Along with donors, volunteers are extremely valuable partners for nonprofit organizations. They donate their time and expertise to help drive your mission forward and are an essential well of support. If engaged properly, volunteers can be excellent advocates for your organization over the long term.

Because volunteers are so essential, it’s vital that they have positive experiences with your organization. After all, their experience volunteering with your nonprofit influences not only the retention of that individual volunteer, but whether or not they market your fundraising campaigns on social media, recruit their friends to help out at your next virtual event, or become major-dollar donors in the future.

If you’re not communicating effectively with your volunteers throughout the volunteer life cycle—from recruitment to engagement to follow up—then you’re not doing all you can to maximize volunteer satisfaction and retention. We recommend that you follow these best practices in communicating with your volunteers throughout the life cycle:

  1. Ensure an easy online experience
  2. Reach out before, during, and after events
  3. Recognize volunteers for their support
  4. Make the most of your time apart
  5. Make sure they know how to get more involved

Effective volunteer management can be tricky, but if you follow these best practices, we’re confident you’ll be able to establish long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with an army of volunteers who are passionate about your cause. Let’s get started.

1. Ensure an easy online experience

The volunteer experience often begins on your nonprofit’s website, so that’s where your communication strategy has to begin. Prioritizing clarity on your site will result in the most effective platform for converting potential volunteers into actual volunteers.

For starters, your website should be generally well-designed and intuitive. This means logical navigation, a visually appealing layout, and a clear mission statement/purpose. Cornershop Creative’s list of best nonprofit websites expands on the importance of these essential elements and includes examples that your own site can emulate.

Further, consider the placement of calls to action (CTAs) for volunteers. If the “Get Involved” button is tucked away on a rarely-visited page on your site, you’re probably losing valuable potential supporters. Instead, your CTAs should be prominent, recurring, and smartly placed near emotional appeals and photos of events.

Once your volunteer has located and clicked on a CTA, they’ll likely be taken to a registration page. When you’re deciding on which volunteer management software to invest in, consider ease of use of the registration forms and whether or not the registration data will integrate with the other tools you use. This list of top volunteer management software providers further details what to look for in a good volunteer management tool.

The registration form itself should be as concise as possible; excessively detailed or complicated forms will discourage form completion and, consequently, engagement. Stick to essential information for the required fields, and make less-vital questions (like skills, interests, and experience) optional, or follow up with volunteers later to collect that information in a survey. Remember, you’ll always be able to learn more about your volunteers as they become involved with your organization.

2. Reach out before, during, and after events

Whether a volunteer signed up for a virtual fundraising event, a three-day restoration project, or a training session, the event is not the only thing on your volunteer’s mind. Your volunteers will need and appreciate supportive communications from you to help them make it to the event they signed up for. Volunteer management software should take care of a lot of these automated communications for you.

Some of the automated communications you’ll want to implement are:

  • Signup confirmations. Immediately after registration, volunteers should receive an automated email or text confirming the date, time, and location of the event they signed up for. You’ll also want to include other essential information for the volunteer, like specific directions for accessing the event and parking information for in-person events.
  • Reminders leading up to the event or training. Sending reminder texts or emails to your volunteers communicates that you care about their service, demonstrates understanding about their busy schedules, and lowers no-show rates by up to 30%.
  • Post-event follow-up survey. After your volunteer has generously donated their time and effort to your organization, show them that you value their thoughts and opinions by sending a follow-up survey about the event and their experience. This will not only encourage engagement but will help you plan better events and optimize the volunteer experience.

Remember not to neglect the time the volunteer is actually participating in your event. Whether your event is online or virtual, engage with your volunteers and ask your staff to, also. Ask them questions about themselves and their interest in your nonprofit, and tell them what excites you about the work your organization does. Showing interest in your volunteers as people will go a long way to strengthen relationships with them and forge valuable personal connections between your supporters and your nonprofit.

3. Recognize your volunteers appropriately

Expressing your gratitude for your volunteers’ assistance is an essential first step to show respect for them, communicate your appreciation, and guarantee they’ll want to engage further with your organization. As selfless as your volunteers are for donating their time, it’s only natural that they’ll not want their good deed to go unnoticed. That’s why it’s smart to make sure they are sufficiently recognized for their efforts.

