Originally published in Engage Journal Q4 2021
Goal: Zero Paperwork: Automating the complete volunteer recruitment-allocation-retention-social proof lifecycle while building a comprehensive volunteer activity profile across engagement channels
Imagine how much time you would save if you no longer manually sourced, screened, scheduled, tracked, analyzed, reported on, and reached out to re-engage your volunteers and their contacts? Most of our peers would not admit it, but you would probably reclaim 20% - 70% of your working hours. Make no mistake, the role of a volunteer manager is one of program strategy - not - one of paper administration.Volunteer management software is no longer nice-to-have, it has become the essential infrastructure for identifying opportunities to improve service delivery performance and a competitive advantage, not merely versus similar organizations, but also, more significantly, versus the array of distracting substitutes individuals, companies, schools, and governments may encounter when considering their involvement with your program. Engaging more partners and individual volunteers begins with respecting their time through automated qualification and onboarding and expands into empowering their contribution through real time collaboration within shared digital tools. Put another way, manual administration is value extraction from you and your audiences, while digital automation is value creation through empowered communication and analysis.
Not only do we volunteer managers oversee critical service delivery, but we also serve as the first friendly face that most supporters (first they’re volunteers and next they’re donors!) meet when they first engage with our organizations. However, volunteer managers have historically been under-equipped by technology resources.
Nonprofit organizations have leveraged technology quite successfully over the past two decades, but most of the technology dollars and technological innovation have been spent on fundraising products, especially CRMs like Blackbaud, Salesforce, Microsoft, Kindful and others. Significantly less focus has been on volunteer management innovation.
Most of the innovations leveraged today by fundraisers can and should apply directly to volunteer managers - and this centers on the digital automation that can only be produced by end-to-end technology systems.
An Introduction to End-to-End Technology
“End to end” technology describes a system where a complete user journey is wholly contained within one single system (or an integrated set of systems). For volunteering, this means that the entire volunteer-to-donor lifecycle occurs on one unbroken digital chain - recruitment, qualification, scheduling, staffing, tracking, reporting, re-engaging, and optimizing lifetime value of the volunteer or volunteer-come-donor.
This premise (first articulated in 1981 in an MIT paper by JH Saltzer, DP Reed, and DD Clark) is critical to leveraging automations because it ensures that the user (e.g. the volunteer manager) has a complete set of data (profile info, eligibility, availability, preferences and interests, engagement patterns, behavioral trends) to reference in order to make decisions (who to remind to come tomorrow, who to ask to sign up again in the future, who to ask for a donation).
Although simply providing this data to the volunteer manager is useful, it does not optimally leverage the data to save time, energy and money.
This is where automation comes into play. An innovative, end-to-end solution captures all of the relevant data along the volunteer’s journey AND builds in automated triggers so that the system automatically performs administrative tasks that the volunteer manager would otherwise have to perform.
This allows the volunteer manager to create a basic framework for their program and see the automatic effects flow forth.
For instance, if the system knows what a volunteer has registered to do, it can automatically remind them to attend. If it knows what event has just finished, it can send a thank you email. If it knows what volunteers have done in the past, it can suggest that they sign up for similar opportunities in the future. Here we see the benefits of both facilitation and personalization.
Comparing Traditional Processes to Modern Processes
The role of the volunteer manager has, largely, remained mostly unchanged over the past 30 years. In conjunction with colleagues, they tend to spend their time on:
- Program set up: Identifying the needs and roles that must be filled; establishing performance requirements, schedules, and capacity.
- Recruitment: Listing the available volunteer opportunities in a central location (maybe a message board with an email/phone, a website - yours or others’, an integrated sign-up form, etc.) and promoting them via your available outbound communications channels to spread the word.
- Scheduling and allocation: Ensuring that the right people are in the right roles at the right times.
- On-site management: Orientation and training, waiver collection, supervision.
- Re-engagement and retention: Thank you’s, creating mailing lists, organizing volunteer recognition, and much more.
These requirements are critical and will likely remain unchanged for the next century (studies show that over the past half century, three things have, regardless of the decade, consistently driven volunteer retention rates: great training/orientation, follow-up notes and thank-you’s, and volunteer recognition programs).
But if the tasks must remain the same, does that mean that the methodology must be static as well? Absolutely not.
Traditional methods and toolkits for volunteer managers cost them time and lowers productivity - which in turn costs your organization money (both in terms of volunteer labor and in the recruitment of future donors). Here are some legacy methodologies that we’ve encountered recently that need to go the way of the dinosaur…
- “Expression of interest”: Asking volunteers to call you for more information before volunteering only leads to two things - fewer volunteers secured and an enormous amount of time spent on the phone. The most common use of paper & pencil is for sign-in sheets - but, now, mobile technologies and digital kiosks can automate hour tracking and waiver collection.
