“Our website, word of mouth and community booths are our 3 biggest channels of recruitment to the program.”
Gaggle Mail, the makers of your favourite group email tool, help people build better communities by giving them access to software tools that enhance member engagement. However, building strong communities isn’t accomplished through technology alone. A lot of creative thinking, planning, strategizing and socializing go on behind the scenes to help communities grow.
For this reason, Gaggle Mail is on a mission to bring you educational stories that are sure to inspire community leaders to build bigger and stronger groups.
Today, Gaggle Mail was fortunate enough to chat with Nicole Volesky, the Community Engagement and Events Specialist over at Southwest Transplant Alliance (Organ.org).
Let’s jump into the interview below.
Hi and thank you for joining us today to chat with our readers about the management of your volunteer program. Many of our readers manage small to large communities, so it will be great to chat with you today about how you manage yours! Can you kick off the interview by telling us a little bit more about what STA (organ.org) does and how your volunteer program ties into that?
Southwest Transplant Alliance is one of 58 federally designated organ procurement organizations in the United States that acts as a bridge between those who would like to donate their organs, and those who are in need of a life saving transplant. OPO’s also oversee community education, and donor family after care within their service area, and that is where the volunteers come in. Our volunteers will help us put together donor family care packages to send to families after their family member has become an organ donor, our volunteers also are pivotal in community education about organ donation. Many, if not all, of our volunteers have some sort of personal connection to organ donation—whether their loved one was an organ donor, one of their family members received a transplant, or they themselves have received a live saving transplant, they are an incredibly passionate group of people that simply want to educate the community about organ donation and get more people signed up to the registry to potentially be organ donors.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the early days of your volunteer program? What were some of your biggest obstacles or mistakes early on and how did you overcome them?
The early days of the program started out with a small group of dedicated people that just wanted to give their time to this organization and a cause that they cared about. Our first volunteer coordinator came from another OPO with a volunteer program, so she started to lay the structure, communicate and put in place a volunteer management system.
Some of the early obstacles were that we didn’t gather quite enough volunteer feedback as to how the structure would run best, for example, our service area is quite disjointed, and when splitting out the areas, our first volunteer coordinator split the areas into regions that weren’t as easy for the volunteers to work within as she thought they would be. We also put in place a volunteer management system, but it didn’t quite have the necessary functionality that would work best for our volunteers needs, and wasn’t very user friendly for our volunteers so if they wanted to volunteer they typically would have to reach out to us directly instead of signing themselves up on the management software. Our team was only one person back then, and they were the one to set up most of the volunteer activities within our service area. However, because our service area touches nearly every corner of Texas, and our headquarters is just in Dallas, we could have benefitted from relying on the volunteers more to engage in their specific regions. We simply didn’t have the same visibility into those areas that they did.
When I took over the program, we were finding that not many of our volunteers utilized the volunteer management software. They were not very engaged, as many of the opportunities were just in Dallas, and we weren’t doing much in the way of appreciation or engagement activities. Similarly, they weren’t the stakeholders in the program like they should be, so we could barely find volunteers to cover the activities we were putting out there. To overcome some of these things, I decided to overhaul most of the program, and am still in the midst of many of those changes. First, I put in a user-friendly volunteer management software in place, which has an easy to use app which our volunteers have been able to access and sign up for activities on.
Then I started to develop a volunteer leadership structure to help us engage in the regions. We are still in the testing stages of this, but so far have seen a lot of interest. We started with a Team Lead, that oversees the volunteers in their region, an Engagement Lead, who scouts and schedules activities for our volunteers to be apart of, and a Social Media Advocate, for those with health restrictions that prevent them from working events in the community. These volunteers can be ones to create content like blogs, videos and social media posts to educate the public in organ donation.
I also started quarterly volunteer engagement opportunities where all our volunteers can come together, meet each other, and volunteer on a big group activity together. Our volunteers have been incredibly excited about these changes and we are working towards increasing engagement quite significantly.
We are also putting our volunteer training online for each of the volunteer leadership roles, as well as new volunteer orientation so that we can onboard new volunteers much quicker, and so our seasoned volunteers can take refresher courses on new information about organ donation to engage the community with.
Today, what are your top three channels for onboarding new volunteers (website, paid ads, word of mouth etc)? How do most people find out about your volunteer program?
Our website, word of mouth and community booths are our 3 biggest channels of recruitment to the program. Many people come to the program having some connection to the organ donation world, so they know about our organization from receiving a transplant through STA, or their family member being a donor, and are passionate about it from the start. But we have also seen many people come up to booths we have in the community about organ donation, and really be interested in the work we do and want to get involved. Then also, we are involved in Voly.org that puts volunteer opportunities out into the community for people who would like to volunteer to sign up, and have seen some interest from there as well.
