8 Important Tips on How To Start a Volunteer Program

How to develop a volunteer program the right way

If you’ve been considering how to set up a volunteer program to make your organization more sustainable, have more manpower to carry out your projects, or introduce people from around the world to your incredible projects, then you’ve come to the right place.

how to start a volunteer program
For valuable insight on how to start a volunteer program, check these tips.

GoAbroad can help you not only start a volunteer program, we can help you do it the right way and ensure your volunteer program reaches its full potential. Using our experience working with nonprofit organizations NGOs, and program providers around the world (as well as our own volunteer abroad experiences!), here are our best tips on how to start a volunteer program.

8 important tips to starting a volunteer program

1. Find a competitive advantage.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you should start a volunteer program that is entirely unique! Thoroughly research existing program options, inclusions, placement set-ups, missions, and every detail other organizations have put into their volunteer program — and don’t forget to read program reviews to see what past participants liked and didn’t like about particular programs.

Once you’ve done your research, then it’s time to compile your ideas and outline what you want your volunteer program to look like. Be sure to add something truly one-of-a-kind to your program to help you stand out from your competitors.

2. Diversify program inclusions.

Alongside your competitive advantage, you’ll have to start thinking about program inclusions. Although the main goal of volunteering abroad will be to actually volunteer, participants will be less than impressed if that’s all you provide them with.

Consider including unique accommodation options (such as a homestay), optional excursions on the weekends (even volunteers need a break from work sometimes!), daily home-cooked local meals, or any other perks that can make the program feel extraordinary.

how to start a volunteer program
Volunteers deserve to have some fun during their down time!

Throw in an overnight stay in a rural village in the mountains with no lights except the stars to give volunteers a new perspective, plan a whole day of games led by volunteers at an elementary school to engage them with local students, or accommodate volunteers in an upscale tent at a national park.

It all depends on your location and program focus, but any program can throw in diverse program inclusions for volunteers to ponder.

3. Establish program fee transparency.

Don’t hide the truth from your prospective participants, just throw it out there for them to clearly see how their program fees will be utilized. It’s completely normal for program fees to help cover day-to-day operations of the organization, implementation of the volunteer placement, or daily expenses of coordinating and accommodating volunteers.

If you try to hide how their money is spent, it’s likely to create confusion, friction, or possibly a bad overall experience for your volunteers. However, you can still make everyday expenses sound slightly more meaningful by phrasing them in more attractive ways.

Turn the “implementation of the volunteer placement” line item to “donation to volunteer placement activities”; after the volunteer has spent significant time at their placement, they’ll be able to clearly see how donating to their placement has helped. Transparency is the best policy when you start a volunteer program.

4. Create volunteer fundraising expectations and opportunities.

Once those volunteer program fees are on the table, some volunteers might feel discouraged or stressed with the amount of money they’ll need to spend, so give them resources to lessen the burden (and maybe make their volunteer program even more impactful too!).

Encourage volunteers to fundraise for their trip through online crowdsourced fundraising platforms like FundmyTravel (powered by GoAbroad.com) or develop a Fundraising Toolkit with outreach emails, social media tips, and other suggestions on how to engage their network to support their volunteer trip.

If you’re a registered nonprofit, you may be eligible for Facebook Fundraisers, which would give your volunteers the opportunity to raise money for their program fees directly on Facebook with no fees!

5. Consider local perspectives and impact.

how to start a volunteer program
Engage with the communities you’re operating in, and make sure it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

This might be one of the most important tips on how to start a volunteer program, because it will ensure your volunteer program is successful for all parties involved, not only the volunteers. 

Voluntourism is a highly-debated concept, that can have both negative and positive consequences depending on how it is implemented. Before your start a volunteer program, you should interview local families, leaders, and community members that will be impacted by volunteers.

You’ll need local endorsement of your programs to ensure volunteers are welcomed by the community. Getting local community members involved in how you set up your volunteer program will also make them feel more invested in making it successful.

Once you’ve decided how to create a volunteer program in a particular community, be sure you orient community members about the program so they know what to expect (and what they should not expect).

6. Ensure sustainability of placements.

The worst thing that can happen when you start a volunteer program is causing more trouble than help. Each volunteer placement should be a stand alone, one-time string of activities that concludes as soon as a volunteer heads home. There needs to be a sustainable plan of how their work will be continued long after they’re gone.

For example, if volunteers are responsible for preparing a feeding after school for children at risk of malnutrition every day, the feedings shouldn’t stop when the volunteer returns home. You should establish a way for local mothers or your staff to continue the feedings even in the absence of volunteers.

how to start a volunteer program
Sustainability should be your top priority when starting a volunteer program.

Always make sure the impact of volunteers will last beyond their stay; it will make your placements better, and make your volunteers feel ten times more excited about what they’ve done or will do.

7. Educate staff on how to support volunteers effectively.

Volunteering abroad comes with its challenges, and your staff need to know how to help volunteers handle them. Any staff you hire to work directly with volunteers should have extensive training on things like culture shock, homesickness, and frequently asked questions (this includes host families!), so they can be helpful resources for your new volunteers.

Take time to educate your staff about what to expect from your volunteers and ensure they are prepared long before your first volunteer arrives.

8. Develop an alumni engagement strategy.

This might seem like an afterthought, but it shouldn’t be! Thinking about what happens when the volunteers leave is still one of the most important tips on how to start a volunteer program for you to consider.

Don’t let your volunteer walk away from your program and forget all the incredible experiences they’ve had. Instead, you should outline a plan for engaging them long-term, starting with establishing a steady stream of reviews, program evaluations, and interviews about their experience volunteering with you.

These testimonials will be pivotal to developing your reputation as a volunteer organization and showcase what your programs truly have to offer.

After a volunteer leaves a review or completes an evaluation about your program, they’ll officially become an alumni, so a whole new set of engagement strategies should kick in. When setting up a volunteer program you should consider also creating an alumni Facebook group, monthly email newsletter, or any other form of engagement with your alumni to continue to update them about what your organization is doing, the progress of their placements, and to offer them special deals to come back to volunteer with you again.

It never hurts to have a herd of people on your side when you’re looking to increase volunteer enrollment or raise funds for a project.

Do you know how to start a volunteer program now?

how to start a volunteer program
A successful volunteer program will leave all parties smiling.

After reading these eight key tips on how to develop a volunteer program, you should be ready to get started! All the work you’ll put in to volunteer program development will be worth it in the end. You’ll see dozens of volunteers personally impacted by their experiences with you, and make meaningful impacts on local communities too. What could be better!?

If you have more questions about how to start a volunteer program, feel free to reach out to us!

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