Recently, our team took a trip down to Wichita, Kansas for an HSUS training day. Using volunteers to strengthen your leadership team and staff was a big topic and we walked away with powerful tips and tricks to share.

Most (if not all) animal rescues and animal welfare organizations are non-profits…meaning we HAVE to work with other humans. Doing so successfully can not only help your organization grow but thrive. In this blog, we will cover proven frameworks for engaging volunteers and skills you can utilize to effectively work with volunteers.

The Basics

Starting a non-profit might mean not having an entirely clear path to revenue generation. Yes, I said revenue because in order for your rescue to survive – you need it! However, equally as important to your organization’s survival: people! Volunteer management is, and should be, fun because we absolutely need people to do this work. Acknowledging that there is never enough money to pay all the people we need to do the things we want to accomplish, means acknowledging that volunteers are vital to our success, and often our success means a world of difference to the animals.

So in an industry with such a strong need for people, why are there so few training programs for working with volunteers when that is 100% of what running a non-profit involves? One common problem: leadership teams recruit awesome and happy volunteers and hypes up how great the volunteering will be. Said leadership then passes on these new recruits to other team members that really don’t work well with volunteers or haven’t been trained/empowered to utilize them well.

Before moving on, let’s establish a few foundational concepts:

    • There is NO job in an organization that volunteers shouldn’t/can’t help with
    • There is a right role for everyone
    • Everyone with a job in the organization needs to think of areas they can use help with
    • Drop the mentality that it’s ‘too complicated’ to bring in volunteers to any role

Why Involve Volunteers?

Alright, I get it. Your leadership team has a bunch of kick a** people who are incredible at what they do. So why even involve volunteers who might ‘mess it all up’? First and foremost, bringing in volunteers involves your community and creates evangelists for your organization. What is an evangelist? A zealous advocate. A. Zealous. Advocate. These are the people who fall so in love with your mission and work, that they take it upon themselves to tell everyone ‘the good word’. These advocates expand your reach and can help you raise additional funds through their networks. With more hands on deck, you can save more lives by sharing the work load which may in turn reduce compassion fatigue for all. And finally, the biggest reason to involve volunteers? They help you meet your mission!!

So, let’s be clear: Even if you get more money and resources, you will just have new problems. So off load as much of the easy stuff as you can!

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Hey, I’m not going to kid myself here. There are a lot of scary aspects to bringing in outside help. First and foremost, it takes a lot of work (but as my mother always says: if it were easy, everyone would do it). Secondly, the stakes can be incredibly high because our work involves lives and can sometimes legitimately be life and death. Bad volunteers might undermine leadership and organizational policies, leading to absolute chaos.

Let’s take a closer look at that chaos in what has been dubbed the ‘chaos spiral’:

    • You’re a rescue leader screaming for help
    • New volunteers (anyone with a pulse) step forward and get placed into a position with no guidance or training
    • This causes more work for the leadership team in correcting volunteer mistakes
    • Leadership team begins to be rude or passive to volunteers and genuinely wonders why they are even around
    • Volunteers don’t like the culture so they leave (including the good ones)
    • You now have even less help and start screaming for help again
    • Cycle repeats.

How do we prevent the chaos and tamp down fears for all that could go wrong? Create the culture that you want to see and abide by it. Volunteers should have as much structure, rules, agreements, and contracts as your paid staff or leadership team. Structure for EVERYONE will keep everyone on the same page and your work running smoothly. Structure will also prevent a bad or toxic volunteer from holding your organization hostage.

Time for Self-Reflection

With the understanding that structure and culture are incredibly important, take a moment to examine yours.

    • What is the climate now?
    • What are the attitudes of the people who supervise volunteers now?
    • What would volunteers say of their experience at your organization?

If your team is horrible to volunteers, or you have not yet created an environment where volunteers can be successful, your volunteers won’t go out and evangelize -> making it harder to recruit more volunteers. Notice a pattern?

Don’t Recruit and Retain…Rather: Retain and Recruit

So, now that we know what not to do, let’s focus on what you can do to successfully recruit and retain volunteers. For starters, EVERY organization should have a dedicated Volunteer Manager or team. This person (or peoples’) role will include: recruiting, screening, training, appreciation, and managing. What does this role not include? Doing it all alone!

