How to Start a Volunteer Program in Your Community [2022 Updates]

Written by CivicPlus

Volunteer participation is critical to resident engagement.
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Community volunteerism is the ultimate form of civic engagement. When your community members give back to the community in which they live and volunteer their time to improve the lives of their neighbors, it demonstrates a genuine commitment to civic progress and community growth. Around 63 million Americans volunteer each year, the most active of which are women, and baby boomers an Gen Xers. These compassionate community members are helping battle such societal issues as homelessness, food insecurity, health and welfare, and climate change, proving that it takes us all to safeguard our communities.

Establishing volunteer opportunities in your communities is an essential step in stimulating engagement and in deepening the connection between your residents and your community. 

But let's face it, a successful program with thousands of civic volunteers requires significant work. As an industry leader in local government parks and rec management software, we see first-hand how cumbersome some tasks become in managing data (e.g., their assignments, and associated paperwork) of your volunteer program.

In this article, we designed a step-by-step process to harness the power and enthusiasm of your civic-minded residents to help bring critical initiatives into reality while ensuring your program is a success, and that it doesn't overburden your staff.

Let's dive in.

  1. Start With a Needs Assessment
  2. Create Your Civic Volunteer Mission Statement for Clarity
  3. Identify a Brand and Cause that Will Unite Volunteers
  4. Recruit Volunteers Who Are Ready to Roll-Up Their Sleeves
  5. Establish and Follow Guidelines for Safety
  6. Set SMART Goals to Achieve Your Objective
  7. Let Your Volunteers be Leaders 
  8. Engage and Motivate Your Civic Volunteers for Top Results
  9. Develop Long-lasting, Meaningful Relationships 
  10. Give Your Volunteers a Memorable Experience
  11. Invest in Volunteer Management Tools

    Start With a Needs Assessment

Your leadership should determine in what areas civic volunteers could make the most significant impact in your community. Before launching any formal programs, make sure you are focusing your efforts where you’ll see the highest return on investment. Consider both existing programs in need of additional resources, and areas that are currently under-represented and could benefit from a newly established volunteer program.

Ask yourself, "What are you trying to achieve?" Then move on to your mission statement.

Civic Tip: If your community hasn’t already established a Citizen Emergency Response Team (CERT), click here to learn the steps necessary to create one.

Create Your Civic Volunteer Mission Statement for Clarity

Mission statements should be easy to understand, concise, and informative. They generally consist of three parts: a statement or vision of the organization, core values written down for all to adhere to, and the goals you want to accomplish over a specific time. 

Mission statements are especially crucial in nonprofits because they represent what your organization stands for, and make volunteers want to know more and support your cause. A mission statement helps attract new people and resources to the cause.

A great resource to consider, How to Write an Amazing Nonprofit Mission Statement, takes you through the process of narrowing your focus, what to avoid, and considerations. Focus on one specific issue. Writing a mission statement will help you determine how you want your organization designed.

Identify a Brand and Cause that Volunteers Will Unite Behind

Create a brand for your civic volunteer program. It will give community members an entity that they can identify with, and a cause that they will want to rally behind.

It will also help you better recruit volunteers if you are doing so under the umbrella of an established and organized branded program. For example, in Cocoa, Florida, the city has developed the Cocoa Involves Volunteers in our Community (C.I.V.I.C) volunteer program.

CIVIC volunteer program

Image credit:

Organizations with great names are memorable. 

"The volunteer experience helps strengthen the city’s resources, helps citizens get a better understanding of their local government, and gives residents a sense of pride in their community." [source]  

Recruit Volunteers Ready to Roll-up Their Sleeves

Use every available channel to recruit volunteers for your newly established program. Your marketing efforts should include:

  • A press release to your local media
  • Posters and postcards at popular community facilities, offices, and inside the locations of community business partners
  • Information prominently displayed on your municipal website
  • Social media posts sent at least once every other week for several months with a link to download a volunteer application
  • Flyers included in utility bill stuffers

Make sure your communications clearly state the mission of the program, the benefits that volunteers will receive by participating, and how their efforts will benefit the community. 

