Volunteering and its impact on mental health

Volunteering helps all

In our world, mental health is gaining recognition as a significant global concern.

In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) way back in 2017 stated depression was the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. And that was before the Covid pandemic.

Since then, rates of depression and other mental health issues have increased by 25%. That statistic carries profound implications, not only for healthcare professionals but also for leaders of volunteers. Depression isn't merely a personal struggle, but a societal issue with globe-spanning implications. Communities and organizations alike need to operate proactively to deal with it.

Concerning as these stats are, however, there may be a silver lining. Leaders of volunteers can use them as a compelling narrative to attract volunteers. There are mental health benefits to volunteering. Numerous studies have consistently linked volunteering to improved well-being, including reduced stress, increased feelings of happiness and fulfillment, and enhanced self-esteem.

By emphasizing how volunteering can positively impact mental health, leaders can attract individuals who are not only passionate about making a difference but who are also seeking personal growth and well-being.

When you craft your role postings, underscore the connection between volunteering and mental health.

Highlight the fact a volunteering opportunity can not only make a meaningful impact on the lives of others, but also provide depression-fighting benefits such as reduced anxiety and increased resilience. That can appeal to individuals who are may be suffering from the effects of isolation.

Aligning recruitment initiatives with the WHO information allows organizations to tap into a growing pool of individuals passionate about mental health advocacy. As public awareness of issues around depression increases, so does the desire to take meaningful action.

By positioning volunteer opportunities within the context of addressing the health risks of depression, organizations can appeal to individuals who are eager to make a difference in this critical area and experience the mental health benefits of volunteering firsthand.

Another effective strategy is to tailor volunteer roles to promote mental well-being.

While still focusing on their missions, organizations can create opportunities for volunteers to engage in activities that foster connection, resilience, and emotional support within their communities and for themselves.

Whether it's facilitating support groups, organizing wellness workshops, or providing companionship to those in need, volunteering can be a powerful tool for building community for both clients and volunteers.

Fostering a supportive and inclusive volunteer community is essential not only for long-term engagement and retention, but also for decreasing feelings of depression in volunteers and the community. Providing training, mentorship, and ongoing support ensures volunteers feel valued and equipped to make a meaningful difference in addressing mental health challenges. Creating opportunities for volunteers to connect with one another, share experiences, and celebrate achievements creates a sense of belonging that can go a long way toward fighting depression.

You can also leverage digital platforms and social media to amplify your message.

Creating social media content that highlights the connection between volunteerism and reduced incidents of depression can resonate with online audiences, who can often feel isolated. Utilizing targeted social media campaigns can also help reach individuals who may be passionate about mental health but are unaware of volunteer opportunities within their community.

Finally, emphasizing the personal and professional development benefits of volunteering can attract individuals who are seeking meaningful experiences. Highlighting how volunteering can enhance skills such as active listening, empathy, and crisis intervention not only appeals to potential volunteers but also demonstrates the value of their contributions to the organization's mission.

The WHO's information presents a significant opportunity.

As leaders of volunteers, you can increase recruitment efforts effectively and have a direct effect on the world-wide mental health crisis. By aligning volunteer opportunities with the ability to address mental health challenges, fostering a supportive volunteer community, and other actions, organizations can attract passionate individuals eager to make a difference in the community while also experiencing personal growth and well-being.

This can be a win-win situation. We can create a future where mental well-being is prioritized, supported, and celebrated through volunteering.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Maximize your impact in volunteer programs

Use the '80-20 rule'

Most leaders of volunteers have a great deal to do with very little time.

The key to making this work is to maximize your impact with the actions you take. A great way to achieve this is by leveraging the “80-20 rule”, also known as the Pareto Principle. This principle suggests roughly 80% of results come from 20% of the effort.

When looking at volunteer engagement, that means a significant portion of your impact in the program often stems from a limited number of the actions you take. Understanding the 80-20 rule can help you focus in on those specific actions and thus drive greater impact within your organization with less effort. Here are a few ways to do that.

Identify key priorities

We often find ourselves juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities. Applying the 80-20 rule can help you identify the key priorities that will yield the most significant results. By focusing on the critical 20% of tasks that contribute to 80% of the program's success, leaders can allocate their time and resources more effectively. This might involve streamlining administrative processes, optimizing volunteer recruitment strategies, or strengthening partnerships with key stakeholders.

Invest in high-impact activities

Just as certain volunteers contribute disproportionately to the overall impact of a program (you probably have a few superstars), certain actions taken by leaders can have outsized effects on volunteer engagement and satisfaction. Figure out which of your activities have the most significant influence on volunteer retention, motivation, and performance. Whether it's providing personalized mentorship, timely recognition, or implementing creative training initiatives, investing extra time and resources in these high-impact activities can lead to more engaged and committed volunteers.

Empower and develop key volunteers

You, as a leader, play a crucial role in empowering and developing volunteers to reach their full potential. By focusing on the top 20% of volunteers who demonstrate exceptional commitment and capability, you can provide targeted support and opportunities for growth. This may involve assigning them leadership roles, offering specialized training or mentorship, or involving them in decision-making processes. By investing in the development of high-potential volunteers, you not only strengthen your overall volunteer base but also cultivate future leaders who can drive the mission forward.

