5 Key Steps for Highly Effective Volunteer Program Planning

Posted Tuesday, April 5th, 2022 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

Planning is the key to developing a highly effective volunteer program that is sustainable and impactful. Whether looking to expand your volunteer engagement — or start a new program — there are five steps that can help demystify the volunteer program planning process.

In a recent webinar, now available on-demand, nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, covered the topic of volunteer program planning top-to-bottom. She shared helpful tips for volunteer managers to design a clear vision and important steps to go through when planning an effective volunteer program. She also considered who to involve in your volunteer program planning and where to start the planning efforts.

Taking time to plan is what can transform your program into a strategy, and it can convert your organization’s volunteer engagement into impact. Let’s delve into the five steps for volunteer program planning:

Step 1: Clarify the Why

When starting your volunteer program planning, the first step is to determine and articulate the “why”. Specifically, why is your organization seeking to develop a volunteer program and what do you seek to achieve? Some good reasons may include: “we want to expand our reach;” “we want to engage the community;” or “we want to bring in new ideas.” In contrast, if your answers sound something like, “we want free labor” or “to save money on program staff,” then you’ll want to rethink.

Additionally, you will want to ask, “are we creating a program or a strategy?” Answering this question can determine how the program, effort, staff, resources, etc. will be distributed throughout your organization. It will also drive what types of resources the organization is willing to invest in.

Consider what resources are needed to help identify what actions to take. One of the most important resources to develop is a volunteer engagement vision statement that complements your mission and vision. Here are a few examples:

  • “Impactful service for compassionate hearts.”
  • “Skilled, committed volunteers and staff who partner to ensure every student has access to a positive role model and advisor.”
  • “A strategically engaged, powerful and sustainable nationwide network of passionate, skilled volunteers, donors, advocates and staff, working together in order to…”

Be sure to develop an organizational chart that depicts where volunteer engagement happens within your organization. Often, this is done in collaboration with a Human Resources department, however it depends on each organization’s needs.

Action Items for Step 1

  • Create a vision statement
  • Build buy-in
  • Speak with leadership
  • Draft an organizational chart that reflects volunteer involvement

Step 2: Define the What

The second step is to define the “what” through observing, listening, and talking. Specifically, start with the following questions:

  • Which needs can be addressed by volunteers?
  • What programs or roles should be developed?
  • Which should be developed first?

You might begin by taking inventory or conducting an internal audit. Be sure to consider where volunteers already serve and whether they are part of a volunteer engagement system or not.

Importantly, when it comes to resource development, volunteer position descriptions are vital. They are the basis for much of the volunteer engagement lifecycle and strategy. They help you identify target groups of volunteers and recruit qualified candidates. They also provide the foundation for accountability and support as well as help to recognize volunteers and evaluate their impact.

Action Items for Step 2

  • Confer with peers at other organizations
  • Conduct an internal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis
  • Develop position descriptions
  • Engage colleagues in developing volunteer position descriptions
  • Connect with communities of practice

Step 3: Map Out the How

In the third step, it’s time to map out the “how” to define what the lifecycle of the volunteer will be. Consider how the volunteer will go from someone who is interested in the position to becoming a fully engaged volunteer with your organization. Keep in mind the volunteer’s desired experience through the lifecycle.

Make note of what path the volunteer will take, what their milestones will be, and with whom they will be interacting. Address what resources are needed to make all this happen as well as develop a working plan.

Action Items for Step 3

  • Design a flow chart for volunteer engagement and experience
  • How is the role developed?
  • Who handles recruitment?
  • Who is involved in screening?
  • What are “go/no go” crossroads?
  • Develop policies and a manual, collaborating with Human Resources to align with the employee handbook
  • Develop other necessary resources (e.g., recruitment plan, screening policies, onboarding plan, training, plan, evaluation processes)
  • Create a resource library for staff and volunteers

Step 4: Identify the Who

Next, in step four, you will identify who should be involved in planning. Keep in mind that the “who” can refer to both volunteers and staff members. Collaborate with any staff who will be involved in the volunteer experience. This way they will understand what is expected of them, have the skills to be successful, and feel confident in supervising and supporting volunteers.

Accordingly, be sure to answer these questions:

  • Who needs to be involved?
  • Who needs to support the effort?
  • Do they know what their roles and responsibilities are and what the training is?
  • What resources do they need?

You should define roles and responsibilities and, if possible, integrate volunteer engagement into job descriptions. Here are a few examples:

  • Director of Programs – Supervises the program; Receives reports on program success
  • After-School Program Staff – Directly supervises volunteer math and science tutors
  • Volunteer Coordinator – Recruits, trains, and onboards volunteers; Pulls and shares reports on impacts and outcomes

Action Items for Step 4

  • Start with your champions
  • Involve others in the process
  • Confirm roles and responsibilities with all involved
  • Develop and deliver staff training and support
  • Develop a reporting system to leadership on progress and impacts

Step 5: Determine the When

Lastly, in step five, focus on the “when.” Determine how you will put a timeline to your plans, but keep in mind that it’s more than just putting dates near an action plan; it’s thinking about prioritization.

In particular, answer these questions:

  • What is most pressing?
  • What will create momentum for future success?
  • When can we get started?
  • How will we check in along the way?
  • How will we measure success?

Develop a work plan with desired outcomes and timeline that walks through everything from the vision, to resources, action, yield, initial impact, and sustained outcome. Here’s an example:

Vision – Our Investment Team Leader ensures that every investment process volunteer has a positive experience and that together, the team makes high-quality funding recommendations.

Resources – Skilled volunteers, training framework and materials, AV equipment, database, and project management software.

Actions – Develop position descriptions (months 1-2); Develop timeline (month 1); Cultivate volunteers (months 3-4); Develop training (months 2-3); Conduct trainings (months 4-5); Develop surveys (months 2-3), etc.

Yield – 5 team leaders by December; 3 trainings delivered; 80% of team leaders report receiving adequate training.

Impacts and Outcomes

  • Increased staff capacity; within 6 months, fewer complaints; better customer service to grantees
  • Community has faith in the grant decisions; strong program reputation; sustainable volunteer corps/pipeline; community better understands organization
  • Consider beginning with a pilot program and scaling your vision as you build and learn

Action Items for Step 5

  • Engage a volunteer innovation team to help manage the process and nurture accountability
  • Complete a work plan
  • Define the timeframe
  • Define priorities to pilot
  • Plan for ongoing evaluation
  • Determine triggers for scaling up

Key Tips for Planning Your Volunteer Program

If you are just starting a volunteer program — or expanding the program your organization already has — you will want to create a clear vision for volunteer program success. Be sure to identify the roles and activities that volunteers can fill as well as develop the resources, processes, and policies to achieve your vision. Additionally, think about how you will involve others in the success of the volunteer program. Finally, another tip to consider is starting small with a pilot program and scaling up to your vision. These are great ways to achieve highly effective volunteer program planning.

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “Top to Bottom Volunteer Program Planning” webinar and download the Volunteer Program Planning handout.

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