How to launch and grow a volunteer program

Tasha Dyson, Volunteer Program Manager at Oklahoma City Zoo

Tasha Dyson, with a background in Biology, stepped into the role of Volunteer Programs Manager at Oklahoma City Zoo in January 2022. Her mission was to breathe new life into and expand the zoo's volunteer management program after the pandemic, using her passion for connecting people with wildlife to spur conservation and action.

Volunteer program overview

In 2023, the OKC Zoo's volunteer management program successfully engaged over 3,000 volunteers across a range of departments. The aim was to involve volunteers in a variety of functions – from animal care and botanical gardens to science and research initiatives, adding depth to the program with unique roles in PR, marketing, and photography.

Where Tasha started

“Our volunteer program, like many community programs, essentially disappeared during the pandemic. At one point, volunteers were not allowed onsite at all.”

Facing post-pandemic challenges, Tasha saw an opportunity to overhaul the program. Reflecting on the successes and failures before the pandemic, she began by redefining the role of volunteers, treating them as essential, unpaid staff and donors. This approach not only made the program more efficient but also laid the groundwork for future growth.

Reflecting and improving volunteer management processes

Tasha's experience shows the importance of continually reflecting on and improving existing processes within your volunteer management program to foster meaningful change. Established practices within your organisation can always be reevaluated and enhanced.

First steps in volunteer management

One of Tasha's first significant moves was to view volunteers as unpaid staff and donors, which helped gain the support of senior leadership who saw the value in this perspective. This strategic framing facilitated leadership buy-in and helped overcome various obstacles.

Starting recruitment for your volunteer program

Tasha underscored the importance of clearly defining the target volunteer profile. By welcoming everyone, including past volunteers, the Zoo managed to set the right expectations and effectively navigate the change management process. She highlighted the advantages of episodic and microvolunteering, drawing in diverse groups for short-term commitments and significantly aiding the program's growth.

Communication and change management in volunteer programs

Maintaining consistent communication was key for Tasha, emphasising the importance of keeping volunteers informed about what's happening within the organisation. This approach helped create a sense of belonging and was crucial for effectively managing challenges as the program expanded.

On-boarding for a volunteer management program

Tasha aimed to streamline the on-boarding process, removing unnecessary barriers, which led to a more diverse group of volunteers. This move towards inclusivity is an important consideration for any organisation looking to improve their volunteer program.

Corporate volunteering

Managing corporate volunteers required a different strategy, focusing on team bonding and integrating them into the existing department structures for efficient management. This tactic highlights the value of leveraging staff expertise in daily volunteer management.

Tasha’s top tips for starting a volunteer program:

  • View volunteers as unpaid staff to effectively leverage existing resources.
  • Connect with other volunteer managers for insights and support.
  • Utilise departmental knowledge for more efficient volunteer management.

Tasha’s pro tips for volunteer program growth:

  • Recruiting volunteers: Be clear about who you're looking for. This clarity will influence where you search for relevant individuals. Also, consider broadening your scope; for example, assess whether specific skills are necessary or can be taught.
  • Communication: Ensure you maintain constant communication to keep volunteers looped in with the organisation's activities. This fosters a team atmosphere and helps reduce turnover.
  • Volunteer retention: Regularly solicit and listen to volunteer feedback to address concerns and continuously improve the program.
  • Getting buy-in: Frame volunteers as unpaid staff and donors to build trust and understanding among leadership.

Tasha's strategic approach, from redefining the volunteer role to embracing episodic volunteering, has not only reinvigorated the Oklahoma City Zoo's volunteer program but also set a blueprint for others aiming to launch and grow their initiatives. By innovating and leveraging existing resources, Tasha has significantly impacted volunteer engagement and organisational success.

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