Designing volunteer programs

A successful volunteer program doesn't just happen by chance. Most likely someone took the time to sketch out the program on paper, brainstorm how it will run, talk to relevant people, develop relevant documentation and processes and sort out any glitches well before the program was actually implemented.

This article discusses some of the key things to consider when you are planning and designing a volunteering program.

Is the program viable?

So you've got a great idea for some volunteer services that will help your organisation, customers or clients. Before you get too far into the planning and design process it’s good to make sure that there is actually a need for a volunteering program.

Talking to a few key stakeholders will help you to ensure that a real need exists for your program. Ask things like:

  • Do people actually need the services or assistance you want to provide? How will they benefit?
  • Do these services exist already? How are they delivered or provided?
  • What is different or better about what you are proposing?

You might also need to think about the specific roles of paid staff and volunteers and how to balance this so that everyone is comfortable and enthusiastic about their work.

Is the program aligned with your organisation's overall volunteering framework?

As a volunteering organisation, it's important to have a framework that guides all volunteering activities in your organisation. Things like your Volunteering principles, Volunteering code of practice and a Statement of volunteer rights and responsibilities help define this framework.

Any proposed volunteering program needs to align with the volunteering principles and standards of your organisation. This ensures the program doesn't exploit anyone's good will and has the support of your board, management, paid staff or other key people in your organisation. Ask things like:

  • Why do you need volunteers for this program?
  • Does the program benefit both the community and volunteers?
  • Is the program a not for profit venture?
  • Will volunteers be replacing the work of any paid staff?
  • Will the program give volunteers flexibility and choice in how they do the work?
  • Does the program have the support of management, staff or other key stakeholders?

The answers to these questions will help to define your program and ensure that it is something that is best suited to the involvement of volunteers, rather than a program that could best be achieved through the work of paid employees.

What are the program's goals?

Setting some goals will keep you focused on what you want the program to achieve and help measure how the program is tracking over time. The goals will be specific to the program but could include both qualitative (how things feel) and quantitative (can be measured) aspects.

Quantitative goals

Quantitative goals measure things like the number of clients or volunteers participating in the program, the frequency of volunteering episodes or the amount of time a volunteer stays involved in a program. You will be able to keep track of these kinds of things through your volunteer attendance records.

Qualitative goals

Qualitative goals look at things like the satisfaction levels of volunteers and clients and the impact of the program on the community or society. You can measure some of these things through surveys and other feedback mechanisms.

Setting goals for your program not only helps to give it direction, it also helps to build up a business case for funding or marketing activities. Sponsors, grant makers and the media respond very favourably to real facts and figures that support your program.

How will the program work?

Documenting the ins and outs of your program will help provide more clarity, uncover possible issues and identify things you need to have or prepare to run the program effectively. This includes position descriptions, program procedures and processes, application forms and induction materials.

Start with a high-level overview and then drill down into the detail as you consult everyone involved.

Consider things like:

  • How many customers will the services help? Where are they situated? How will you find them? Are other organisations involved?
  • What will volunteers do? How often? Where?
  • Do volunteers need any special skills or experience?
  • Does the program need volunteers on a regular, ongoing basis or is it something people could do every now and then? Can you build that kind of flexibility into the design?
  • Is it something everyone can do? Can you involve young people, seniors, people with different cultural backgrounds or people with a disability? If not, how could you change it so it is more inclusive?
  • Could volunteers contribute remotely or do they have to be in a physical place?
  • Who will manage the volunteers? Are they paid or are they a volunteer? Do they need special skills or experience?
  • How many volunteers do you need to provide the service?
  • Does your insurance cover volunteers?
  • Are there any new policies that you need to develop to support this program? Do you need to refine any existing policies?

Consult widely as you design the program – current and prospective volunteers, management, staff, stakeholders will all have great feedback. It's amazing how the input of others will help your program take place and uncover issues you may not have thought about.

What will volunteers do?

An important part of designing your volunteer program is identifying the things that volunteers will do. While you may have touched on this in your overall description of the program, it's useful to list of the kinds of tasks or activities that you imagine that volunteers will perform or, better still, ask some prospective or current volunteers for their ideas. This will help you to plan more realistic tasks and to better understand the needs and motivations of prospective volunteers.

A task list will also help you to give an idea of the breadth of work that's required by volunteers to run your program and will help you shape and design the your volunteer roles and estimate how many volunteers you will need to realistically implement the program. Designing volunteer roles is the next step in the volunteer program planning process.

What's your budget and timeline?

Even a not for profit project needs some kind of budget and implementation timeline.

Setting a budget – even if it's just for covering the costs of printing and stationery – ensures that you have put some thought into some of the unavoidable costs of running a volunteer program and where the money for this is going to come from.

Likewise, an implementation plan will help keep you on track with what needs to be done (by whom and when) to ensure your program is ready to roll on its nominated start date.

  • List everything you need to do before the program starts running – organise clients, venues or transport, finalise insurance, get funding, write position descriptions, develop application forms, advertise for volunteers, interview, screen and select volunteers, finalise rostering, develop induction materials, run volunteer inductions
  • Nominate a realistic timeframe for completing each task
  • Assign a person (or group) who is responsible for each task
  • Sort tasks into a logical order and assign a start and end date for each task (based on your nominated timeframes)
  • Add your program start date as the final date in your timeline (i.e. after all other tasks have been completed)

Keep your timeline up to date as you work through each task. If you find that some tasks need more time, just update to plan to accommodate the extra time (and move your program start date accordingly).

Keeping an up-to-date implementation plan with achievable timelines is really the only way to ensure you have a realistic start date for your volunteering program.

Tools and resources