If you are just getting started, get yourself a dedicated Volunteer Manager (or team) and then focus on building the program you want. Too often, new Volunteer Managers can get trigger happy with their new role and immediately start by trying to recruit more volunteers. This is an approach that is sure to waste your time (imagine trying to fill a bucket with water, except the bucket has holes in it – a lot of work for little return). Instead, focus on using the volunteers you have currently and building the program you want first. By creating a solid program before recruiting new volunteers you will do two things that will aid in recruiting:

    1. You will be able to better communicate volunteer positions honestly that will match the expectations of new volunteers.
    2. Your new program will create evangelists from your current volunteers, making recruiting a little bit easier.

Foster Based Volunteerism Retention

If you are a foster based rescue, and are wondering how the heck to keep your volunteers engaged without a facility, this part is for you! I get a lot of questions about how to retain volunteers that are ‘too busy’ or who don’t seem to be consistent.

Let’s address this by first looking inside. You are probably an unpaid volunteer yourself, so why do you keep coming back, showing up, and doing your work for the organization?
I’m going to guess it’s because of one or all of these reasons:

    • You make your rescue work a priority
    • You enjoy what you do (whether that is just helping animals and/or your actual position)
    • You know that the work you do for the rescue is important and must get done

Do your volunteers love the positions they are placed in? It is easy for people to say “I’m too busy” and not make volunteering a priority when they don’t actually enjoy the work they are doing. As stated above, there IS a role for everyone. Find a role that is best suited to peoples’ skills and where they derive joy. This is an important step in the recruiting and screening process.

Furthermore, have you connected the dots for your volunteers? In foster based work, we often have a lot of web based, administrative, and hands off (aka not on the animals) work that needs to get done and are a perfect place for volunteers to jump in. But do the volunteers understand that the work they do in these areas are incredibly important and absolutely crucial to the growth and development of the organization? You may get a lot of volunteers in these roles who say “Ugh, I’m here for the animals, why do I need to do data entry?!” This demonstrates a clear gap in the communication of WHY it is so important for that work to get done and how it feeds into saving more animals.
If they feel that if they could stop showing up and no one would care/notice, then they have no obligation to stay. Ensure your volunteers understand why and how crucial the work they do is, even if their help is just a few hours a month. Let them know you would notice their absence and the organization would be worse off without their help.

Finally, make time to follow up and check in with volunteers. Get feedback on their expectations versus reality and make sure they are in a well-fitting role. This can only be done by talking to them.

Don’t Be Basic

It is incredibly easy to look around at other organizations, and say, “well, they need someone to walk dogs so we probably do too.” Ask for the help you actually need, don’t use a template for volunteer opportunities.

Mini “how to” on figuring out the help your organization needs:

    1. You and every leader on your team should sit down and write a list of ALL the stuff you do that takes up a lot of time
    2. Go through the list one by one, and pick out the ones you could image a well-trained volunteer handling
    3. Create Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for these tasks
    • A Standard Operating Procedure is basically an incredibly detailed ‘how to’ for a task, so that anyone could step in and complete that task with little to no prior training
    5. Recruit for these tasks/positions -> clearly and honestly communicate the work!!!
    • False expectations are a large contributing factor to high volunteer turnover

Bonus guide for expanding into new growth for your organization:

    1. Make a list of all the things you want to do but never find the time to get to
    2. Repeat the steps above. This is a great way to utilize excess volunteers and expand your organization’s programming that are not currently urgently central to operations.

Create and Communicate Your Culture

We can often be left feeling held hostage by volunteers because they are helping us and gosh darn it we should be so thankful! But remember that it is important to have the right fit on both sides. While you are looking for a volunteer that fits the position you need help with, they should also be looking for a good fit in culture with the organization they will be working with. We can get so caught up in communicating our needs for assistance, that we forget to communicate WHO a great fit in the organization would be. Sometimes, this is a result of not communicating and discussing your values and expectations with your leadership team and current volunteers.

