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Formalizing Volunteer Programs

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Luz Mairym López-Rodríguez, Ph.D.

Why do nonprofit organizations (NPOs) need volunteers? Volunteers fill many purposes. Among other reasons, volunteers: (1) complement limited staff time; (2) help nonprofits fulfill their service provision by having more social needs than resources; and (3) extend social commitment in society. Why do volunteers give their time? Many do so in support of nonprofit services for the satisfaction of helping and supporting a special cause or, as many students, to comply with community hours as part of their learning process.

Regardless of the reasons why NPOs recruit volunteers or why volunteers become part of an organization, a commitment between both parties is necessary to ensure the continuance of the services in the organization and to keep volunteers interested. Formalizing volunteerism in NPOs should not been an administrative burden. However, if an organization does not invest the proper amount of time, volunteers’ efforts could go to waste. How does one formalize this process?

First step: Develop a Volunteer Manual

A formal volunteer manual should include:

  • Information of the organization: Such as the mission, vision, values, programs, services, organizational structure, and organizational policies.
  • Description of the volunteer program: The mission, values, and objectives of the volunteer program, among other relevant information of the program.
  • Volunteer opportunities: A list of areas where the organization needs volunteer support. This process is essential to ensure that the volunteer recruitment process respond to the organizations’ needs. Each service opportunity must be accompanied by a brief description of the tasks expected by the volunteer to perform and a profile with the ideal characteristics of the person to execute them.
  • Volunteer Code of Ethics
  • Duties from the organization to the volunteer: Documentation on what volunteers should expect from the organization, such as an annual certification of volunteer hours completed, orientation, specific duties and information on the volunteer supervisor.
  • Organizational forms: Standardized information required by the organization for administrative and statistical purposes. Some recommended forms are: program application, selection of voluntary service opportunities, voluntary service consent, confidentiality agreement, voluntary service evaluation, and attendance sheet.

Second step: Conduct Potential Candidates Interviews

Although many people want to contribute to a social cause, NPOs should allocate volunteer time in an area compatible with their skills. An interview with the potential volunteer will help define the service area, most likely to provide a greatest contribution to the organization. During this interview, volunteers will also have the opportunity to clarify doubts and confirm their interest and commitment with the organization.

Third step: Supervise and Evaluate Voluntary Work

The organizations’ volunteer organizers should be involved in the volunteers’ daily work. Involvement serves to motivate, identify areas for improvement, assist in the provision of service, or recommend change of assignments. Additionally, using voluntary service evaluation forms allows nonprofits to document the strengths and weaknesses of the volunteer. Tracking and evaluating volunteers contributes to strengthening the mission of the volunteer program and of the organization.

Where to next?

While these three steps are a great starting point with formalizing volunteer programs, the work does not end there. The volunteer program need close supervision to ensure compliance with the volunteer manual policies. Supervision should not be a pro forma manual but an official organization policy, preferably approved by the board of directors. NPOs should also develop communications such as an annual report of the voluntary program to share it with volunteers, staff, and the board of director.

Nonprofits should also be sure to recognize the annual activity of its volunteers in their work to fulfil the organization’s mission. Why not join the global effort organizations around the world on the United Nations established International Volunteer Day on December 5th to recognize those volunteers? Although volunteer’s work is free and not required, nonprofits should not take this work for granted. There are many appealing organizations in need of support and a small detail can make the difference in deciding in which volunteers commit and invest their free time.


Luz Mairym López-Rodríguez, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Public Administration at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.

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