What advice would you give to other startup organizations looking to drive awareness to their volunteer program?
I find that most people aren’t as interested in the work you do as they are in why you do it, and this is one thing I believe our volunteers have mastered. The primary way we tell them to educate the community about organ donation is through their personal stories and connections to it. As I mentioned, many of our volunteers have a connection to this mission already, and when a person in the community with no connection to organ donation hears a personal story about how a life was saved through someone’s incredible gift of life through organ donation, something touches their heart and they want to be involved. Look for relevant places that you can set up an informational booth about your organization and tell the community why you do what you do–it’s all about the why!
How much thought and effort goes into planning the volunteer experience?
I’m sure ensuring volunteers enjoy their time with you is important. Tell us a bit more about what’s involved in experience planning.
A lot of thought! I try to ask questions about what our volunteers enjoy and how they like to serve the most and create activities and programs that allow them to serve in that way. I also do my best to make sure they know they are appreciated. Recently I sent out a small gift to every volunteer who participated with us this last year. it was a simple sunflower cube pot where they could grow their own sunflower, with a little engraving on the side that said “Thank you for your commitment and dedication to helping us grow!” We have a smaller volunteer program so I was able to do that within my budget, but I have also worked for volunteer programs where the budget is significantly smaller and I’ve served 3 times the amount of volunteers. With those organizations, I would simply look at the resources available to me and go on YouTube or Pinterest to find a cute little token of my appreciation that didn’t cost much. For example, I had a large amount of colored paper going unused, so I found a YouTube video showing me how to create a small gift bag from a piece of paper. I simply printed on the paper “You Are Worth More than Gold to us!”, folded it into the small little gift bag and filled it with Rolo candies as the “gold,” then held a little potluck where they could all get together, bring their favorite dish, share fun stories and we could give them a little gift of thanks. These small little touches mean a lot to volunteers and you can often find something to do for cheap if you have a smaller budget to work with.
Can you tell us a little bit more about how you go about planning volunteer activities / work? How much work is it behind the scenes to run a successful volunteer program?
Our volunteer team is small, it’s often just me as the primary volunteer coordinator, and I have two other co-workers that help where needed, so I do my best to delegate anything I can to my volunteers. I came from working at Girl Scouts so luckily I had a rich background of how to run a volunteer program with limited resources, and learned what was feasible to delegate. That is why the volunteer leadership structure is so important. We have legacy events that we are a part of nearly every year, but for our regions, I am working to depend a lot more on our volunteers to find and suggest events that we can be involved in, and then take the lead on putting those together. Our service area covers Texarkana, El Paso, Wichita Falls, Corpus Christi, Galveston and Beaumont, a large swaths of cities in between those, with headquarters in Dallas, so we have a lot of outlying areas that are dependent on local knowledge of the activities in those areas where we can be involved. Our volunteer leadership structure also increases engagement as the volunteers become automatic stakeholders in the program, as they are the ones creating opportunities for themselves in these areas, and they are more engaged because of that ownership. The work behind the scenes for me is really upkeep and training. I have a volunteer newsletter that I send out bi-weekly with opportunities and updates, as well as pictures of our volunteers in action, and I manage moving our volunteers through the onboarding process and the backend of the volunteer management system, as well as a co-worker that assists in finding activities in the community for us to be involved in. I try to keep a culture of openness with our volunteers where they know that their voice matters and is heard, and they are very willing to offer suggestions and support, and have an understanding that they have the ability to make this program what they want it to be. For example, we have processes for requesting events in their areas, and even a letter on our letterhead they can submit to a business to request to have a table or booth outside their business or at their event.
What advice would you give to other organizations thinking about starting a volunteer program? What are some of the most common oversights that organizations make early in their programs and how can these mistakes be avoided?
I would say the best thing you can do for your program is listen to your volunteers and their wants/needs and establish a consistent communication platform. Create opportunities for them to take ownership in the program, because when they are the stakeholders it makes your job a lot easier and keeps them a lot happier and engaged as everyone loves to know their voice is heard, especially when you are giving your time to this organization. Had we started off really asking the volunteers what they think might work and building our program around that, it may have been better than deciding on a plan that we thought might work but failed in practice.
