Contributed by Caroline Contillo
Many organizations rely on volunteers in order to execute their missions. Keeping volunteers challenged and engaged isn’t easy, but creating a welcoming environment where people feel empowered to contribute can be a huge benefit for a nonprofit. Coming at it from a perspective of building lasting relationships rather than getting free help can help an organization create an amazing volunteer program.
Simply Smiles, Inc. is an organization serving communities in the desolate prairie of an Indian reservation in South Dakota and the remote mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico to provide bright futures for impoverished children, their families, and their communities. They achieve this by providing solutions, such as shelter and medical care, as well as dignity and hope. They achieve this by providing food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, infrastructure, jobs, pride, dignity, hope, and solutions.With a lean permanent staff, they rely on a small group of interns and many, many volunteers to help with construction, planning activities, and engaging with the communities they serve. We asked our friends at Simply Smiles for some advice about how to build relationships with volunteers to maximize their contributions, and keep them coming back in the future.
Q: Why are volunteers so important to your mission?
A: Volunteers are a vital part of providing bright futures for the children in our care at our Simply Smiles Children’s Home in Oaxaca, Mexico. While the children have a safe home in which to live, wonderful food to eat, and a strong support system in our local Mexican staff, our volunteers from all over the world help us t
o provide diverse, fun experiences that the kids would not otherwise regularly receive, with each group of volunteers offering unique activities. Our kids are eager to learn from each individual volunteer and excited to invite volunteers into their daily lives, teach their language, and tell their stories. The connections formed at our program locations are rooted in a compassionate exc
hange of ideas, cultures, and perspectives between our volunteers and the communities with which we partner. Over the years, our volunteer program has created a community of thousands of individuals who are dedicated to helping us enact lasting change for the youth in our care.
Q: How do you manage such a large number of volunteers?
A: We use online planning pages that help us manage all of our volunteers for months in advance of each trip. We use Basecamp for working with volunteer group leaders and Mobilized.org for planning with individual volunteers, both of which we highly recommend. We prioritize planning volunteer trips at least six month in advance. After planning each detail with the group leader or individual volunteer, we have all of the food, construction materials, and supplies ready to go when volunteers arrive. We have each minute
of every day planned to the best of our ability, with multiple backup plans, to make sure that our volunteers’ time and talents are used effectively. With everything in place beforehand, we are confident that our staff people can focus on engaging the volunteers in their work for the week.
Q: What’s your strategy for getting volunteers on board with your organization’s mission?
A: We work hard to tell our story as an organization, and to tell the stories of those we are dedicated to serving. We work hand-in-hand with the community, and at the appropriate pace, to figure out long-term solutions. We work with volunteers to do important, tangible work on the ground. We are very conscious of getting these points across both on our website and in presentations we host for all our volunteer g
roups interested in joining us. We want everyone to be on the same page before the volunteer week so that we are all working toward the same goals.
Q: Is it hard to strike a balance between challenging volunteers with tangible work and engaging everyone at their own level of skill?
A: We always provide work for volunteers of all s
kill levels and are able to do so because we extensively plan for each volunteer week. We have construction projects, opportunities to work with the children on their homework, to help our staff in the kitchen, and more. This is also where volunteers prove to be vital to our organization because every single individual brings a different, unique skill set and we try to utilize these whenever possible. We plan opportunities with our staff in Oaxaca so that all of our volunteers can use their talents effectively in advance of their arrival. Because the staff members who now plan these experiences were volunteers themselves not too long ago, it’s easy to put our
selves in the shoes of a potential volunteer and envision the type of experience that we would want. We plan each volunteer experience with a mindset that everyone involved should leave feeling inspired and empowered.
Q: A lot of volunteer managers find retention to be the most difficult obstacle. What does Simply Smiles do to encourage volunteers to return?
A: We have a high return rate among our volunteers because of our relationship-based philosophy; as an organization, we build friendships as we decide with the community what work needs to be done. We pass this philosophy of partnership on to our volunteers. We also provide an immersive experience where our volunteers are living at our children’s home and working with our kids throughout the day. We
design our volunteer experience so that people can really see their impact in just one week. We emphasize building friendships that grow confidence and self worth; these friendships are the foundation for a bright future. It is because of these relationships that by the end of the week, many of our volunteers are already booking for the following year so that they can continue to deepen their relationships with the children and communities in Mexico.
If your organization currently has a volunteer program, it might be helpful to think about the relationship-based strategy used by Simply Smiles. And if your organization doesn’t yet benefit from the help of volunteers, it’s never too late to place a listing on Idealist! Volunteer listings are always free, and our support staff is always happy to make some recommendations about how to create a great listing that will attract the help your organization needs. To get some inspiration, check out our article on what makes a great volunteer listing!
Interested in learning more about Simply Smiles? For more information about work they do and how to get involved, visit http://www.simplysmiles.org/