- Email & spreadsheets: for organizations with limited budgets, managing volunteers via email can work - up to a point - but it’s not scalable. As your program grows, you will quickly begin falling behind on replying to each and every volunteer. The same framework applies to spreadsheets. Excel is one of the greatest software products of all time due to its flexibility. But the minute you update volunteer information in Excel is the minute that it’s out of date. Plus - you need to manually adjust every record, complete every field by hand, and trust your colleagues to be equally hygienic with their data entry - a tedious and unlikely scenario.
- Websites with embedded forms: These were the primary innovations in our space during the early-2000’s. Google forms and similar products made it much easier to collect the information that you need, but it still requires you to manually sort through responses, assign people to the right activities, and spend hours on manually entering participation data like hours into other systems.
- Basic database platforms: This category includes many legacy volunteering platforms and “volunteering features” offered by fundraising CRM systems. Although a clear step-up from Excel (much easier to accurately track of all your volunteers), they still do not leverage digital automations to lower your administrative and data processing times.
- How to tell? If their web products don’t work well on mobile devices, they’re probably not building in automations.
- If you can integrate third party technologies into your CRM instance, it probably reflects the CRM’s philosophy of empowering the user to automate workflows.
To really take advantage of modern software, you want to be automatically tracking behavioral and engagement trends in order to streamline and automate your volunteer retention processes.
And remember - leveraging software goes beyond streamlining recruitment. Without automated reengagement triggers, you are losing out on the most critical time savers and performance drivers.
What can we automate?
It is easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of digitizing a massive program, but the practice of doing so can be straightforward. Therefore, we will break down the volunteer manager role into its basic components and note how each can be digitized in order to leverage automations.
- Program Set-up
This is probably the least automated aspect of the volunteer manager role - it requires intellectual discovery and planning. By automating many of the following tasks, volunteer managers will discover more emotional energy to better tailor their overall programs to the needs of their constituents. For that reason, automation actually provides the most benefits to the program set-up process even though it does not directly touch it.
Recruitment begins with establishing a framework for your volunteer program (aka Program Set-up) and then presenting that in an actionable manner to your volunteers. Today, that “conversion destination” should be your website. There are many other destinations to recruit volunteers (listing sites, message boards, social media), but all of those channels should link back to the “conversion destination.” The core of end-to-end tech is everyone starting (aka volunteers signing up) in one place.
So your email newsletters, social media, and postings on volunteer matching sites should all link back to your “conversion destination.”
Automated volunteer platforms should allow you to create the framework of your program using integrated templates (for time-specific events, long-term applications, etc.) designed to collect volunteer information and drive volunteers to their next action.
Standard templates for volunteer recruitment help boost conversion rates by clarifying expectations for volunteers, but they also save volunteer managers time in three primary ways:
- Making it easier to list recurring events, duplicate existing templates to target private audiences, and much more
- Defining a structure for opportunities (including roles, schedules, capacities, etc.) makes it possible to treat them as inventory and manage fulfillment of that inventory.
- Eliminating manual data entry by automatically populating volunteer contact records based on the core data model in your volunteer management system.
These integrated templates can also help automate the retention and re-engagement process by automating notifications to former volunteers when new volunteer opportunities that fit their interests/qualifications become available (more on this later).
A non-automated, but equally important, lever for recruitment is network effects. Any innovative system should be built to encourage and reward volunteers for recruiting friends and family to join them. Every volunteer recruited by a volunteer is one less person for the volunteer manager to worry about.
- Scheduling and Allocation
Volunteer managers typically approach recruitment in one of two primary ways:
- Expression of interest: Organization asks volunteers to apply or express interest, and after reviewing that volunteer manually, the volunteer manager suggests roles or times that might work for the volunteer.
- Live inventory: Organization presents their roles and schedule publicly and asks volunteers to sign up for the shifts that they are available for.
At first glance, these two pathways (apply first & sign up after vs. sign up now) seem so different as to force an organization down one or the other. And indeed, many organizations may say that their program (ex. mentoring at-risk youths) requires a significant vetting process - how can you automate that?!
Of course, nothing replaces a one-on-one interview. But there are some things that can be automated.
An end-to-end system would either be able to capture or already know…
- Volunteer contact information
- Professional credentials and other qualifications
- Past engagement history (like “Completed 2020 Mentor Training” makes them good candidates for the “2021 Mentorship” program)
- Professional or educational affiliations
- Background check status
- Groups that you’ve added the volunteer to (like “Board of Directors”)
By understanding this information, an end-to-end volunteering platform can…
- Automatically segment volunteers into groups based on data points that you designate
- Automatically notify those groups when you create volunteer opportunities targeted for them
- Automatically qualify volunteers for certain opportunities and roles based on past engagement or credentials
- Automatically present opportunities to volunteers that they might be interested in
- Automatically prevent ineligible volunteers from inadvertently signing up for the wrong program
- Automatically notify a volunteer that their application has been processed and they need to sign up for an interview
- And much more…
These automations don’t replace all the work of the volunteer manager, but they provide targeted efficiencies that simply create more time for a manager to build that incredible program.