Also having a consistent place for communication is critical and something I’m honestly still reigning in in my own program as, in the beginning, we had a couple different modes of communication: Facebook group, emails and some volunteers that would only respond to a personal phone call. This has made my job a bit harder as I’m having to post the same message in a couple different formats, whereas, had we started the volunteer newsletter in the beginning and got them used to that as the primary mode of communication, then we would be able to get our message out consistently and wouldn’t have to repeat ourselves so many times. I would also suggest, if you are able to implement volunteer leadership, that this is something you can delegate and train your volunteers on. Have one person in that region that you can communicate to, and they are in charge of making sure the volunteers in their area are in the know, whether they communicate through text, phone or an app like Gaggle Mail, they can adjust it to what the volunteers in their area prefer.
Tell us a little bit more about your volunteer engagement strategy. How do you keep people engaged and excited to remain part of your community? What specific communication processes do you have in place to ensure everyone is on the same page all of the time?
I’ve kind of mentioned this a couple times, and maybe because it is such a big part of the success of our program, but volunteer leadership—allowing our volunteers to take ownership of this program really ups engagement. Also, getting them together for events, having them meet each other and share stories is incredibly engaging for them, and of course, making sure they know they are appreciated through tokens of appreciation like the little sunflowers boxes we had sent out. We also depend on the volunteer newsletter, and our announcements in our Facebook Group and Volunteer Impact landing page to communicate anything pressing or pertinent.
Specifically, what email communication strategies to do you use to help your volunteers stay “in the know”. Do you send monthly newsletters or other forms of emails that are designed around a specific purpose? If so, what are the primary objectives of those emails?
I send a bi-weekly newsletter to our active volunteers with a small update at the top with a theme. I just sent one yesterday and our theme was “Advocating for Organ Donation in the Era of COVID-19” and we gave them ways they could still advocate for organ donation and educate their communities from their couch. Then I will include a list of active upcoming activities that they can volunteer for in Volunteer Impact, which is the primary reason for the email, so if they are not getting into the volunteer software regularly, they still know what events are posted that they can be involved in. Another objective of this email is to motivate and encourage them in their volunteer service, so we add pictures of volunteers out in the community serving with us, sometimes we’ll add encouraging stories and we also include current numbers of those on the organ transplant waiting list (so they can see the scale of need for this work) and the current number of Texans that are signed up as organ donors (so they can see how they are making an impact).
Can you tell us a little bit more about your volunteer onboarding process? From the first time a potential volunteer finds out about you to the first time they begin volunteering, what onboarding or training processes do you have in place to make the process as streamlined and efficient as possible?
Great question, this is something I am working on at this very moment! When I came on staff with STA I put in place a new volunteer software that completely changed the way we onboarded to make it MUCH more efficient. Before, you would send in your application, we would have to email you a paper background check that you would have to print and send it to us, which then we would deliver to our HR dept to run the background check and get back to us (usually taking about a week), then we would let you know about our upcoming orientations which was a live webinar held typically on a Tuesday evening once a month.
This was NOT efficient, and it was something I made sure to look into when I was searching for a new volunteer management software. Now, with Volunteer Impact, you are simply sent a link (or click the one posted on our website) to our volunteer application, where you are prompted to create a username and password in our volunteer management system, then asked to fill out the application to volunteer for our organization. After you submit this application, it automatically sends the volunteer an email thanking them for their application submission, and asks them to please fill out a background check with Sterling Volunteers, via the link provided in that email. I get a notification when an application comes in, and if I don’t get a notification from Sterling Volunteers with confirmation that a volunteer has completed their background check within a couple days (they sometimes take only a day to complete a background check for us if a volunteer fills it out right away), then I will remind the volunteer to complete the background check. If the background check comes back “Consider” I may ask that volunteer for additional information, but if it comes back “Clear,” I will email that volunteer to ask them to attend our new volunteer orientation webinar. Currently they are live webinars held once a month, but as of April 1st, I should have a new volunteer orientation video recorded and posted online, and I will be able to automatically assign that course to anyone in our system, which they can then take at their leisure. When they’ve completed orientation I send them a follow up email with our media release and confidentiality form which they can print out, sign, take a picture and send to me, and I set them to “active” in our system, so they are able to see all of the volunteer opportunities available for them to sign up for in our volunteer management system.
Lastly, if you could go back in time and start your volunteer program over again, what are three things you would do differently and why?
If I had been the one to start it, I think the first thing I would do is hold brainstorming sessions with our volunteers, to really understand how best they can engage their communities. I would then ask for feedback on what they would like in a volunteer management system, and search for a product that worked best for their needs, and not one that simply worked for our purposes. I would also have put in place the volunteer leadership structure from the beginning so there was a culture of ownership and each felt like stakeholders in the incredible work that we are accomplishing together.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with Gaggle Mail today! The Organ.org story is truly inspiring and I’m sure our readers will have taken many actionable insights away from this interview. To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about Organ.org you can follow them on Twitter or head over to their website here.