Ways to Sustain and Adapt Volunteer Engagement in Our New Reality

Posted Monday, October 5th, 2020 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

Nonprofits are reimagining how re-engagement can continue to drive their mission during the pandemic. Mainly because organizations are facing external challenges such as stay-at-home orders, gathering limitations and unemployment; and internal challenges, including service limitations, budget constraints, and remote work environments.

Many organizations are shifting toward new protocols for the services they traditionally offer, for example food pantries that have shifted to drive-by or drop-off models. Nearly all nonprofit organizations have had volunteers go on hiatus due to health concerns.

However, the changes also present new opportunities to engage with volunteers. In a March VolunteerMatch survey, 45% of volunteers said they’d be interested in virtual volunteering opportunities, and that percentage has likely increased as the year has progressed. We also have new volunteers reaching out to our organizations.

Despite the ever-changing conditions, it’s vitally important for nonprofit organizations to embrace engagement. The new circumstances demand new practices such as redesigning roles for your volunteers and recruiting for those roles; re-engaging and retaining volunteers who might be on hiatus; and redefining engagement for your organization.

In a recent webinar, which is now available on-demand, nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, shared strategies and best practices for engaging with volunteers in our “new reality,” brought about by the pandemic. Keep reading for helpful tips on adapting your volunteer engagement in five key areas: re-designing volunteer roles, recruitment, re-engagement, re-defining engagement, and change management.

Redesigning Volunteer Roles

Nonprofit organizations must redesign their roles in order to continue to safely deliver their services. The first step is to assess your current approach, asking which roles are being sustained (whether on-site or virtual), which roles have been adapted, what new roles have been developed, and how effectively each role is currently performing.

The next step is to identify needs in your organization through surveys, department meetings, and an analysis of your processes as well as other methods. Once you have identified your organizational needs, you can assess whether they can be addressed by a volunteer role, consider whether the role involves strategic tasks, whether it’s viable as a virtual role (e.g., does it require additional resources, training, or capacity-building?), and whether it is safe to perform the role on site.

If the role is viable for volunteers, you can then determine the format — whether it’s ongoing, short-term, episodic, on-call, or micro-volunteering — and develop a detailed description that includes both the expected initial impact of the role and the expected sustained outcome. You can ensure buy-in among your peers by reviewing the assessment together, developing the position with their input, including them in screening, and sharing success stories.

Volunteer Recruitment

There is no doubt that our “reality” may have changed, but people still want to help. Surveys conducted by VolunteerMatch show that 7% of nonprofits reported higher volunteer turnout in May 2020, up from 3% in March. Additionally, 93% of nonprofits reported volunteer cancellations in March 2020 compared to just 79% in May.

You’ll want to consider the types of volunteer opportunities you post and corresponding recruitment efforts. Remember that VolunteerMatch found that 45% of volunteers said they’d be interested in virtual volunteering opportunities, and it is up to you to provide them with those opportunities.

Re-Engagement of Volunteers

Nonprofit organizations should develop a strategy to re-engage with volunteers who are on a hiatus. It’s important to show appreciation for the hard work they put in when their traditional role was available and give them new opportunities to contribute.


Research in John Lipp’s book Volunteer Engagement 2.0 shows us that we can increase retention through clear and concise job design, a thorough onboarding process that takes into account virtual and blended roles, continuing opportunities for learning and development, and an organization-wide culture of appreciation.

You can also engage volunteers by encouraging internal community growth. People volunteer to make a difference, but they stay engaged when they feel like they belong. In The Art of Community: Seven Principles of Belonging, Charles Vogl defines the four characteristics of communities as: shared values, identity, expectations for respectful behavior, and insider knowledge.

The “seven principles of community” in Vogl’s book are:

  • Boundary – The line between members and nonmembers
  • Initiation – Activities that mark a new member, such as going through orientation
  • Rituals – The things we do that have meaning
  • Space – A place we set aside for to find our community, such as social media groups
  • Stories – What we share that allows others and ourselves to know our values
  • Symbols – The things that represent ideas that are important to us
  • Leadership and Growth – A path to growth as we participate

Strategic Communication for a Sustained Crisis

Communication is key to successful volunteer engagement in our new reality. You can develop strategies based on those used in crisis communication.

  • Know Your Audiences:

    Active and Inactive Volunteers, Partner Organizations, Volunteer Centers, etc.
  • Anticipate Questions:

    Volunteers have more questions than ever before, starting with “can I volunteer, and how?”
  • Acknowledge the Unknown:

    You don’t have all the answers right now and it’s good to admit it. If you wait until you have all the answers, you may end up waiting too long.
  • Communicate Your Values:

    Shape your messages according to the values that drive your volunteer engagement strategy.

Re-defining Volunteer Engagement

Now is the time to embrace your role, not just as a manager of volunteers but as a leader of strategy. In order to redefine engagement for your organization spend time familiarizing yourself with new research on strategic engagement and share your findings with those who make decisions about resources and staffing.

Track and measure impact as you develop your new approach to engagement — not only by hours or client contacts but with data points that reveal mission-driven experiences and outcomes.

Remove barriers to volunteering, not just by creating virtual roles but also by ensuring your organization follows CDC guidelines, local laws, and community expectations so that volunteers can easily and safely give their time. In fact, you can coordinate with Sterling Volunteers on COVID-19 Health Testing which offers screening for staff and volunteers.

Finally, you should consider making and implementing a plan to redefine your own role. You are an internal consultant, much like a business partner to others in your organization, helping them engage volunteers.

Implementing Change Management

Recognizing the need for change is a good start, however results will come when putting your changes into action. In Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, author William Bridges breaks down the process of going through a transition like this:

  • Letting Go

    You recognize, honor and be done with the past. You might be feeling sadness, grief or fear, and might be overwhelmed.
  • Neutral

    You experiment and innovate. This period is chaotic, exciting, uncomfortable, and nerve-racking.
  • Assessment

    You acknowledge what worked and what didn’t. Make a commitment to your new implementation plans.
  • Change

    The process is complete.

You can manage change amid the crisis by making a flexible plan. Plans are good because they help you act deliberately, but you must always be prepared to shift gears. Communicating with your team often and early as well as leading with compassion are crucial to change management. The only way we’ll reach some sort of new normal is if we institute new processes, strategies, and culture.

Volunteer engagement drives adaptability for service missions — especially in our new reality amid a pandemic. Keep in mind that nonprofits with a strong volunteer management model have stronger organizational capacities, and when organizations engage and manage volunteers well, they tend to be better managed overall. Most importantly, organizations that engage volunteers well are significantly more adaptable, sustainable, and capable of scaling.

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “Sustaining and Adapting Volunteer Engagement in Our New Reality” webinar.

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The information contained herein is for informational purposes only. Sterling is not a law firm, and none of the information contained in this notice is intended as legal advice. Clients are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel about the impacts of any requirements. This, and other important information can be found on the Sterling website at sterlingcheck.com.