Beginning with a thank-you email, volunteer appreciation can be customized depending on your organization and its available resources. Consider the following volunteer appreciation tactics:

  • Special events like dinners, shows, and movie nights
  • Perks like raffles and awards (or even just coffee and doughnuts at a morning event!)
  • Thank-you gifts like T-Shirts, keychains, and mugs
  • Thank-you letters that feel genuine and personal

Of course, depending on the level of engagement of the volunteer, you’ll want to alter your volunteer recognition tactics. A one-time volunteer might warrant an email and a keychain, while your longest-serving and most loyal volunteers deserve more recognition, like exclusive experiences and appreciation events. This will also incentivize volunteers to continue participating in your organization’s programs.

Appropriate and proportionate volunteer recognition not only makes it more likely that each volunteer will return for further engagement, but also makes it more likely they’ll spread the word about your cause and even recruit friends to volunteer with them next time.

4. Make the most of your time apart

It can be easy to fall into the habit of only contacting your volunteers with hard asks for their support. Unfortunately, this can cause the relationship to feel shallow and transactional. Even without an urgent need to contact your volunteer base, it’s important to keep your organization on their minds and keep them in the loop about recent developments and future opportunities. This will go a long way to foster long-term, invested volunteer relationships based on mutual interest in your cause.

Consider creating a dedicated email stream for your volunteers, where you periodically report information that may be of interest to them, such as:

  • Recent accomplishments, for example that you fed 150 children in need thanks to their help last month.
  • The long-term impact of a given project, like a “where-are-they-now”-style follow-up with constituents of your nonprofit’s mission.
  • Internal strategic updates, like new tools or strategies you’re rolling out to help you further your cause.

Alternatively, or in combination with this strategy, you could consider creating a dedicated volunteer newsletter that reports news from your organization, informs about volunteer opportunities, and offers other ways to engage. Ideally, the newsletter would serve as a piece of a broader marketing campaign that drives engagement on your website, blog, and social media.

5. Make sure they know how to get more involved

Because you have a specific mission, it makes sense that you would consistently need the same type of support from volunteers. But if you offer your volunteers the same types of opportunities over and over again, you risk making them feel unfulfilled—or even bored. For your most loyal supporters, make sure they know there are always different opportunities to get more involved.

Offering additional opportunities for engagement empowers your volunteers, builds supporter investment, and makes sure your volunteers are always engaged. You could ask your volunteers to:

  • Take advanced trainings in marketing, fundraising, or recruitment.
  • Apply a skill they have, such as designing your website.
  • Research their eligibility for corporate volunteer grants. (Study up with Double the Donation’s guide to corporate volunteer grants if you’re new to corporate philanthropy programs.)

The more creatively you can use your volunteers, the more engaged they’ll be and fulfilled they will feel as a part of your organization. Maximum volunteer engagement and fulfillment means they’re more likely to stick with your nonprofit long-term and spread the word about your cause.

Volunteers provide countless vital services for nonprofits, from planting trees to running events to delivering meals. Don’t miss out on any volunteer support due to lack of communication. Instead, follow these best practices in our guide and reach, engage, and retain as many volunteers as possible. From signup confirmations to volunteer newsletters and additional engagement, it’s important to communicate well with your volunteers at every step in the life cycle.

Implement these strategies and watch your volunteer base grow! Best of luck.

Earlier this year, donors around the world stepped up to the plate to help many nonprofits overcome the financial challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we’ve settled into our new normal, you’ve likely noticed that the initial influx of support has since dwindled. In response, nonprofits like yours are having to find unique ways to recapture supporters’ attention while still accommodating for social distancing guidelines.

If you’re rethinking your fundraising strategies, we suggest turning to online auctions, which are highly lucrative fundraisers! 

According to this resource, these virtual fundraising events break the distance between you and your supporters without risking anyone’s health. Not to mention, they are incredibly convenient to participate in, offer increased accessibility to those who might not otherwise attend, and are highly cost-effective. This way, you can connect with donors from afar without breaking the bank, and they can support your cause while bidding on items that pique their interests.

Let’s jump into this crash course, so your nonprofit’s development team can boost its virtual fundraising knowledge and pull off a successful online auction.

How do online auctions work?

