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Rebeccah Verhoff-Kiss, Outreach & Education Officer, ServeOhio

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5 Steps to Organizing a Community Volunteer Project

It is amazing what a motivated group of volunteers can accomplish if they are properly organized and have the tools and resources they need to be successful. Developing a high-quality, high-impact volunteer project requires a significant amount of thought, planning, and organization before the first volunteer signs up to help. If planned well, your volunteers will have a positive experience and will be eager to sign up for the next opportunity to help with your cause. If planned poorly, they will probably not volunteer with your organization again and may even discourage others from doing so.

So, how do you properly plan a volunteer project? First – let’s define what we mean by “volunteer project”.  A volunteer project is a one-time event that brings together a group of volunteers and has a clear start/end time, no ongoing commitment, immediate impact, and requires very limited training. A good project is high-impact, which means volunteers can see a quantifiable difference from when they started the project to when they finish the project. You should be able to quantify and communicate the difference they made (served x number of meals, spread x bags of mulch, collected x bags of trash, etc.) Projects should also be enjoyable and challenging, allowing volunteers to socialize with others, and helping them learn something new about their community. To put together a great volunteer project, follow these 5 steps.

 1. Identify a Project

What are the issues in your community? Have you noticed trash in neighborhoods or parks? Is food insecurity or homelessness a problem? Maybe you want to put a smile on the face of a sick child or older adult. Whatever the issue, you’ll need to develop a project that puts volunteers into action.  Remember, a good project allows volunteers to get their hands dirty (literally or figuratively) and to be able to actually see that they made a quantifiable difference. A few things to consider:

- Time of year: weather has an enormous impact on what you can accomplish…it’s probably not feasible to start a community garden in the winter when the ground is frozen. Choose indoor projects (painting interior facilities, cleaning, sorting donations, making blankets, writing cards, etc.) when the weather is unsafe or unpleasant for volunteers to be outside and choose outdoor projects (litter clean ups, pulling weeds, planting flowers, painting exterior facilities, etc.) when the weather is better. If you plan an outdoor project, always make sure to have rain plan!

- Partnerships: Do you have existing partnerships with other community organizations or groups? Collaboration always makes a project stronger, so reach out to see what you can accomplish together.

2. Develop and Scope your Project

Once you have identified your project, you need to plan the details and logistics. Some things to consider:

- Supplies: Most projects require at least some supplies and you’ll need to have a plan in place to obtain them if you don’t have a supply budget. You can ask local businesses to donate supplies for your project or partner with other organizations/groups who may have access to the supplies you need. There are also community-based programs such as Keep America Beautiful affiliates that allow you to rent tools, trash bags, and gloves at no cost.  You could also ask volunteers to bring supplies with them.

- Working with vulnerable populations: You need to prioritize the safety of your volunteers and the population you’re serving. One-time projects should not require volunteers to obtain a background check, so your project should NEVER allow volunteers to be alone with clients you’re serving - especially youth, older adults, and people with disabilities. Always work in groups when serving vulnerable populations. For more guidance on screening volunteers who work with vulnerable populations, click here.  

- Determine how many volunteers you’ll need: When finalizing details for the project, you need to carefully and realistically determine the number of volunteers you’ll need to complete your project. If your project needs 100 volunteers, you’ll need to develop a plan to recruit that many volunteers. It’s a good idea to ensure that your project is scalable so you can accommodate additional volunteers if they show up but have the ability to scale back the work if not enough volunteers show up. Nothing kills volunteer satisfaction more than standing around with nothing to do, so make sure you have the appropriate amount of work for the number of volunteers.

- Identify Volunteer Leaders: Recruit volunteers to help in the planning stages of the project that can also act as your leadership team on the day of the project. This will help you stay organized, so you won’t be pulled in too many directions on project day.

- Plan backup projects: Your volunteers will be excited to tackle your project and will most likely complete the work faster than you anticipate. Make sure you have more than enough work for volunteers to do so that if they finish early you can give them additional work to do. They’ve committed the time to be there, so make sure you are filling the time with meaningful volunteer work. Also, make sure to have a backup plan for inclement weather so you don’t have to cancel the project if it rains.

3. Recruit Volunteers

Once you’ve planned the details of the project and you have determined how many volunteers you’ll need, it’s time to recruit your volunteers. Make sure to create a description of the project and associated activities so volunteers are clear about what they’re signing up for. Include information such as date/time/duration, address, parking instructions, age/ability restrictions, appropriate attire, contact information if they have questions, and any required wavers. Here are some sources for volunteer recruitment.

- Reach out to your local volunteer connector organization: these are community organizations that recruit and refer volunteers to volunteer opportunities.

- Post the opportunity online: VolunteerMatch and All For Good manage searchable databases of volunteer opportunities that are utilized by volunteers nationwide. It’s free and easy to post your project and it can help you reach hundreds of potential volunteers.

- Build relationships with high school and college groups, businesses, neighborhood associations, and local stakeholders.

- Social Media: Post the position description on your own social media or through your organization. Make sure to include a registration link so volunteers can sign up immediately. Ask supporters to share the opportunity on their pages as well. Social media is a great way to get the word out about your project!

4. Implement a Successful Project

After all your hard work planning and recruiting volunteers, it’s time to implement your project. Some things to consider:

- Communication: a few days before the project, it’s a good idea to send a reminder email to volunteers and reiterate the logistics including date/time/duration, dress code, parking, food/meals provided, and who to contact if they have questions or need to cancel.

- Sign-in Sheet: make sure you have volunteers sign-in so you have an accurate head count.

- Photo Release: if you’re going to take pictures, you’ll need to have volunteers sign a photo release, especially if they are youth.

- Start and end on time!

- Brief orientation: Plan for 5-10 minutes at the start of the project to share the history, goals, and mission of the project and to give any necessary training/safety briefing. You may also want to give a tour, if appropriate, and introduce key project leaders.

- Keep volunteers engaged the entire time.

- Communicate Impact: leave 5-10 minutes at the end of the project to thank volunteers and communicate the impact they made. Do your best to quantify the impact (# meals served, # trash bags filled, # boxes packed, etc.). This will send your volunteers off on a very positive note.

- Thank your volunteers for their time!

5. Follow Up with Volunteers

Send an email or make a positing on social media (with pictures, of course) thanking your volunteers and sharing their impact. This is also a great opportunity to share additional opportunities to get involved. Periodically communicate with the volunteers to keep them engaged with your work and be sure to let them know the next time you have a volunteer opportunity.

If done right, volunteer projects can help you to have an immediate impact on your community and build relationships with supporters and volunteers. Happy planning!

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