10 Secrets to Successful Volunteer Management Abroad

Wondering how to manage volunteers successfully? We’ve got the inside scoop for you! ☆ As a non profit, volunteers are vital to ensuring your organization can function effectively, doing incredible work in all areas of the nonprofit sector. As such, successful volunteer management is essential to ensure both parties get the most out of each other. 

Group of people standing in the woods
Your organization and your volunteers will make the most of their time together through successful volunteer management.

Volunteer management encompasses all processes in place, from recruiting volunteers, to overseeing the projects they work on. It also includes ensuring that volunteers are motivated, working effectively, and have a positive experience with your organization.

Managing volunteers abroad is conceptually similar, but fundamentally different, to managing regular office staff. It’s the same idea, but volunteers are paying for the experience, rather than getting paid for their work.

This makes successful volunteer management vital. It will ensure that volunteers’ expectations are met, and that they contribute effectively to your organization. That’s all fine and good, but it still begs the question: how do I manage volunteers successfully? Don’t worry—we have some tips for you.

10 tips for successful volunteer management

1. Set SMART goals

First, consider the role volunteers play within your organization, and set SMART goals related to successful volunteer management.

For example, why do you want to improve your volunteer management; what will a more successful volunteer management plan do for your organization? Are you trying to increase numbers of volunteers? Increase positive reviews of your program or overall volunteer satisfaction? To improve your outreach work? Or to work more effectively?

SMART goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

Example of a SMART goal: By December 2019, we will increase the number of communities we work with from 7 to 10.

If you want to know how to manage volunteers successfully, SMART goals are a huge step in the right direction. Effective goal-setting saves time and sets clear expectations for your organizational staff, thereby optimizing your volunteer programming.

2. Recruit effectively 

Consider this: Does your recruitment process exist simply to fill gaps? Or is it geared to making the most out of each volunteer?

Be strategic and ask early on in the application process for a volunteer’s skills, interests, and experiences. Use this information to give the volunteer a role well-suited for them, thus using the volunteer to their highest potential instead of assigning jobs arbitrarily.

Assigning volunteers to roles they are not skilled in or particularly interested in reduces productivity and means a higher turnover in volunteers, which is a drain on resources. Volunteers are more likely to review the program positively and work harder if their placement is relevant in some way to their experience or interests. 

You don’t need to turn any volunteers away; however, recruitment processes should enable your organization to utilize any skills volunteers may come with. For example, even if someone applies for a voluntary teaching position, their marketing experience may be something you can use—have them take over the organization’s social media management!

3. Create specific volunteer roles

When you hire paid staff, they have a specific job description. So why shouldn’t this also apply to your volunteers?

Creating defined roles for volunteers will clarify exactly what the volunteer’s role is, helping your organization to run effectively. Be clear with volunteers about what is expected from them, the goals for their placement, and where this fits into the overarching missions of the organization.

Part of managing volunteers abroad is to manage expectations. Volunteers who come overseas to work for non profits often have huge ideas of what they will do and the impact they will make, becoming frustrated when they feel their role is too small, or conversely, trying to do too much. This can result in low satisfaction, poor reviews and unmotivated volunteers!

That’s where effective job descriptions come in. The key is, if possible, providing specific tasks that accurately portray what the volunteer will be doing throughout their placement. These should, of course, feed into the overarching goals of your organization.

Components of an effective volunteer job description:

  • Mission. State the overarching goals of the organization they are working for.
  • Project or position. State the goal of the volunteer’s role and how it contributes to the organization’s mission.
  • Tasks. Describe specifically what you want the volunteer to be doing while on placement.
  • Skills. Write the skills a volunteer will need to work in this role, whether its communication, team work, construction or graphic design.
  • Training. If volunteers will require training while on placement detail what that entails.

4. Be honest in your listings

When it comes to how to manage volunteers successfully, it is vital to strike a balance between being marketable, and being honest. 

For example, you might initially gain more applications and volunteers by listing your volunteer placement as ‘’Work Directly with Elephants…’’ even though in reality a volunteer may just be cleaning out enclosures once a week.

Beware: this approach will backfire in the form of negative reviews, low volunteer retention, and a lack of volunteer motivation—thus harming your volunteer management capabilities, and setting your organization back in reaching your goals. 

Set realistic expectations for volunteer programs in order to improve on volunteer satisfaction, get those all-important positive reviews, and ensure your volunteers are working effectively.

Remember: Being marketable is important, but so is being truthful…especially if you want to succeed at nonprofit volunteer management.

Kettles over a fire
Being transparent about the volunteer experience you provide is essential to successful volunteer management.

5. Don’t skip the cultural orientation!

At the beginning of an overseas volunteering program, most organizations will provide an orientation to volunteers about where they will be staying, and about the work they will be doing. 

The vital part that many skip is an orientation into the cultural context they will be living and working in. As a result, volunteers are caught unaware by cultural differences, and find themselves overwhelmed by living and working in a completely foreign environment.

