How to Engage Your Organization’s Volunteers

Volunteers are nonprofitland’s special sauce – they play a big role in helping nonprofits create change and accomplish its mission. Volunteers are likely to turn into donors, giving two times more than non-volunteers. Given their importance, nonprofit leaders often wonder how to recruit and manage volunteers. Here’s some thoughts on that topic with special thanks to Tobi Johnson and VolunteerPro as well as Joan Garry and Nonprofits Are Messy Podcast.



How do I recruit volunteers to my organization?


The most effective recruitment method is using your personal network to make meaningful volunteering asks. Invite the participation of someone that has taken interest in your work on behalf of the organization, and invite them to join you at a volunteer event.


A second recruitment method is through special events. If someone cares enough about your organization to attend a gala, a 5K, community presentation, or informational session, they may also care enough to volunteer. Always have a volunteer sign-up sheet handy at all organization events. Keep an eye out for people who are extra-engaged or enthusiastic during your events and/or who demonstrate passion for your organization’s cause; they just might be your next volunteers. After the event, approach them, ask if they have any questions, and then make a direct ask: will you sign up to volunteer with us?


Another recruitment method requires digital marketing. Now is the time to optimize the online presence of your nonprofit to educate, draw people in, and keep them involved. Engage people where they are: on their phones, tablets, and computers. Every organization should have a “Volunteer Now” button on the home page of their website and highlight types of volunteer opportunities, both big and small.


Be creative and think outside of the box!


How can you make the most of your volunteers?


Be Prepared. You should assemble a volunteer handbook setting forth the policies and procedures related to volunteering at your organization so that rules and expectations are in writing. Think of volunteer screening, selection, coaching, termination. Develop a training program so that each volunteer is onboarded with the same information. You need a volunteer application. Applicants should provide contact/emergency information and consent to the terms of the volunteer handbook. The application (and handbook) should be clear that the organization must approve the volunteer application prior to any volunteer service, and that the organization has the ability to release volunteers at any time for any or no reason.


Set Aside Training and Management Time. Volunteers require a lot of hands-on management, especially at first. To be successful, you must carve out dedicated time for volunteer engagement. The best way to think about this time is that you are investing in the future of your organization. Training and engaging volunteers should not be an afterthought, it is directly connected to volunteer satisfaction and the success of any volunteer program.


Focus on Retention. Because onboarding is time consuming, you need to keep the volunteers you have. Here’s how:


a. Understand the “why”


Volunteers have various motivations for their service. The key is to determine the motivation and then support that individual motivator.


One reason people volunteer is because the cause aligns with their values, whether those be religious, educational, environmental, or political. Your messaging should make the goal and values of your organization crystal clear so you can be sure of a mission match.


Another reason people volunteer is to deepen social ties. Make room for people to get to know their neighbors at volunteer events, and consciously hold space for networking and outreach.


Many people volunteer just to gain experience in a certain field, or to learn a new skill. For example, if you volunteer on a political campaign, you will learn how to use standard door-knock and phone-banking software. Balance the time volunteers spend doing busywork with some advanced activities. They can spend some of their time stapling or dialing for dollars, but will also want experiences where they can grow, learn something new, and build skills.


Many young people volunteer in order to further their career prospects. Emphasize the value your organization can provide to a young person’s career, whether that be through an internship or a strong letter of reference.


b. Eliminate common reasons for dropout


Two of the most common reasons for volunteer drop off are (1) lack of resources, and (2) poor quality experience. Even though volunteers are providing a service, they still want to enjoy their time with your organization. It’s simple: don’t ask volunteers to do things they explicitly ask not to do, and structure a volunteer experience that you would return to yourself. Give them good training, proper tools, and tasks that they can feel good about completing.


c. Boost positivity


When the volunteer knows the work being done is making a difference, it makes them want to come back. Focus compliments on the work being done and its impact, rather than on the character of the volunteer. Recognize your volunteers with praise, not money.



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