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How nonprofit organizations can effectively engage volunteers

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Richard Ybarra

"Volunteers are the heart of our organization. Thanks in large part to our engaged volunteers, Braille Institute San Diego services remain free for all students and clients. That means our classes, our technology instruction, orientation and mobility training, transportation, library, and more are all free," said Rosie Rascon, Braille Institute San Diego's Volunteer Services Manager.

With a 12:1 volunteer to staff ratio, Braille Institute employs a structure that strategically engages volunteers to help the organization with essential functions, while also allowing volunteers to give back to the community. While many nonprofit organizations benefit from volunteers, Braille Institute is particularly intentional in its placement, training, and retention program to find and keep strong volunteers to strengthen the organization.

This emphasis on volunteer engagement has played a central role in Braille Institute's legacy. "Volunteerism is a core part of our organization's identity, and has been since our founding in 1919," says Peter Mindnich, President of Braille Institute. "Without our volunteers, we simply could not fulfill our mission. Collectively, volunteers contribute more than 150,000 hours of assistance annually, and this enables us to continue serving our clients free of charge."

Finding the Right Fit

"Many of our volunteers are extremely high-skilled; they are educated and have PhDs. We want to find the right fit for them, placing them in an area that is fulfilling to them and also beneficial to the organization. We believe they should enjoy a meaningful experience giving back, and also enjoy sharing their skills and capacity," says Rascon.

The process begins when prospective volunteers tour Braille Institute San Diego and meet with staff, with each party assessing if a volunteer role at Braille Institute is the right fit. Rascon believes that motivation plays a key role: "We're asking, why do they want to volunteer with us? Do they connect with our mission? Do they have a skill-set that can benefit our students? Then we try to match them with a role based on their skills, interest, time commitment, and motivation," she says.

Sometimes volunteers blossom from the Braille Institute student population. Amy G., who volunteers as a receptionist, was a student and library volunteer. She then began volunteering at the reception desk, and now handles phone calls and greets visitors so well that often visitors never even realize she has sight loss.

"Amy is an essential part of the welcome experience for visitors, helping staff and representing Braille Institute San Diego. We really appreciate Amy and we are so lucky to have her as part of the team," says Rascon.

Training

Once a volunteer realizes that Braille Institute is the right fit for them, they participate in an orientation that includes instructions for interacting with people who are blind or visually impaired. Volunteers range in age and life experience from high school and college students working to fulfill community service requirements, to retirees who want to give back. Many have never encountered a person who is blind or visually impaired. Braille Institute wants to ensure that volunteers are comfortable relating to students, so they learn basic human guide techniques to provide verbal directions and physical cues to help students as needed.

Retention

"Volunteering at Braille Institute has made me a more aware, sensitive, and caring person. I'm fortunate and happy to help these wonderful, courageous people. I'm there to help expand their horizons even more," says Andy H., who has volunteered at Braille Institute San Diego for 14 years. He's a retired U.S. Air Force Captain, a longtime USO volunteer, and a "semi-retired" college psychology professor. He volunteers teaching bridge classes and a workshop on positive thinking, as well as leading field trips.

One key ingredient of Braille Institute's volunteer program is the culture of thanking volunteers for their dedication. "We thank volunteers all the time. We recognized them with an Ice Cream Social during Volunteer Recognition Month in April. In July we host our annual Summer Fest celebration, and each December our Volunteer Holiday Toast gathering recognizes volunteers and honors the Volunteer of the Year," says Richard Ybarra, Executive Director, Braille Institute San Diego.

"Though careful placement that reflects a volunteer's strengths, and a culture of thanking volunteers, organizations can use volunteers effectively and keep them engaged. Braille Institute is very fortunate that our organization places such importance on volunteers, which allows us to provide even more free services for our students," says Ybarra.

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To find out more about volunteering at Braille Institute San Diego, please email Rosie Rascon at RRascon@brailleinstitute.org. To connect with Braille Institute San Diego, call 1-800-BRAILLE, visit BrailleInstitute.org, or email Richard Ybarra at RMYbarra@brailleinstitute.org.

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