Consider providing an orientation with introductions to:

  • Using local public transport
  • Shopping at markets (and if haggling is involved)
  • Basic greetings in the local language
  • Conversations about decency in public and opinions on sensitive topics such as religion and homosexuality
  • Local etiquette and customs

Helping volunteers to understand local context will prepare them right off the bat and minimize culture shock. Also, understanding local ways of life and customs will enable volunteers to be well-received in the communities they are working with, making their work much more effective.

6. Acknowledge and appreciate your volunteers 

Volunteers need to know they are valued, and that their work is making (or has made) an impact. Doing so increases enthusiasm for your organization and the program, ensuring they continue to do great work for you both when on placement and in the future, perhaps becoming donors or return volunteers. 

There are many ways to make your volunteers feel appreciated. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Feature them on your social media streams and explain the impact their project has made
  • Include volunteers and their achievements in newsletters
  • Write down specific ways volunteers have made an impact or things they have achieved, and mention these acts when thanking them
  • Appreciate your volunteers by giving them something branded, such as a team t-shirt or keychain, along with a personalized thank you note!

Relatively small acts of appreciation can really make a difference when it comes to volunteers and their continued relationship with your organization.

7. Develop program policies and procedures

If you want to practice effective nonprofit volunteer management, you will need clear policies and procedures. Policies and procedures refer to specific courses of action in situations, or just general expectations of volunteers.

Your volunteer program needs policies and procedures that will protect its volunteers and staff. Smaller organizations may shy away from this due to perceived transparency, but it’s an important component when considering volunteer management. 

Perhaps the cultural context the volunteer will be working in has a very negative view towards alcohol or smoking. In that case, you should formalize policies that prohibit volunteers from engaging in such activities.

Doing so improves volunteer management by making your volunteer program look much more organized, and ensuring your volunteers are well-received in the local area. Furthermore, having a set of policies will keep volunteers from negative situations; for example, setting a curfew.

8.  Evaluate your volunteers!

Volunteers go abroad to work for non profit organizations for many reasons. Maybe it’s out of a desire to do good, maybe for the work experience, or for travel experience.

But you have a job to do, and volunteers have signed up to do that job. As when you are managing paid staff, there needs to be systems of evaluation for volunteers to ensure they are doing the work to an acceptable standard. 

Set goals, set deadlines, set up a mid-phase review, and if you are having any issues with a volunteer not working to a desirable level, schedule a meeting and talk about it. Successful volunteer management means identifying issues and addressing them.

Refer to your job description (tip #3!) to explain where a volunteer is failing to do what they promised they would do when they took the role. 

Volunteers may not understand just how important their role is to the mission of your organization, so having this conversation should help them understand that by not working to the desired level, a volunteer is ultimately derailing your goals!

Volunteers who are not pulling their weight are wasting your organization’s time and resources, so don’t be afraid to evaluate their performance.

Small structure on mountainside with mural
Evaluating your volunteers isn’t only good for you, it’s good for them too! Coaching and encouraging volunteers will help them with self-awareness and skill-building.

9. Meaningful communication

Frequent communication with volunteers is key to the volunteer management process.  It enables any problems to be quickly identified and solved, and fosters a deeper relationship with volunteers, increasing their satisfaction in the program and their likelihood to continue supporting the organization post-placement. 

Successful volunteer management will ensure volunteers feel like part of the organization, so communicate frequently—not just when there are problems to discuss!

Foster a working relationship with volunteers, understand how they are feeling, and get frequent feedback on their work activities. You could consider assigning a volunteer coordinator to be the main point of contact.  

Dependant on your organization, you should try different communication channels, from Whatsapp to Facebook to Gmail. Ensure to remain consistent with communication.

Think about setting up a sort of “alumni group” to allow current volunteers to communicate with former volunteers. They may be able to offer invaluable advice!

10. Make volunteers personal growth a priority

Yes, volunteers come to work for your organization; however, the benefits must flow two ways.

As a 2019 article by Joanne Fritz about the volunteers of today explores, you should provide opportunities for volunteers to learn new skills or about new topics. 

On an overseas volunteer program, there are plenty of ways to do this, from learning to cook local foods to allowing them more control over the project they are working on! 

During the volunteer’s initial orientation, have them write down some personal goals they hope to achieve over the duration of the program, and check in regularly for progress.

Learning how to manage volunteers successfully takes time and patience

…But it can be done! These 10 tips will provide you with a solid launching point in your quest for successful volunteer management, so take a few (or all) for a test drive. And make sure to take the time to analyze your current volunteer management strategy and identify where you can improve.

Goal-setting, providing clear expectations, and consistent communication are all vital components in creating an environment where volunteers feel inspired to work—and to work effectively. Successful volunteer management might be just THAT easy.

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This article was contributed by Alex Khela, Living Music Foundation.

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