- On-site Management
This is probably the most important and irreplaceable part of the volunteer manager role. There is no substitute for a welcoming smile upon arrival. A great volunteer manager can make a volunteer’s experience incredibly enjoyable.
But aside from the social aspect (and hands-on guidance!) of the role, what administrative processes does the volunteer manager perform onsite?
Attendance taking? A platform that doesn’t offer an integrated check-in option (whether it’s automated using volunteer-facing mobile apps or organizer-empowering kiosks) will fundamentally reduce your function to entering hours and attendance by hand.
Waiver collection? Papers waivers not only take more time to administer but they are also less reliable. You have no single source of truth for who has completed the waivers and who hasn’t; paper waivers can be lost or misplaced. Integrated, digital waiver collection saves you and the volunteer time AND decreases your legal exposure.
An automated, end-to-end system should guarantee that every registered participant has signed the waiver(s) so that you don’t even have to think about it. It should allow for on-site waiver signing to accommodate walk-in volunteers. It should remember which volunteers have signed which waivers. It should keep digital records of document versions and participant signatures, so that you never have to store them, but can securely access them in times of need.
Waivers are probably the best example of a manual, paper-based process which should be automated.
Training and orientation? Yes - on-site training is effective. But if you know who is scheduled to attend, couldn’t an automated system send a training video the day before? This can cut the time required for on-site training in half and empower field-based resources to extend the reach of your program into underserved areas.
Retention? This is the most difficult process for volunteer managers to optimize. Retention obviously begins with ensuring that volunteers have a wonderful experience on-site. But after that, volunteer managers need tools to optimally and efficiently re-engage the right volunteers for the right activities through understanding and referencing who they are as they develop their contributions to your organization over time.
Tools that lack automation triggers lead to volunteer managers having to split their time between recruiting new volunteers and re-engaging existing ones. Automation allows you to “set it and forget it.” An end-to-end system can automatically notify past volunteers of upcoming roles that need to be filled, eliminating your need to, on a weekly basis, manually reach out to past volunteers.
Additional Benefits of End-to-End, Intelligent Platforms
End-to-end systems not only allow you to capture the information necessary for you to manage your daily program, but they also allow you to more closely collaborate with partner organizations (like companies) or interact with integrated 3rd party systems to drive social proof (like social media).
End-to-end systems can be designed as silos (all of my organization’s information is accessible only by my organization and cannot be shared with other systems) or as ecosystem’s (with the right permissions, organizations and individuals can share data to better collaborate across organizations and systems).
We advocate for the ecosystem approach. We believe that volunteers should be able to have a single profile that they use regardless of where they volunteer (so that they don’t have to constantly re-enter personal information) and that they can give their employer’s access to for corporate volunteering programs. We also believe that nonprofits and their corporate partners should be able to collaborate on one platform so that attendance management and reporting can be handled automatically (as much as you might love your corporate partners, you probably don’t like having to constantly send them different reports!).
End-to-end systems also enable you to leverage network effects and social proof to increase volunteer engagement. Tools that both encourage AND track “sharing” (volunteers inviting other volunteers) increases recruitment rates while at the same time automating the recognition process for the volunteers doing the sharing.
As you know, a large number of volunteers are introduced to your organization via other volunteers. This is one of the most productive volunteer recruitment channels, so anything that can be done to optimize it is a high leverage activity.
An end-to-end system makes it easier for volunteers to share their upcoming or past engagement on social media channels, for their social networks to sign up via those posts, and then to credit the initial volunteer with recruitment activity. That means more (free and powerful) advertising and more recruiting for your program - without any work on your part.
Finally, end-to-end systems can automate volunteer recognition with integrated recognition programs, engagement tiers, and even prizes (like Golden’s innovative “Karats” program).
The Results of Automation
Consider tracking these three metrics:
- Conversion rates (how often do volunteers sign up)
- Retention rates (how often do they come back to the same organization)
- Time spent by the volunteer manager
Across the board, a well-suited automation system for your organization should show improvements in each metric of at least 20%, likely 50%, and quite possibly, considerably more.
The most important result of this is that volunteer managers gain the time to think strategically about their program instead of spending hours on data entry.
Even more importantly, by developing a robust volunteer profile with cross-sector and cross-platform data, a volunteer can capture their entire history across every organization with which they have engaged. This history empowers that volunteer to continue deeper on their philanthropic journey, and increase their likelihood of donating money as well as time. That is the image of an ideal volunteer.