Be strategic with delegation and collaboration

Let’s face it, you just can’t do everything yourself without burning out. Leaders of volunteers should strategically delegate tasks and collaborate with key stakeholders—including volunteers —to leverage their strengths and resources. By focusing on the 20% of activities that align with your expertise and leadership skills, you can free up time to focus on high-impact initiatives. That will involve delegating some less impactful tasks to support staff or key volunteers. You could even partner with other organizations to pool resources and expertise. That will allow you to maximize your impact and achieve greater results with limited resources.

Focus on continuous improvement through feedback

Foster open communication channels with volunteers, soliciting their feedback and ideas for improvement. Volunteers often have valuable insights and perspectives that can inform decision-making and shape the direction of your volunteer program. They are the ones with “boots on the ground”. This may involve conducting regular surveys, holding feedback sessions, or establishing advisory committees comprised of top volunteers. By actively listening to their input, you demonstrate respect for their contributions and strengthen their commitment to the organization.

But how do I know which actions have the greatest impact?

It’s not always obvious, is it? I do have a few tips.

• Set clear objectives—What do you want to see in your program? What actions will help you reach those objectives?

• Collect and analyze data—Send out surveys to your volunteers to find out what makes them feel valued and supported. What shift reminders work the best?

• Identify key performance indicators—How will you know if what you’re doing is having an impact? Write these down and check them often.

• Experiment and adapt—Chances are you won’t figure it out right away. Be willing to try things and adjust if they don’t work.

Don’t neglect the other 80%

While focusing on the top 20% of your actions and volunteers is essential, it's also important to continue with the remaining 80%. Although each one may not contribute as significantly on an individual basis, collectively they still play a vital role in supporting the program. They still do need attention and investment, but they don’t need the same amount. Delegating these responsibilities can be a great way of empowering your key volunteers. That way everything gets done, but you still free up your time to focus on high-impact actions.

The 80-20 rule offers you the chance to streamline your volunteer program and helps you maximize your impact. By focusing on the critical 20% of tasks, activities, and volunteers that drive the majority of results, you can allocate your resources more effectively and achieve greater success. Whether it's identifying key priorities, investing in high-impact activities, or empowering top volunteers, applying the principles of the 80-20 rule thoughtfully and strategically, leaders of volunteers can build stronger, more effective volunteer programs that drive positive change in their communities.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Tips for successful 'onboarding' of new volunteers

Welcoming volunteers

Perhaps no step in the process of the volunteer lifecycle is as undervalued as “onboarding” new volunteers.

We often put a great deal of time and energy into recruiting and scheduling volunteers, but onboarding? (the process of bringing volunteers into an organization)? Instead of seeing this time as an opportunity to build a relationship with, and anchor the passion and dedication of, new volunteers, most organizations use onboarding and training time simply as a chance to “fire-hose” novices with rules, material and information that’s forgotten before it can ever be used. It shouldn’t be that way.

A solid onboarding process can make sure new volunteers feel like a valued part of the team, right from day one. This is your opportunity to show them that they made the right decision in joining your organization— to make them feel comfortable with the culture and capable of handling the role they have taken on. It also confirms in their minds that, with you, they can make a difference.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

I’ve said this many times. Before you even start recruiting, make sure you have a plan in place for when the volunteers start showing up. Talk to your current volunteers to get ideas on what they wished they had known when they started. What suggestions do they have for easing a new volunteer into the program? Which pieces of information need to be provided up front, and which can be fed to them over time? Discover which of your seasoned pros is willing to be a mentor. Create an onboarding schedule.

Let them shine

Provide an opportunity for everyone in the group, including the new volunteer, to share their backgrounds. Let them highlight the skills, knowledge and life experiences that they bring to the team. It’s like a mini ice-breaker session, but with the very specific purpose of making the new person feel welcome and valued. Encourage the whole team to share, but let your novice be the star, fielding questions about their particular expertise.

Onboarding new volunteers is about more than just throwing information at them

Orientation and training tends to devolve to a day of being (inundated) with information, and then being given a 50-page handbook that reiterates (and sometimes conflicts with) that same information. The new volunteer is taking in a ton of information at once, and it may all be foreign to him or her. Let’s face it, reading or listening to a long list of information is only useful for curing insomnia.

There are a few different ways to solve this. Try creating visuals—organizational charts, infographics, you name it—to help them wrap their heads around all that detail. Videos are great, too. Short videos (five minutes maximum) on very specific topics, especially about topics volunteers tend to have challenges with. Don't forget storytelling. We are hardwired to learn from stories.

Don’t rush role-specific training

When it comes to role-specific training, timing is key. While there are certainly role-specific tasks the volunteer will need to learn quickly, it’s important that her or she first buy into the culture and values of your organization.

