Attention Nonprofits: How to Wrangle in Volunteers and Keep Them Happy

Co-founder of nonprofit Practice Makes Perfect startup delves into how focusing on value can help attract volunteers and ensure they will be in it for the long haul.

learn more about Karim Abouelnaga

By Karim Abouelnaga

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Three years ago my nonprofit Practice Makes Perfect -- a New York City-based organization focused on partnering with schools and operating their summer school program in inner-city neighborhoods -- was nothing more than an idea. If we didn't have the help of others, it may have just remained a concept living on a piece of paper.

It took a village, to have it where it's today. Every entrepreneur will tell you that the execution is just as important, if not more important, than the idea itself. The reality is that without a base of other people, building a company is hard, if not impossible. And while many organizations today only exist because of their ability to persuade others to give both their time and effort, it isn't always easy getting people on board.

Startups are high risk and many times offer little reward. That coupled with the fact there is not a huge pot of reserve money lying around makes incentivizing people to take a chance on your startup tricky.

Fortunately, there are ways to engage people in non-monetary ways and speaking from a nonprofit perspective you almost have to in order to thrive.

Whenever I think about motivating people, I like to think about currency (I'm not talking about money). Currency is something you can trade in order to get what you need. Our team has been most successful in leveraging value as our currency. We have been able to pinpoint experiences and provide work that creates value for the person doing it and simultaneously for our organization.

For those nonprofits looking to nab volunteers and keep them on board, here are four ways to do it:

1. Start local. Once you know exactly how you can use volunteers, leverage your social media networks and contacts.

Related: How a NYC Nonprofit Is Working With Businesses to Make the World a Better Place

If you exhausted your closest resources and still need help, start reaching out to universities and local colleges. When you reach out to schools be targeted. Find a department or a professor who teaches in a subject area relevant to your organization's work and reach out to him. Kindly request he send a note out on your behalf asking if anyone is interested in volunteering.

If you still can't find assistance, you can turn to volunteer networks online like VolunteerMatch.

2. Put yourself in the shoes of a possible volunteer. Early on in your organization's development, don't expect volunteers to come in droves looking to offer up their free time. Would you? You are high risk, and you may not exist after one year or let alone six months.

With a limited track record, people will most likely want to start with small time commitments. Let them. With every milestone, more people will be interested in joining your work and those already working with you may even increase their commitment.

Do not make the mistake of turning help away from people who offer it after milestones. I know several early-stage founders who are upset because people snubbed their organization in the early days, when it wasn't receiving attention. Don't be that person. Take help whenever it is offered up.

Related: The Power of Giving Back: How Community Involvement Can Boost Your Bottom Line

3. Not everyone is a self-starter. In an ideal world we would just tell someone to help, and they'd know what to do. The reality is the word "help" can mean a million different things.

To prevent management issues, be very clear about the deliverables and the timeline. Also, create meaningful projects that motivate people to want to assist you. Ask yourself, would you enjoy doing this project?

4. Empower volunteers to take on leadership roles. Managing people can be a time drain if it is not done properly. That is why it is important to invest heavily in your first few volunteers, and make sure they understand your business and enjoy the experience.

After a few months, you can ask them to oversee groups of volunteers. This will significantly enhance productivity and support. Additionally, your volunteers will begin to talk to other people and that will drive more help your way.

What other ways can nonprofits attract volunteers? Let us know in the comments below.

Karim Abouelnaga

Founder of Practice Makes Perfect

Karim Abouelnaga is the founder of Practice Makes Perfect, a benefit corporation that works to narrow the achievement gap for low-income public schools. 

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