Helping Volunteers Develop Programs with Impact

The economic downturn has created a “new normal” for nonprofits: learning to do more with less. Volunteers now play a more vital role than ever. How can you keep volunteers engaged, motivated and working effectively when their motivations for success can be very different from those of your employees? We can learn some lessons from Leadership MetroWest’s 2010 Leadership Academy.

The economic downturn has created a “new normal” for nonprofits: learning to do more with less. Volunteers now play a more vital role than ever. How can you keep volunteers engaged, motivated and working effectively when their motivations for success can be very different from those of your employees? We can learn some lessons from Leadership MetroWest’s 2010 Leadership Academy.

The Leadership Academy, a 10-month program run yearly by Leadership MetroWest in Framingham, Mass., develops the community leadership skills of professionals living and/or working in MetroWest Massachusetts. The academy includes a Class Project, the collaborative development of an event, program or ongoing initiative to benefit the local community. The 2010 class members’ goal was to create a simple, sustainable model for charity drives to assist citizens lacking basic resources in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts. The class wanted to ensure that the model could be successfully adapted by a variety of organizations.

The program’s mission is not to create a project as an end in itself, but to use it as a way to help class members learn about leadership. But this year’s class project and the process used to bring it to fruition provide a valuable lesson in best practices for engaging volunteers in project development – and helping them maintain momentum.

Create a Solid Foundation: Respect and Trust

The first step in working with volunteers on a project is to bring them together, according to Leadership MetroWest Executive Director Helen Lemoine. “What happens at the beginning makes the difference,” she says. For the academy, Lemoine brought the 25-member class together for a two-day retreat so that they could get to know each other - “not professionally, like a typical workplace orientation, but personally.”

The members of the diverse 2010 Leadership Academy class included public, corporate and nonprofit sector professionals from a variety of backgrounds. Each had the opportunity during the two-day retreat to share events that had shaped their lives and perspectives. This is necessary, Lemoine says, to “break down barriers, change assumptions and prejudices, and help foster teamwork and collaboration.”

Learning from each other, and coming to understand each other, quickly created a bond between the participants. “By lunchtime the first day,” notes Lemoine, “the bond was palpable.”

Choose a Direction


While it’s important to give volunteers structure and support, part of the process of engaging and empowering a group to create a project is allowing them to self-direct, motivated by their passion for the issue and their desire to make a difference. Asking them also to think strategically about their intended outcome is critical even at the earliest stages of program development.

Lemoine notes that every year, a few academy members step up proactively to become facilitators and drive the project forward. “It’s always cool to observe this process,” she enthuses. Again, this happens organically, as the group’s bond allows members to trust each other and adapt to different leadership styles.

Gentle Guidance

Beginning with a broad discussion of community needs, the 2010 Leadership Academy class used brainstorming techniques to narrow down ideas, with Lemoine offering only suggestions and gentle guidance. “It’s so important to step back and allow the class to choose the process organically,” she says.

The group’s brainstorming session, followed by weeks of discussion, voting and refining, eventually led to the idea of a sustainable local food drive. (The food drive later evolved into a charity drive model.) Participant Kathy O’Leary, of the Framingham Education Foundation, proposed the model based on Care and Share, the successful long-term food drive at her children’s elementary school.

Care and Share, developed by former Framingham Grade 5 teacher Jane Shapiro, is wonderfully simple. Each month, one type of food is collected in bins at the school for donation to a local food pantry. The drive became a habit at the school, says O’Leary, “Care and Share was just a given - every month we collected something. No fanfare, it just was, ‘Here’s this month’s item,’ and then hundreds of items would show up.”

The Leadership Academy class members agreed that this was a great foundation for their project model. And they were clear that a one-time drive was not their intended outcome for the project. They wanted to create a sustainable model that could be used for food collection, a clothing drive, collecting toiletries or any other kind of charitable drive that an individual, small group, large company or municipality wanted to conduct.

Share the Workload

Given that most volunteers have limited time to devote to your nonprofit’s project development and implementation, help them explore ways to share the workload.

Once the academy class had reached consensus on a project idea, they self-selected committees to handle each aspect of the work, creating sub-committees on research, communications and model development.

A realistic and detailed timeline was drafted and agreed upon by all. Robin Robinson, part of the Model Development Committee, set up an online bulletin board so that the various committees could easily communicate during the time between monthly meetings.

