How to Run a Successful Volunteer Time Tracking Program | Track It Forward

How to Run a Successful Volunteer Time Tracking Program

Written by James McBryan


Over the past 5 years, we’ve been helping over 1,000 organizations with setting up volunteer time tracking programs on Track it Forward. We’ve seen many succeed right away, but we’ve also seen a great deal of them struggle to succeed, and others simply fail and give up altogether. We would like to share with you our best practices in hopes that you are well-equipped in making your time tracking programs an instant success and able to avoid common pitfalls that lead to failure. If you don't have time to read the whole article now, make sure you also  download our free in-depth e-book on how to get volunteers to actually track hours.


Before starting your time tracking program...


1. Identify Goals


Make sure that you have a clear communicated goal of why you are tracking volunteer hours.  Whether your goal is to make sure members are meeting requirements, reach an annual goal of total volunteer hours contributed, calculate the value of skilled volunteer work, or account for hours that will bring grant money to your organization, make sure that you have a clear vision for what your goals are.

2. Define Metrics and Avoid Data Bloat


What data will you need in order to measure your level of success in achieving your goals? Do you simply need to know the total number of hours volunteered? Or do you need detailed information about each volunteer’s activity? Be sure to avoid data bloat by spending time to figure out fundamentally what data is actually most valuable to you. More detailed data usually seems better, but it also requires a greater investment of time and resources. Additionally, the more information you require, the more you will alienate your volunteer from tracking hours. Just because you can track a lot of data doesn’t mean you need to track a lot of data. Make your metrics simple and straight-forward. In the end, it will be easier for you to manage, and your volunteers will appreciate it.

3. Evaluate your data tracking options


After you’ve identified your goal and clearly defined the data you need to track, then start evaluating your tracking options. Most volunteer time tracking programs start with simple paper sign-in sheets and manually-updated spreadsheets. Sometimes this is all you need, but this gets messy and difficult to manage if you have a large volume of volunteers or work across multiple locations, and it makes sense to move to more sophisticated technological solutions.  Be sure to evaluate your technology options carefully and deliberately, because you’ll be stuck with it for awhile. Most online solutions offer free trials. Try out several software options and assess each one’s strengths, weaknesses, costs, and benefits before committing. Nothing is worse than doing all the work to roll out a solution and figuring out later that it either doesn’t track what you want to measure or it requires a lot of unnecessary time and energy to maintain.

4. Become an expert both as a manager AND a volunteer


Train yourself on the technology and learn how to use it as both the database manager and the volunteer.  You should be an expert on how to use the technology both as an administrator and a regular user.  Volunteers will be coming to you with questions, so be prepared. You should know how to answer questions about common use and troubleshooting. If you have chosen an online provider, have them give you a personal demo.  If you pay for their services, expect them to service you to understand how their product works.


Once you’ve setup your time tracking program…


5. Create Actual Incentives


Unfortunately people don’t like to track hours, because it’s work.  Even if you have a paid job, you probably don’t like to track your time either. In a paid job, the reward is money, but in a volunteering program the reward is more nebulous. Ask yourself: How can you make it as easy and rewarding as possible for volunteers to submit their hours? In other words, how can you motivate your volunteer to log hours? A successful time tracking program is a successful incentive program! Communicate to your volunteers why it is so important that they log hours. If they understand how it benefits or affects your organization, then they are much more likely to log their hours. For example, you can tell them that their volunteer time provides a certain monetary value to your organization, or that your organization receives some grants in proportion to the amount of volunteer time. Alternatively, you can motivate them by penalizing untimely or inaccurate submissions. For example, if hours aren’t submitted by a certain day, then they won’t count. Lastly, volunteers love to be shown appreciation and recognized for their hard work! Make sure that you know how and when individuals reach certain goals or milestones so that you can recognize and thank them publicly. This will encourage them even more to log in hours consistently.

6. Run a pilot test


After you’ve established your incentives, it’s finally time to test out your shiny new volunteer hour tracking system!  If you have more than a few dozen volunteers, it’s an excellent idea to run a pilot test to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved. Teach a group of volunteers how to use it, have them try it out for a few weeks, and ask for feedback. Get a feel for how receptive they are to the new system, so that you are prepared and able to strategize for rolling it out successfully to the rest of your volunteers.

7. Teach volunteers how to log in their first hour


There are several options for teaching volunteers how to log hours--you could run a quick workshop, send out an email, provide a paper handout with instructions, have a how-to section on your website, or use combination of these collectively. There always some resistance against a new process, so you should be prepared to send out tutorials, record a screen share, or just simply walk them through it quickly in-person.  Remember, the first hour is the hardest one to log. If a volunteer logs one hour, they’ll know how to log the rest!


After your time tracking program is up and running..


8. Keep volunteers accountable


After the time tracking program is up and running, don’t just kick up your boots up and expect everything to get done without any supervision. Check in with your volunteers! Some volunteers will be excellent at logging in their hours right away, but some are going to need an occasional extra nudge.  Be sure to log in regularly as an administrator to see who is logging in hours and who isn’t. Touch base via email or phone with volunteers who haven’t been logging in to see if they’re confused or need help. Encourage them to keep up with the rest of the volunteers. Reward those who are consistently tracking hours with an enthusiastic, “Job well done!”.  Technology isn’t replacing you as the volunteer manager, rather it’s making you a better one.

9. Recognize and reward volunteers


Once you have great volunteers, you want to keep them, right? Be sure to recognize and reward your rockstar volunteers for their hard work so they keep coming back! Whether weekly or monthly, make sure your volunteers are getting the feedback they need to see not only their own progress but how far along they are in relation to others. Many volunteers are motivated by the accomplishments of their peers, so try publicizing volunteer accomplishments and see how it impacts the morale of your volunteer time tracking program. Send it in email, print out their progress, or post it up for everyone to see. If you’re managing a school or organization that has required hours, congratulate those who have successfully met requirements ahead of schedule. If you’re running an organization that depends on the work volunteers, set up different levels or milestones of achievement for recognition. If there’s room in your budget, host a volunteer appreciation night. If not, a simple handwritten thank you note goes a long way.

10. Use data to improve


Revisit your goals regularly. Look at the data. Ask yourself: Where are the bright spots? Why or why not is our program working? What can you do improve? How can you implement those improvements? Utilize dashboards and reports to track trends month-to-month so that you can assess, plan, strategize, and re-strategize throughout the year in order to reach your goals. Reports are feedback, and thats how you close the loop to ensure success!

These are probably more steps than you could’ve possibly imagined for setting up your volunteer program. We want you to succeed in implementing and sustaining your volunteer time tracking system, and we’re super nerds about it! Need help? Let us know, and we’ll be more than happy to provide our insight and expertise! Next on this blog we’ll go into specifics on each of the topics above, with case studies. So if you’re interested, sign up for the newsletter and you’ll be the first to know!

Leave some comments if you would like to share your successes, best practices, worst mistakes, or just want feedback on setting up your program, and we will absolutely respond!