Bonus Content: 12 Marketing Techniques for Reaching New Residents to Encourage Parks and Rec Participation

Establish and Follow Guidelines for Safety

Make sure your program protects your community and all involved residents. To ensure such protections are in place:

  • Run background checks on all applicants before accepting them into your program
  • Create a volunteer handbook and require all members to read the policy and sign a written agreement form
  • Have an initial and ongoing orientation process that gives volunteers a chance to ask questions, and offers leaders an opportunity to reiterate essential policies and rules
  • Conduct safety training—whether your volunteers will be cleaning up community parks, packaging canned food donations, or painting murals on playgrounds, safety training should be provided to minimize the risk of accident or injury; all volunteers should sign a waiver form as part of their onboarding process
  • Ask all volunteers to sign a media release form that permits you to use their name and likeness to help promote their efforts in press releases, in social media, and on your municipal website

Set SMART Goals to Achieve Your Objective

SMART goals are imperative in any organization. Using a proven goal-setting strategy will increase productivity and leadership skills.

Specific - Be specific. The more specific, the better aim you'll have at achieving the outcome. The less specific a goal, the more difficult it is to determine how long the goal should take or how to measure success.

Measurable - How is the goal going to be measured? Setting milestones is a way to monitor your goal.

Attainable/Achievable - How will the goal be achieved and what action steps are needed. Are resources in place? Setting the right expectations that are feasible is vital from the start. 

Relevant - The goals created must align with your mission. Pursue your most relevant goal.

Timely - Setting a date by which you want specific goals reached. By including an element of time, it will hold you accountable. 

Watch the informative video below showcasing SMART Goals.

source: DecisionSkills, SMART Goals - Quick Overview, via YouTube

7. Let Your Volunteers be Leaders

Once your program has been successfully established, allow your staff to transition from active management roles to supervisory roles, and turn over direct management responsibilities to qualified citizen volunteers.

Not only will this free up your staff for other assignments, when citizens take on civic leadership roles, they also become more invested in the success of the program, which ensures everyone succeeds.

Engage, Motivate, and Recognize Your Volunteers for Top Results

Volunteer work is crucial to a thriving, engaged community. A robust program will enhance more lives and grow faster.

A key element for your volunteer program is to set it up for more programs to come. Meaning that you want, not only passionate people working for a cause, but repeat volunteers who want success for their community.

Engaging and motivating your team will allow for a quicker result for a program. Recognizing your volunteers will keep them coming back. If they feel they're making a difference and are noted doing so, they won't hesitate to offer their services again.

Acknowledge volunteers during and after a successful program to ensure they feel valued and appreciated.

Develop Long-lasting, Meaningful Relationships

Focus on having positive interactions with your volunteers. And by doing so, you'll create meaningful contributions to society.

Tom Rath, Author, Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life, wrote about simple changes you can make to improve the quality of your relationships. He explained the importance of focusing on the positive, citing, "A single negative interaction has an impact that is more powerful than that of five positive interactions.”

Drawing from his own life experiences, he explains being part of something larger than ourselves and that valuing people and experiences moves us to a better place. Developing meaningful relationships will create a team environment that leads to more productivity and an achievable goal. 

Give Your Volunteers a Memorable Experience

The value of volunteerism is priceless. Volunteers are becoming progressively essential to reach specific goals and the overall mission of a program.

Organizations always need to take steps to improve the volunteer experience. For example, they could include incentives such as flexible scheduling options or even "virtual volunteering."

VolunteerHub provides ways to improve your volunteer experience quickly below:

  1. Enhance communications
  2. Leverage volunteer insights
  3. Offer incentives
  4. Make an excellent first impression
  5. Create a social environment   

Resource: Improve Volunteer Experience

Invest in Volunteer Management Tools

Once your vision grows into a successful program with hundreds (or even thousands) of volunteers, you’ll need an automated system to help you manage volunteers, their assignments, and associated paperwork. A robust parks and rec software solution can help you automate the data management of your volunteer program to ensure your program is a success, without overburdening your staff.