophy happens, so adding an extra spot or two can help offset last-minute cancellations. I also keep e-mails from people who are interested in volunteering but didn’t have a chance to sign up before the slots filled as a virtual waiting list.

  2. Send a couple rounds of volunteer detail messages. An outbreak of volunteeritis typically strikes a few minutes after I send out the details confirming where to check in, what to wear, etc. I like to have all of the details before I communicate them to volunteers, but sometimes everything doesn’t come together until a few days before the event. I’ve begun to send volunteer details a little more than a week out, whenever possible, and then a second e-mail a day or two before the event that’s been fine-tuned to address questions that have come in, or offer a better map or additional information on the event hashtag, etc.

  3. Set expectations on finding replacements. I’m fortunate that my volunteer base is well-connected with one another, both in person and in a Facebook group specific to sharing campus volunteer opportunities. I try to set up an expectation that volunteers seek a replacement whenever possible. I think this also sets student volunteers up to have stronger professionalism skills when it comes to making career commitments.

I’ve begun to address “volunteeritis” at our big orientation meal packaging event training, which is a kickoff to service for the school year. The med students humor me by laughing when I tell them I’m going to share information about a secret disease they won’t find in their medical school textbooks, but addressing the issue at the start of their experience at school has definitely helped me as they seek out opportunities to make a difference in the community.

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Volunteer Coordinator Burnout (And How To Avoid It)

When you’re new to your role as a volunteer coordinator, you are excited to dive into the work, impress your colleagues and build, build, build an incredible volunteer program.


If you love your job, it’s not as if those ambitions fade, exactly. But as time goes by, you might feel like your patience is thinning, your stress is rising and – is that a smell of smoke in the air? You’re headed for burnout. Pump those breaks!



Get over your 24/7 do-gooder guilt. Your volunteers work for free, so you shouldn’t feel stressed about supervising events every evening and weekend, in addition to weekdays at your desk, right? Wrong. Your organization benefits from dedicated volunteers giving of their time. But as an employee, sustainability is important. Talk with your supervisor about taking flex time, if you have to be at events outside of your typical work hours. Make sure as you’re building your volunteer empire, you’re training others for management roles so you don’t have to be present at every event. Zoom out on your quarterly calendar to identify the high-stress times and block out some recovery time to take care of yourself and your needs.


Regularly seek support. When you’re headed for burnout, it’s difficult to see solutions clearly, and anxiety can take over. Attend that monthly meeting of volunteer managers hosted by your local young nonprofit professionals chapter. Join a Facebook group for people in the social sector. Hit up the hive mind on your organization’s list serve to solicit suggestions from others on how to tackle a tricky issue.


Reconnect with your mission. Combatting cynicism is an important burnout prevention tactic. If you’re feeling cranky and bogged down with everyday tasks, try to set up a meeting with a colleague or client to talk about what is meaningful about the work being done now, or exciting about the future of your organization. Re-read those thank-you notes you’ve stashed in a drawer. Look for ways to remind yourself how your daily tasks contribute to the bigger picture.


Switch up your routine. Seek out a morning to work off-site at a coffee shop. Take a lunchtime stroll. Schedule a tour of another organization that might inspire your work. Check out a business book and try to read a chapter a week.


Celebrate what you’ve accomplished. Reflection is a critical component of learning and growing. Don’t just plow through a to-do list with check-marks. Check in and recap what you did, why it mattered and how it’s connected to the future. If you can’t make time to celebrate your own accomplishments, build celebration into your recognition of others.



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