Before you can even begin thinking about launching a virtual auction, you need to understand exactly how they work. This way, you can determine whether it’s a feasible option for your team both budget- and time-wise.

Whether you’re making the shift to virtual auctions for the first time or you’re simply looking for a quick refresher, it never hurts to review the basics. Let’s quickly walk through the three primary steps of a successful online auction: planning, promotion, and execution.

Step #1: The Planning Stage

The planning stage will help you solidify the foundation for your event. Hosting an online auction means coordinating several moving pieces such as your software choice, auction items, marketing, and sponsorships. With so many elements to consider, skimping out on preparation isn’t an option.

First, your team should determine if you’ll run your auction as a standalone event or as a part of a larger virtual fundraiser. Both options have merit, and the decision simply depends on your unique needs. You may find it easiest to simply run the auction, or you may prefer using a virtual event as a strategy for building motivation. Deciding this first will help to inform the rest of the planning process.

After you’ve made this critical choice, there are a few other steps you’ll need to complete to fully prepare, including:

  • Select the right nonprofit auction software. Your auction software will handle the behind-the-scenes work so you can focus on building excitement for your virtual event. According to Handbid’s nonprofit auction software guide, your platform should allow you to “manage your guest list, process invoices, view stats, generate reports, and message attendees.” Having all of these features in a single platform will centralize your planning and save time that can be reinvested into making the event more engaging.
  • Set up your auction website. When you’ve procured items, it’s time to set it up on your auction website, which will serve as your item catalog. This is where participants will go to safely browse and make bids. For each item, you should provide key details like an accurate name, category, item number, images, and description. This will help present the items in a compelling and accurate way to drive bids.

Sufficient preparation is the key to setting up your virtual auction for success. By taking the time to prepare upfront, you’ll provide a much smoother experience during the auction itself. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to move on to marketing.

Step #2: Promotion

You can’t expect anyone to participate in your auction if they never hear about it. With more marketing avenues than ever before, technology is on your side to simplify event promotion. Plus, Fundraising Letters mentions that going digital offers several benefits that word-of-mouth marketing doesn’t, like being able to link to your other content as well as share videos and images that showcase your event.

As you plan your marketing strategy, you’ll need to narrow down your options and determine which will help you connect with your audience. Three primary avenues for promoting your online auction include:

  1. Email. Leading up to your event, send email announcements to people who haven’t registered yet and updates to people who have already done so. For the best results, create segmented email campaigns to appeal to various groups of supporters, so you can create highly-targeted messaging that appeals directly to their interests.
  2. Sponsors. Not only will your sponsors help fund the event, but they also serve as a great marketing tool. They can leverage their own networks to spread the word about your virtual event, connecting you with supporters who you might not otherwise reach. Ask them to make announcements to their customers and share your social media posts. To increase the chances that they’ll market your event, provide them with potential promotional materials they could use.
  3. Social Media. With 3.6 billion active social media users (and a projected 4.4 billion in 2025), social media is an important consideration for any modern fundraising strategy. Determine the social platforms where your supporters are active. Then, draft posts that highlight your upcoming event with high-ticket items to encourage people to register.

For the best results, center your outreach around three or four platforms. If you have limited staff, this allows them to focus their efforts on the most effective platforms. Not only will multi-channel marketing increase visibility for your event, but limiting the number of platforms provides you with sufficient time to develop a handful of high-quality messages that drive registrations, instead of several mediocre messages that don’t fully capture your audience’s attention.

Step #3: Execution

After sufficient preparation and promotion, it’s time to watch your hard work pay off. While in-person auctions require more time to set up, online auctions are much easier to launch. Your nonprofit auction software will simplify many processes like registration, item management, and payment processing.

With your online platform streamlining so many activities, you can devote more time to keep bidders engaged. Here are a few of our recommended tips to maintain momentum and maximize participation in your online auction:

  • Open your auction early. One of the best things about online auctions is that you have more flexibility with your timeline. Remember that closing too early will cause you to leave money on the table. Instead, Bloomerang’s virtual fundraising guide suggests that you should “keep the auction open throughout the week of the event to fully engage supporters.” Proving plenty of time gives everyone the opportunity to browse at their leisure and bid on their favorite items.
  • Live stream during the event. Live streaming adds a face-to-face element to your virtual event, so consider hosting streams to kick off your event, provide periodic updates, and celebrate the end results. Some auction software even comes equipped with its own live streaming tools, so you can stream directly within your mobile bidding app or on the auction website. This way, users don’t have to leave the platform and risk getting distracted.
  • Provide mobile bidding tools. With a mobile bidding app, you make bidding incredibly easy for participants. They can easily find items with a few taps, set up push notifications, set maximum bid amounts, and more. Not only is this much more convenient, but they’ll be able to stay engaged without sitting next to their laptops for the duration of the auction.

