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Journey mapping in NGOs: volunteer management

September 22, 2020

NGOs have experience management in their DNA: the primary goal of both NGOs and experience designers is to make the world a better place. Journey mapping as a tool can support them in reaching this goal in a more structured way.

Defining NGOs in the context of journey mapping

Supporting people in need like children, elderly people, people with disabilities, people in economically poor regions, but also animal welfare, nature, and sustainability. The list of NGO types is a long one.

They also differ a lot when looking at the organizational structure: like any other organization, NGOs can be small or large, innovative or traditional, with flat or high hierarchies, local or international.

If we now talk about journey mapping in NGOs, we need to consider this variety. The main challenges they experience depend on the organization itself, the goal, environment, and stakeholders.

However in this article, we take one component that unites many NGOs: they depend on a very limited budget and, hence, heavily rely on people who engage themselves voluntarily, without receiving any salary or any other extrinsic motivators. Without these volunteers, the organizations would hardly be able to have the impact they strive for.

Questions to solve in volunteer management

Before we start, let’s agree on a typical volunteer journey and take it as an example for the following article: A large part of volunteers commit themselves regularly, for a few hours per week, besides their actual work/studies, family time, hobbies, or whatever else they do in their life. Volunteer work is part of their spare time that they used to spend for different purposes. To engage themselves voluntarily, they renounce other interests, hobbies, activities of their lives. Hence, per week they switch between their main activity, their spare time, and their volunteer work.

Who are the volunteers?

Volunteers are as diverse as the NGOs they work with. They have very different backgrounds, interests, and contexts. Additionally, the NGO has an interest in having volunteers that share their vision and their values and hence try to reach and keep those folks who are on the same page.

Journey mapping and creating a persona in specific will help the organization understand:

  • What makes volunteers engage themselves in general, and in my organization?
  • What do they expect from their engagement?
  • What personality traits should they bring to the organization so they fit the vision, values, and team?
  • How do they connect this with their life outside of the organization, like work, studies, family, or other responsibilities?
  • What background do they have, what skills and talents?
Volunteer Persona Jess

How do they get to us?

Many people are interested in the work of NGOs. They support it on a theoretical basis and would defend its importance in front of others. However, only a small part of these people have ever considered engaging themselves voluntarily in such an organization.

Hence, the questions to solve are:

  • How do they get aware of the need, and what can I derive from this knowledge?
  • Do they have the chance to get to know the organization and task before committing to a long-term engagement?
  • What factors affect their trust in the organizations and their fight for the good?
a section from a journey map visualizing a volunteer's experience

What does their engagement look like?

So you have the volunteer express its interest. It’s time to introduce them to the organization, to onboard them to the tasks and the team. Depending on the agreed schedule they will then spend a few hours per week/month or occasionally in the organization and help out with several factors.

Now a journey map can give you insights to questions like:

  • Are the resources they get during the onboarding phase satisfying?
  • Do the tasks they take care of fit their interests and talent and are the tasks of appropriate intensity?
  • Do they have access to supervisors?
  • Are the tasks they take care of fulfilling and motivating them?
a section from a journey map visualizing a volunteer's experience

How do they connect with full-time workers?

A big chunk of a volunteers’ engagement is the collaboration with others. First, many volunteers have that as the core of why they want to engage themselves: to help others, to be with others, to learn from others. Second, as a large part of volunteers usually only spend a few hours per week with an organization, they have a high risk of just being overseen by full-time workers. Especially in NGOs, resources are scarce – frequently teams are understaffed, and employees are pretty busy with their work.

Hence, journey mapping can help find out:

  • Do volunteers have the chance to connect to full-time staff?
  • Do volunteers have the chance to connect and share experiences with other volunteers?  
  • Do volunteers have a real contact person that takes them by the hand during the onboarding process and informs them about news later on?
a section from a journey map visualizing a volunteer's experience

How can we support them with their work on a mental level?

Many NGOs are acting in challenging environments – either, because the topic they engage themselves for did not reach global support yet, e.g. sustainability matters, or because they work in mentally challenging fields, e.g. supporting people in hospice organizations.

Anyway, volunteers often have to handle critical moments and a journey map can help uncover these and find solutions on how to give them the support they need.