Take a moment to sit down with your leadership team and really take note of the type of people you want as part of your team. Some examples might be: dependable, respectful, happy/upbeat, friendly, able to follow directions, a team player, etc. Create a list of ideal characteristics and SHOW IT to prospective volunteers. When you communicate the kind of person you are looking for, this gives the prospective volunteer the opportunity to qualify themselves as a good or bad fit BEFORE working together.

Prevention Improves Retention

Understandably, your mind may continue to go back to all the ways things could go wrong. This organization means a lot to you and you want it to be set up for success! Luckily, there are many ways that you can do this.

Boundaries – we all have them but do we communicate them? Creating a list of deal breakers is vital to preventing the feeling of being held hostage by bad volunteers. By being able to communicate your organization’s boundaries and deal breakers on day 1 (or even before volunteers start) can set clear expectations that make dealing with issues down the road significantly easier.

Training and Processes – yes, a lot of hard work but keep in mind that once you have done these, they are done! As a leader, it is up to you to set your team members up for success. This means giving mentorship or finding the right mentorship for a volunteer, training volunteers to fill their rolls appropriately (no one wants to feel stupid – and often people can shy away from bigger responsibilities if the training is not there), and having written Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that are clear, tested, and easy to understand.
Fun fact: training can be used as part of the screening. It is much easier to ‘let someone go’ or move someone around to a better fitting position before they officially start something.

Agreements and Contracts – the best safeguards of all! Think about it, when you started a new job somewhere, they probably asked you to sign various forms and agreements like a confidentiality agreement, policies for how to conduct yourself at the office, and how to be a good representative for the company. Your rescue IS a company and you should absolutely have policies and signed agreements. These agreements give you a great avenue for communicating your current policies, culture, and deal breakers. These can also act as a tool for if/when trouble arises. Some common agreements used in animal rescue are Confidentiality Agreements, Social Media policies, Email policies, and Whistleblower agreements. When making your agreements and policies, think about your worst fear and the worst ways things can (or have) gone wrong and bake solutions right in!

Involve the Team

Disconnects with volunteers and leadership happen when the leadership team and other vital members are not involved in the volunteer management process. This can lead to your internal team not having any idea what the volunteers are working on and not being able to fully utilize them. Leadership teams should absolutely influence what volunteers work on, meaning volunteers do not only sit directly under a Volunteer Manager. Your leadership team should also know and be empowered to reach out to volunteers when they need help on different projects.

Leadership should have their hands in creating and designing volunteer roles that will assist in their department and agree on how the work should be done. These same team members should also be part of recognizing and acknowledging volunteers for a job well done. Again, this should not ONLY be left to the Volunteer Manager.

Effective Volunteer Management

Ok, so you have created an awesome volunteer program with clear expectations and now have means to recruit. How do we really hit home on retention? Be an effective manager.

Give feedback and set clear expectations – at some point in a new role, everyone messes up and that is ok! Make giving feedback part of your culture, so when it happens it isn’t a shock or scary – it is expected. On the flip side, ensure your team knows that feedback is bidirectional and that you fully expect to receive feedback on your work and leadership.

Giving and getting feedback can be scary because no one wants to hurt or offend someone they have to work with. Teach your team how to give good feedback.
Good feedback includes:

    • Talking about one issue at a time
    • Not being overly critical and not only focusing on the bad
    • Being clear and NOT being vague
    • Leaving time for questions and responses

Structured feedback most often looks like:

  1. Stating your observations
  2. Explaining the impact
  3. Pausing and waiting/asking for a reaction
  4. Suggesting concrete next steps

In a bad feedback session, there is often a gap in intention versus the impact. Meaning, you may go into giving feedback with the best of intentions, but the impact you leave may be bad, hurtful, or misguided. To help avoid this gap, use the 5 Whys method. If something is so much of a problem that it needs feedback, ask yourself “why” 5 times to get to the heart of WHY something needs to be done a certain way.

Even if you get more money and resources, you will just have new problems. So off load as much of the easy stuff as you can!

There you have it! You are now armed with the tools to create a successful volunteer program that can recruit, retain, and grow volunteers. If you thought this was useful, give it a share to your rescue friends, coalition, or groups!