The participants took initiative to keep each other on track. “When there was any void in leadership,” says participant and Research Committee member Ruth Mattson, “another person would stand up and take responsibility for moving [the work] forward.” For example, Bryan Christensen from Middlesex Savings Bank and Betty Rigney of Bose Corporation periodically added to and adjusted the timeline as needed, while keeping everyone focused on deadlines and the final goal.

Test the Model

Lemoine points out that testing the intended outcomes of your volunteer-led project is a key component of its development. “Testing along the way enables you to be confident that your program will work.” This helps ensure that the program will be a success, and helps avoid wasted time and funds.

Participant Joya Casey, from the MetroWest YMCA, was one of the model’s testers. She contacted Natick food pantry A Place to Turn, which serves residents of the MetroWest area, and asked for their top 3 most-needed items, which were white rice, peanut butter and canned corn. Following the Care and Share model, one type of needed food was collected for each of the 3 months.

Casey simply placed a bin in the lobby of the MetroWest Y and posted signs in strategic areas with each month’s needed food item. At the end of each month, she totaled the weight of donations and posted it above the bin to keep donors motivated.

“I feel that it is important for people to know what was donated and how their donation helps,” Casey explains. She also made sure to post the thank you letter that was sent by A Place to Turn. Constant Contact was used to easily communicate drive information to Y staff and members.

Evaluate, Celebrate – and Have a Sense of Humor


One important component of running your project with volunteers is to evaluate it at every step of the process. According to The Executive Directors Guide by Linnell, Radosevich and Spack, evaluation measures merit and value, but it is also a communications tool, one of the most effective a nonprofit can have.

There are a variety of evaluation methods that can be used, depending on the nature of your project, but it all comes down to ensuring that the group is staying on track to achieve its goals. This information then becomes valuable when the project is completed, enabling the group to see exactly what worked and what needs to be improved.

Simple Steps to Success

  • Build relationships
  • Build communication mechanisms into your process
  • Engage the passion of volunteers
  • Encourage leadership
  • Clarify output expectations
  • Test, test, test
  • Evaluate results
  • Make adjustments
  • Celebrate success
  • Offer continued encouragement

The academy class used various evaluation methods. Regular check-ins between committees via the bulletin board and at monthly meetings kept everyone apprised of the project’s progress. And a meeting at the end of the class year had the group discuss both the process and the results of their work.

A critical part of evaluation for the MWLA 2010 project was assessing the results of the “test drives” conducted by participants. The test at the MetroWest Y, for example, showed success. At the end of the 3 months, Casey asked her fellow Y staff if they thought the drive should continue, and the reply was overwhelmingly positive. “There were no problems,” says Casey. “The drive pretty much runs itself.”

Celebrate Success

According to Lemoine, you don’t have to have an elaborate celebration. Simply help volunteers encourage, support and congratulate each other on work completed. “Cheer each other on,” she advises. “Pat each other on the back.” This goes a long way towards buoying morale and keeping the group engaged and motivated.

Use Humor

Another aspect of collaborative work that shouldn’t be overlooked is humor. There’s a reason that many organizations, such as the Peace Corps, list “sense of humor” among the needed traits for volunteers. Mattson says, “Laughter and keeping a sense of humor [were] very important.”

Lemoine seconds this, “There was lots of laughter. It was a tremendous stress reliever. Sometimes the group laughed until they cried.”

Be Prepared for Bumps in the Road

In an ideal world, all plans would unfold smoothly and without conflict. In reality, of course, things don’t always work out that way. Communication is most important when unexpected issues arise.

The Leadership Academy 2010 class experienced this when their original plan for the design of their brochure didn’t work out. Trying to regroup quickly, some of the participants made the decision to move forward in a different direction. But they did not obtain consensus before doing so. This caused some members to feel excluded, and jarred the trust the group had built.

In this kind of situation, it’s vital not to let the issue fester and further damage group morale. Discuss what happened, why it was a problem, and communicate to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Doing this enabled the group to get back on track and continue to collaborate effectively.

Manage Expectations to Achieve Goals

For more on relationship building in the nonprofit sector, read The Role of a Weaver: Creating Results on Community Issues, a recent case study from our Capacity Building Fund.

According to Lemoine, when designing and implementing a collaborative initiative with volunteers, it’s very important to break things down into simple, manageable steps. It’s just as important -- if not more important -- to be very realistic about what can be achieved.

“The relationship-building we did reduced our end work product,” she explains, but that didn’t hamper their overall efforts. “Building relationships builds loyalty, which keeps people committed to the project and to the group. So, to develop and engage committed volunteers, reduce output expectations and encourage relationship building.”

The final product from the 2010 Leadership Academy is available at Leadership Metrowest.

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