  • What are the challenging moments of their engagement?
  • How to help them if they are attacked for the type of their engagement?
  • How to support them with mentally challenging moments?
a section from a journey map visualizing a volunteer's experience

How can we thank them for what they’re doing?

Most volunteers engage themselves for the pure sake – the only thing they want is to see an effect of the time and passion they invest. They truly want to make the world a better place or at least know that they’re doing good on their way towards it. This implies that there’s nothing more frustrating than not having those moments of acknowledgment.

Maybe a volunteer cannot change the world within a few hours. Even if their work did not show any impact at all, yet. However, they’re trying, struggling, doing their best, until at some point the impact will be here. During this time it is crucial to show them that the pure try is appreciated.

Journey mapping can help to understand if the reinforcement is sufficient:

  • In what moments do we tell the volunteers “thank you” and show them that their work has an impact?
  • Is their contribution visible enough to others?
  • What moments are the most disappointing, frustrating ones and how can we help the volunteers get over it?
  • Even though they cannot be remunerated for their work, but is there anything good we can do for them along their journey?
a section from a journey map visualizing a volunteer's experience

How to create a journey map for volunteer management

The following type of information can help you on a journey map to analyze volunteer management.

Stages

Make sure you are tackling all necessary phases of voluntary engagement, including the onboarding phase, training, and the phase after the volunteer has left. This helps to make sure that your efforts towards the volunteer do not disappear right after the onboarding.

Channels of communication

Communication is crucial for volunteers who only spend a short time with an organization. Analyzing channels of communication helps you to understand if the volunteers have access to all information they need, at the right time.

Contact persons

Make sure the volunteer always has a supervisor or colleague around to talk to in case of emergency, the pure desire of sharing a problem, or giving and receiving feedback.

Support

Add a dedicated lane to see how you are actually supporting your volunteers and where else they might need a hand with something. Again, check if your support is focused on a specific phase or if you provide it along the entire journey.

Backstage actors

Add a dedicated backstage lane to keep you aware of what other stakeholders influence the interaction between you and the volunteer. When you plan a coaching day, keep in mind your volunteers might have to work at their actual job. When you plan a Christmas party, be aware that volunteers might also need to attend the one with family. Map out all the moments where you can help volunteers to make the interaction with the outside world as smooth as possible.

View an example journey map for volunteer management in NGOs

Typical challenges when introducing journey mapping in NGOs

NGOs prove to be very open for journey mapping projects – their striving for empathy is higher than in most other contexts. However, they still experience challenges when it comes to conducting a journey mapping project:

Limited resources for innovation projects

Since many NGOs run on a very limited budget, they miss time and human resources for such projects. Everybody is busy already, and taking up an additional activity might jeopardize their primary tasks, if not managed properly. This calls for very careful time management when starting with such a project.

To prevent surprises, it helps to start the project on a small scale. Don’t try to innovate the entire process at once, rather pick a specific issue you’d like to improve, for example, how volunteers connect to the rest of the team.

Traditional structures and extended decision-making periods

NGOs come in very different sizes – some of them exist for decades and build upon a highly hierarchical structure. Hence, it may need some time to go through the decision-making process, not only the decision for the journey mapping project and the resources needed but also every innovation resulting from the project.

In this case, it helps to clarify upfront who needs to be involved in the project, and at what point of time. Also, you can inform those parties earlier about the project which is coming up, give them a briefing on what it is about and ask them to keep some time free. This gets you buy-in and reduces unnecessary loops and waiting times afterward.

Involvement of multiple stakeholders

Job, family, friends, hobbies – these are the factors that influence your volunteers. But NGOs’ other stakeholders can also influence the customer journey. Law, government, health institutions, the center of volunteers, and many others will influence the quality of your work.

You can add multiple journeys of different stakeholders on one map to visualize the interactions and interdependencies between them. Also, a dedicated stakeholder map can help you to keep an overview of all the stakeholders that are involved and understand how they are connected to one another.

In a nutshell

When it comes to journey mapping in an NGO context, you usually have highly customer-centric people involved in your project, highly motivated to use it to make their activities more impactful. The challenge will rather be to create free resources to follow a more structured approach so you don’t get lost in details of the journey, and don’t burn out the team. When talking about volunteer management, journey mapping can help you to find the moments that motivate your (potential) volunteers to join or stay with your organization as long as possible and invest their best efforts.

Create your own journey map to understand your volunteers' experiences