While some of that buy-in will have taken place before the person even decided to volunteer with you (otherwise they wouldn’t have stepped forward), I recommend you give the volunteer a little time to get the feel of the organization and the people they will be serving with. Then, gradually add tasks and introduce specific training as they start settling in.

And don’t stop there

Check in regularly with the new volunteer. Ask them how things are going. Do they have any questions or if there’s anything they’re struggling to understand? Ask them to share with you how they’re fitting in. Are there any barriers they are experiencing? Do they have any suggestions for improving things?

Make sure they feel comfortable asking questions, and show them you’re happy to answer them—even if you have already given them the information. No one can remember everything. In other words, reward their desire to do things well.

Remember, the more comfortable the new volunteer feels, the more they’ll get out of the onboarding experience, and the more value they’ll be willing and able to provide.

Pro tip: Those regular check-ins, they’re not just for the onboarding period. They’re a crucial part of creating an environment where feedback flows freely. Continue them throughout every volunteer’s time with you.

Effectively onboarding new volunteers is more than just a checklist. It’s a long-term strategic process aimed at integrating volunteers seamlessly into your program. By prioritizing advance preparation, learning, and ongoing support, you can lay the groundwork for long-term success and effective volunteer engagement.

Make onboarding a priority, and show volunteers that you will invest in them as much or more than they are investing in you.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Picking the best way to use volunteers

The best volunteer impact

One of my previous careers was as a benchwork joiner. That means I have been trained to build custom furniture.

During my training, an instructor gave us a piece of information that stuck with me. He said, “There are three attractive aspects to any job, but the customer can only pick two.”

The three aspects are fast turnaround time, high-quality work and low price. Think about it. If you want a really high-quality product or service and you want it fast, you’ll have to pay a premium for it. If you want a high-quality item for a low price, your job just won’t be a priority. If you want something low-priced and quickly, you lose out on quality.

Something similar can be said for volunteer programs. One of the aspects is the same—low cost. The other two are a large team and high impact. If you want a lot of volunteers who all make a real impact toward your mission, you will have to invest both time and money into developing and supporting them. If you want volunteers who make an impact, but can’t or don’t want to invest in them, you may find a few good ones, but not many. If you want a lot of volunteers but aren’t going to invest, the impact they’ll have in moving your mission forward will be low.

So, which two does your organization pick? I think you can figure out which scenario I recommend.

Let’s look a bit closer at each of these aspects.

Low cost

Social impact organizations, especially smaller ones, tend to have limited budgets and limited staff. Whether in time, emotional involvement or cold, hard cash building a large, impactful volunteer team, it takes investment—building personal relationships, supervising the team, putting on training and so on. Often, organizations feel they have to ask a staff member, whose main role is something else, to also take charge of the volunteers.

These people usually have little time or energy to spare to build relationships and create trust with the volunteers, so they fall back on building systems that save them time.

The position of leader of volunteers is a leadership position. In most organizations I’ve seen, the leader of volunteers is in charge of more people than anyone else in the organization except the CEO or executive director and yet, it's often felt necessary to resort to having someone do it off the corner of their desk with an almost non-existent budget.

Large team

I firmly believe in quality over quantity. That said, it is important to have enough volunteers to actually get things done. In a previous column (A sea of volunteers), I talked about the impact an organization could have if it had an almost unlimited supply of volunteers. How many more clients could it help, or beaches could it clean? What new programs could it initiate if it had more volunteers to help? What issues falling through the cracks could you now tackle? While it is vital to have good volunteers, not just warm bodies, even superstar volunteers can only accomplish so much in a given period of time. Most organizations need more than just a handful of volunteers, especially if they want to make a real impact.

High impact

This, of course, is the reason our organizations exist—to make an impact in our communities or the world. Having volunteers, even lots of them, doesn’t necessarily lead to impact. Piling up volunteer hours is great but if those hours are spent doing unimportant work, you won’t make much of a difference. To have impact, it’s important to have volunteers do work that matters. That takes thinking strategically and having a program that runs smoothly with as little red tape as possible. Volunteers need to know what they’re supposed to be doing, how to do it and why it matters. When volunteers are standing around wondering what to do, or doing “make-work” projects, you will gain hours but not impact.

Years ago, I volunteered at an art gallery. I applied, did the training then showed up for my first shift. The person I reported to looked at me blankly. She had no idea I was coming and had nothing for me to do. She gave me some make-work stuff. Fair enough; it was the first shift, obviously there was a communications mix-up. Except that happened on my second shift, too. When it happened on my third shift, I turned around and left.

One very capable and experienced volunteer (if I do say so myself!, eight hours and zero impact.

So, those are the three aspects of a volunteer program. Pick two.

As a leader of volunteers, I suspect you would make the same choice that I do. Will your board or executive, though? And if their choice is different than yours, what will you do? This is where you need to learn to advocate. Find ways to demonstrate the value of investing in the volunteer program.

The leaders of the organization want impact as much as you do. That’s not a hard sell. You need to show that having more volunteers will increase that impact, but only if those volunteers are invested in, with both time and money.

Help your organization pick the two aspects that will make a difference in the world. Good luck.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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