Once your event wraps up, you’ll need to arrange for delivery or shipping and review your event’s performance. Take a look at which items were popular, which didn’t garner much interest, and who your top bidders were. Understanding what went well (and what didn’t) will help you refine your future online auctions.

How can you set your virtual auction up for success?

As with any fundraising endeavor, virtual auctions have their own best practices for successful execution. Now that you fully understand the basics, you can dive further into strategizing for the event itself and driving supporter engagement. We’ve put together three tips for success: gamification, item procurement, and thoughtful follow up.

Tip #1: Procure the right items.

The items you procure have a direct impact on your event’s ROI, so it’s important to take the necessary time to select items that appeal to bidders’ interests and fit their budgets. Consult past giving and engagement data to explore information like:

  • Supporters’ hobbies and interests: The items that tend to do the best are those that directly appeal to bidders’ interests. Their hobbies serve as strong indicators of what items they’d be interested in. Analyze data such as notes from staff conversations with supporters and any custom sections you include on donors’ profiles.
  • Financial data: Take a look at past donations and employment history to gauge what your average donor would be willing to spend at an auction. Then, make sure the price point of your auction items is within that range. 

After analyzing the data, your fundraising committee can work together to brainstorm ideas that fit supporters’ unique personalities and needs. According to this page, consider turning to event sponsors and existing donors to fund your item procurement efforts. Using these funds to select a range of items will make your online auction appealing to a wider range of individuals, setting your event up for success.

Tip #2: Make use of gamification.

Historically, auctioneers have implemented game-like elements into auctions to liven up events and make them more engaging for attendees. With technological innovations, you can supercharge your events with more modern gamification techniques, such as:

  • Leaderboards to showcase top bidders.
  • Countdown timers to spark a sense of urgency.
  • Fundraising thermometers to display progress toward fundraising goals. 

These tools will ultimately drive deeper bidder engagement and challenge attendees to continue participating until the final moments of your online auction. Intuitive nonprofit auction software will come equipped with gamification tools like these to make the most of your event.

Tip #3: Follow up after the auction.

Even once you’ve closed out your auction and distributed items to the winners, your work isn’t quite done yet! There are a few final steps you need to take before calling it a day. Post-auction, make sure to follow up and share results with: 

  • Bidders: Sharing fundraising results and expressing appreciation conveys that you truly value your bidders’ and donors’ contributions. Using your nonprofit auction software, automate acknowledgments and tax receipts. Then, go a step further by sending custom thank-you emails that emphasize fundraising impact.
  • Sponsors: Your sponsors make your event possible, from helping with promotion to providing funding and auction items for the event. Sending personalized letters is a great way to show appreciation and encourage ongoing partnerships instead of letting the relationship dwindle.

Some event organizers skimp on this stage. However, sufficiently thanking bidders, donors, and sponsors will help you cultivate relationships and encourage them to continue supporting your cause.

Nonprofit fundraising doesn’t stop, even during uncertain times such as these. Instead, your organization needs to remain prepared to adapt its approaches and conform to any unexpected circumstances. Virtual auctions are a fantastic way to engage your audience and continue raising funds, even during these unprecedented times!

With so many moving pieces, transitioning an in-person event online might seem overwhelming at first glance, but the right online auction software will ease the transition. Depending on your success, you may even consider making it an annual event that donors look forward to each year. 

Now that you understand the key steps and best practices for these events, you can begin planning your next online auction with confidence. Good luck!


Guest author: Josh Thurmond, Director of Client Services at Handbid

Josh Thurmond has over 15 years of nonprofit and government management experience including a Masters in Public Administration. Before he entered the not for profit sector, he worked as a professional chef. Be sure to ask him for a recipe!