7 Principles for Building Volunteer Community and Engagement

Posted Thursday, March 3rd, 2022 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

Volunteer program leaders are universally challenged by the question: “How can we maintain a volunteer community  and engagement when we have such a hybrid workforce?” Juggling staff and volunteers in an office, on-site, or remote is here to stay. Organizations have seen many volunteers on hiatus while others have faced challenges with onboarding new volunteers and integrating them with more experienced volunteers. Nevertheless, feeling connected to a team is key to volunteer engagement and nurtures a strong sense of volunteer community.

In a recent webinar, now available on-demand, nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, shared strategies and helpful tools for building and nurturing volunteer communities. She outlined the benefits of fostering community among volunteers; how to articulate principles associated with effective communities; how those principles can apply to volunteer engagement; and how to identify actionable steps to enhance the sense of community within your volunteer corps.

Whether a volunteer returns is determined to a great extent by how organized they felt their experience was. In short, volunteers tend to return when they are known, when they feel valued, and when they feel like a part of the organization and community.

What is Community?

In his book The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging, Charles H. Vogl defines a community as “a group of people who share mutual concern for one another.” In other words, members of a community believe that other members care about them. Vogl states that community includes:

  • Shared Values
    What are your organizations’ mission and values for your volunteer corps?
  • Membership Identity
    For example, badges, uniforms, titles, leadership roles, teamwork opportunities, etc.
  • Behavior Expectation
    For instance, moral proscriptions; agreeing on what they share, what is intolerable, etc.
  • Insider Knowledge
    Such as a museum volunteer, excited to share the background behind exhibits with family and friends.

We should consider the community we develop within a volunteer corps because community and connection are, in part, what draw people to volunteer. Of course, ‘the chance to make a difference’ is a primary motivator for most volunteers, but even that relates to community.

Additionally, Vogl also states that when leaders build stronger communities, the communities will do four things better:

  1. Help members grow in the ways they hope to (technical, social, internal)
  2. Cause members to feel more connected, welcome, proud, and excited be part of the group
  3. Help members work together toward making the difference envisioned
  4. Make membership more fun

7 Principles of Volunteer Community Building

The principles of community, according to Vogl, can be broken down into seven key parts that transcend online versus in-person.

Principle 1: Boundary

The line between members and non-members.

This boundary should be more about making the inside space safe for insiders than about keeping outsiders out. In short, members want to know who is in the community and shares their values. Visitors want to know a safe way to explore without committing themselves and novices prefer to know at what point they have joined the community.

Regarding boundary tactics, it is imperative that the boundary is protected according to community values, as opposed to personal preferences, petty concerns, or whimsical criteria. You’ll want to establish gatekeepers, clarify processes, and create identifiers.

Principle 2: Initiation

The activities that mark a new member.

Any activity that is understood as official recognition and welcome into the community is an initiation. The initiation helps members understand who is part of the community. It marks the completed journey over the boundary and into the inner ring. After initiation, insiders should gain new privileges.

Initiation tactics include:

  • Welcoming new volunteers
  • Online orientations
  • Online training
  • Welcomes from leadership/volunteers
  • Integrating into teams
  • Credentials

Examples of tactics for virtual volunteer initiation:

  • Provide an official email address
  • Send them a t-shirt, coffee mug, or badge to use on camera
  • List them in newsletters, on website, or in the volunteer portal
  • Include a picture and about section
  • Invite them to participate in virtual events, even if they don’t accept

Principle 3: Rituals

The things we do that have meaning.

A ritual is any practice that marks a time or event as special and important. The actions are filled with meaning. They connect the present with things in the past and our hope for the future.

Any significant event can trigger a ritual, including:

  • Tenure as volunteer
  • Achieving training status
  • Completion of a project
  • New title conferred upon someone

Many rituals are on pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the circumstances also create the opportunity for new rituals, such as online check-ins.

Principle 4: Space

A place set aside to find our community.

A space or temple is a place where people with shared values enact their community’s rituals. Any space can be made a temple just by members gathering there and enacting rituals. Rituals are meaningful and comfortable within the temple. Insider knowledge allows the rituals to be a satisfying and fun experience.

Tactics for making a virtual space special and meaningful:

  • Picture of your sign-in board
  • Opening slide that is your volunteer center’s doorway
  • Ensure your volunteers know how to use webcams and/or smart phones if they have them
  • Backgrounds with images that represent the mission
  • Branded backgrounds

Principle 5: Stories

What we share that allows others and ourselves to know our values.

Stories are a powerful way people learn. Keep in mind that members, future members, and outsiders can learn the values and the importance of the community through stories. Every community, like every person, is full of stories. Sharing certain stories deepens a community’s connections.

Volunteer impact stories and origin stories are particularly important. Excellent forums to share stories are orientations and other convenings for volunteers. Stories should be shared so that members can understand the community’s authentic values and identity.

Principle 6: Symbols

The things that represent ideas that are important to us.

Symbols are powerful tools for building community because they remind us of our values, identify, and commitment in a community. Using symbols can be a way to make communities stronger. Symbols represent a set of ideas and shared values, which is to say, they often represent many things at once. Examples include challenge coins, insignia, and patches. Some organizations offer patches and other symbols to honor and recognize volunteers who have served during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A few tactics for tokens and other symbols:

Intention: Tell the receiver why you are giving it to them

Symbolism: Tell them what it represents to you and your organization

Connect to the future: Tell them how you hope it will support, change, or serve them

Principle 7: Leadership and Growth

A path to growth as we participate.

We all want to be valued and be valuable. This desire is so powerful that we are rarely satisfied with the rings we already inhabit. We simply differ on the inner rings we aspire to join and what we are willing to do for admission. According to Abraham Maslow (1943), the first goal is to belong; the second goal is to contribute to someone or something. Communities fulfill these goals, offering external and internal growth.

Consider this scale of commitment for volunteers:

  • Visitors
  • Novices
  • Members
  • Elders/Senior Members
  • Principal Elders and Skilled Masters

What roles can you develop to give volunteers something to aspire to during this time?? Could it include virtual tutors or volunteer check-in calls?

Keys to Building Volunteer Community

Whether volunteers serve on-site or remotely, ensuring that volunteers feel a part of something bigger than themselves can transform one-time volunteers into engaged volunteers.

Identify your volunteer engagement mission and values.

Employ strategies to nurture community, including clear boundaries, rituals, stories, and leadership development.

Align community-building tactics with your values and mission.

Empower volunteers to nurture community within their smaller groups. Share the responsibility and opportunity.

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “Building and Nurturing Volunteer Communities” webinar and download the Volunteer Teambuilding Checklist handout.

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