November 24, 2020

When the COVID-19 outbreak became a full-fledged pandemic earlier this year, many already stressed not-for-profit organizations panicked. After all, how could nonprofits meet their charitable goals if supporters were losing their jobs — or, worse, fighting for their own and their family members’ lives? Putting reduced donations aside, it seemed unlikely that even dedicated volunteers would want to risk their health and safety to perform unpaid work.

The good news is that many organizations have weathered the initial storm. Studies conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics and Points of Life, an Atlanta, GA-based organization that mobilizes volunteers, reveal that volunteerism has actually grown during 2020’s pandemic. But even if your volunteer ranks are healthy, your nonprofit must continue to make a concerted effort to engage them.

Evolving Trends

As the Points of Light study found, one of the major motivators for volunteers in 2020 has been the presidential election. Before the pandemic hit the United States, voting in elections topped a list of social engagement activities at 72%, followed by donating to charity (54%), signing petitions (34%) and weighing the social and political positions of companies before purchasing their products or services (41%). Yet only 36% at that time said they participated in volunteer activities.

After COVID-19 became an everyday reality, Americans seemed to have reexamined their social engagement priorities. Voting remains at the top of the list at 78%. But about 75% of respondents recently indicated they would be donating to charities and 73% said they would be volunteering. Also, 83% of respondents agreed that the country requires greater unity and that volunteering can help achieve that objective.

As for nonprofits, 85% of organizations report increased requests to volunteer — more than double the level before the pandemic. Younger people, in particular, are extending a helping hand to charities. So it’s a good time to seek new potential volunteers. This is particularly true if your charity has been directly affected by COVID-19 — for example, if your mission addresses general human welfare, food insecurity and health care issues.

How to Motivate Volunteers

For many organizations, especially those with small paid staffs, volunteers are the core of their operations. Indeed, your nonprofit may not be able to get much done without them. To ensure you’re doing everything possible to attract and retain loyal volunteers, consider these five suggestions:

1. Find inspiration. To motivate volunteers, you first must understand their reasons for volunteering. Do they volunteer to develop new skills, “make a difference” or meet new people — or all of these? Some may have very personal reasons for volunteering; for example, a volunteer who raises money for a cancer charity because a family member has been afflicted by the disease. Ask volunteers what motivates them and compile the information. This will help you develop a volunteer program that can meet the different needs of volunteers and foster long-term commitments.

2. Communicate effectively. Provide an orientation to new volunteers so they understand your nonprofit’s mission, goals and ethics. If a volunteer acts in way that’s contrary to these, gently discuss the issue. In most of these cases, the volunteer simply misunderstands your instructions. Also, regularly solicit suggestions and feedback from volunteers. When you show volunteers that their opinions matter, most will work harder to promote your mission.

3. Demonstrate appreciation. Even though volunteering comes from the heart, most people like to be recognized for what they do. If you don’t show appreciation often, they’re more likely to ditch your organization for another one. Appreciation can range from a verbal “thank you” or a thank-you note to giving volunteers greater responsibility or “promoting” them to positions such as volunteer coordinator.

4. Acknowledge stakeholders. Your volunteers want to be informed about how the organization is doing and how their contributions are making a difference. Provide periodic updates on programs and projects and highlight the contributions and achievements of volunteers so that they feel like the stakeholders they are.

5. Use social media. Appreciation and acknowledgement of volunteers’ work extends beyond your office walls. Post photos showing volunteers in action on Facebook, Instagram or other platforms. You might even want to hand temporary “control” of a social media account to a trusted volunteer.

A Return to Normal

When the pandemic ends and the economy begins to recover, you may be tempted to direct all of your nonprofit’s energy into fundraising. But volunteers will continue to be critical, so make sure you don’t neglect them. Now, in fact, is a great time to review and reorganize your volunteer program so you’re ready for American life and your organization’s activities to return to “normal.”

© 2020