Good volunteers are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to your organization, they are your greatest advocates – and happy volunteers often also donate!

Volunteer engagement guide

Key principles

Engaging volunteers sounds like a no-brainer. Someone wants to work – for free – at your organization. But nonprofits are finding that the changing nature of work, volunteer demographics and nonprofit competition are making it difficult for them to run a successful volunteer program.

Leo Brown, volunteer coordinator for Berkeley’s Pacific Center, says nonprofits can’t just “wait for volunteers to find them”, they need to engage supporters through social media and turn them into volunteers.

And once you recruit volunteers, you must have a plan for what you want them to do, he said.

Kel Davies, who built a volunteer program for theĀ Queensland AIDS Council, says nonprofits have to treat volunteers as unpaid employees. That means the same supervision, professional development opportunities and training that staff expect.

“People are more likely to give up their time and energy if they’re being treated properly and genuinely appreciated,” Kel said.

“In the end, a well looked-after volunteer will probably take big breaks, work elsewhere, volunteer elsewhere, but always come back to your organization. They’ll probably drag a few friends with them.”

What can volunteers do?

Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking volunteers are all the same, and they all want to stuff envelopes and answer phones. Take the time to find out about each volunteer, their career goals, interests and skills.

The Volunteer Center for the East Bay in northern California suggests including staff in a “dream session”, where they wrote a wish list of all the things they would do if they had enough time. Later, write job descriptions which are engaging and interesting.

Volunteers love to have a say in their job descriptions. Take their suggestions seriously.

In addition to giving away their time and skills for free, volunteers also donate more. A 2009 study by the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund found volunteers in the US donated ten times as much money as non-volunteers, and two-thirds of those donate to the same organization they work at.

Volunteer engagement

Where do nonprofits go wrong?

There are an estimated 1.5 million nonprofits in the US but less than a quarter of those have a budget of more than $100,000 a year. Only a fraction of those use volunteers; and only some of those have a working policy or handbook.

VolunteerMatch Communications and Marketing vice president Robert J Rosenthal says volunteer managers either have a good policy or have trouble attracting and retaining volunteers.

“The challenge is that often the person who manages the volunteers is under-supported, under-trained and frequently thrust into the position,” he said.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review estimates that nonprofits’ inability to retain volunteers is costing the sector $38 billion a year in lost labor.

“A few nonprofits have grasped this concept and are taking what we call a talent management approach – investing in the infrastructure to recruit, develop, place, recognize, and retain volunteer talent,” the report says.

The top five reasons volunteers left an organization were:

1. Not matching volunteer skills with assignments.
2. Failing to recognize volunteer contributions.
3. Not measuring the value of volunteers.
4. Failing to train or invest in volunteers and staff.
5. Failing to provide strong leadership.


A new breed of volunteers

VolunteerMatch‘s Robert Rosenthal says there is a burgeoning field of new volunteer roles, which include virtual, microvolunteer and pro-bono work. Often, these require special skills and the volunteer is treated more like a contractor with clear tasks but the flexibility to work on projects at their own pace.

“There is a generational change,” Mr Rosenthal said. “The volunteer model we have here arose out of a different era where the contribution of volunteers was of a different type.”

“The pre-boomer generation was raised to believe they should contribute – and nonprofits got used to it.” That meant nonprofits pushed them into unskilled labor.

But the current generation’s needs are different, he said. They want to network, have volunteer experience look worthwhile on their resumes, or have storytelling opportunities, he said.

“They don’t want to simply be told what to do – they want to change the world and they want to be involved in how it happens,” Mr Rosenthal said.

Kel Davies agrees.

“Volunteering has changed dramatically since its beginnings – it’s more episodic and often online,” Kel said. “People may be attracted to the position for what it stands for or for what the job entails but they’ll stay because of the relationship with the staff and organization.”

“But we can’t afford volunteers…”

You can’t afford not to have volunteers.

The SSI Review did the math on just one volunteer for premature babies charity March of Dimes. Retiree Sari was involved in recruiting so the organization invested $13,000 in Sari for in staff support and training. In turn, she was worth $200,000 to the organization.

Download this guide.