The Value of Volunteers: Benefits of an Effective Program

Nonprofit organizations generally operate on lean budgets. This means volunteers are a necessity for most nonprofits. Knowing their worth and having an effective and organized volunteer program will help your cause — and your bottom line.

How much are they worth?

Nonprofit advocacy group Independent Sector has estimated the value of the average American volunteer at $28.54 an hour (as of 2021). Volunteers who perform specialized services — for example, an accountant who volunteers to prepare your nonprofit’s tax return — are, arguably, even more valuable.

Whether your entire workforce is unpaid, or you rely on a few dedicated volunteers to support your robust paid staff, you can’t afford to lose these treasures. Making the happiness of your volunteers a priority ranks up there with safeguarding donations and your other financial assets.

Do you have a professional program?

A professional, well-run volunteer program can provide participants with a sense of ownership and “job” satisfaction. Volunteers entering your program should receive a formal orientation and participate in one or more training sessions — depending on the complexity of the work they’ll be performing. Even if they’ll be contributing only a couple of hours a week or month, ask them to commit to at least a loose schedule.

As with your paid staffers, volunteers should set annual performance goals. For example, a volunteer might decide to redesign your website, learn enough about your mission to be able to speak publicly on the subject or work a total of 100 hours.

If volunteers accomplish their goals, recognize and reward them. Also “promote” volunteers who have proved they’re capable of assuming greater responsibility. For example, award the job of volunteer coordinator to someone who has exhibited strong communication and organization skills.

Are they engaged and having fun?

A formal program won’t keep volunteers engaged if it doesn’t take advantage of their talents or acknowledge their interests. What’s more, most volunteers want to know that the work they do matters. So even if they must occasionally perform menial tasks such as cleaning up after a fundraiser, help them understand how every activity contributes to your nonprofit’s success.

To the extent you can, give volunteers assignments they want in areas where they can make a difference. During the training process, inventory each volunteer’s experience, education, skills and interests and be sure to ask if there’s a particular project that attracts them. It’s important that you don’t just assume that they want to use the skills they already have. Many people volunteer to learn something new.

Although most volunteers expect you to put them to work, they also expect to enjoy the process and even have fun. Don’t make the same demands on volunteers that you would on employees. Try to be flexible when it comes to such issues as scheduling.

Professional and family demands sometimes prevent volunteers from showing up when scheduled and you should try to accommodate them cheerfully.

Because many volunteers are motivated by the opportunity to meet like-minded people, include socializing in your program. Introduce newbies to other volunteers and assign them to work alongside someone who knows the ropes.

Are you asking questions?

Traditionally, nonprofit volunteer surveys ask volunteers if their orientation session was informative and whether they enjoy their assignments. These address volunteer satisfaction and can help isolate potential problems that may cause attrition.

During the training process, inventory each volunteer’s experience, education, skills and interests and be sure to ask if there’s a particular project that attracts them.

But you should also measure the impact of volunteers on your organization and the community it serves. Consider asking for feedback volunteers may have received from clients and other stakeholders. Ask your volunteers if they met the goals they set, and if not, what prevented them from meeting them. And did your volunteers feel they made an impact?

Recognize their worth

Finally, no volunteer program can be successful without recognizing the impact of those who give generously of their time. Plan annual events to thank your volunteers in addition to conveying regular written and verbal acknowledgement of the time and expertise volunteers contribute to your organization.