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Learn how to develop a plan for involving volunteers that will bring needed skills, save money, Increase community ownership, and bring new energy.


Multiracial hands reaching together in a circle.


The time energy and resources that volunteers offer are critical to the success of most nonprofit groups, and the jobs done by volunteers are as varied as the people who do them. This section of the Toolbox provides a guide for developing a program to involve volunteers in your organization.

Why should you engage volunteers?

Maybe you're not sold on the merits of volunteers, at least for your organization. "Volunteers are too much trouble," you might think; "they're not reliable; it takes too long to train them, and once you do, they just leave. Also, we're liable for their actions--that's a problem that we just don't need right now. It's easier to do our work with paid staff."

Despite these challenges, however, consider some of the different advantages of using volunteers as part of a thoughtfully developed plan.

  • Volunteers save money. This obvious advantage of volunteers can be a lifesaver for some organizations. The "dollar value" of volunteer time in 1997 was $13.74 per hour. Many organizations, such as the Red Cross, function almost entirely on volunteer labor--and by doing so, they can to do a lot of very good work without a lot of money.
  • Volunteers bring needed skills. Many volunteers have specialized knowledge such as computer programming, advertising, or conflict mediation that your organization occasionally needs, but not often enough to hire someone to do the work full-time. A volunteer who donates his or her skills on an "as-needed" basis can be the perfect complement to your office staff.
  • Volunteers bring renewed energy and excitement. Even the most dedicated people can get burnt out working on the same thing when they are doing it 40 (or more) hours a week. Volunteers can bring a fresh perspective and enthusiasm for the work. This can help revitalize staff, and may help move projects in exciting new directions.
  • Volunteers increase community ownership. The more community members are involved in your project, the easier it will be to gain support for your work. Also, by using volunteers from throughout the community, you can be sure that your goals are "in tune" with what the community wants, and not just what organization members think they want.

Simply put--involving volunteers helps you do (and do well)-- what you set out to do.

Why should you plan?

Why should you plan the involvement of your volunteers? As with anything else your organization does, planning your volunteer program will help it run more smoothly and easily. Additionally, a well-developed plan helps stop potential problems before they start. That way, you can have all of the advantages of volunteer help without most of the headaches.

For example, above we talked about some of the problems of having volunteers, such as liability, a lack of reliability, and a tendency of volunteers to not stay long with a given organization. By planning, you can take these problems into account: the organization might take out insurance against liability; consequences of being unreliable can be decided upon and written down to be given to volunteers; and ways to keep good volunteers can be discussed and put into practice.

Who should develop the plan?

Your organization's plan for volunteer involvement will touch many people, so it's often best to include many voices when designing it. Some of the key players might include:

  • Organizational leaders, such as the director or key board members.
  • Staff members. These are the people who know best what work needs to be done, so their involvement is vital. Also, by involving staff members in the planning process, you help alleviate fears that volunteer workers might replace them.
  • Prospective volunteers. If your organization already has volunteers, or you know whom you would like to recruit, ask them to help develop the plan. That way, your plan is sure to be developed in the volunteers best interest, as well as in the interest of agency staff.

For example, a prospective volunteer might say that she would love to work at your agency--but only if there is child care available during the training sessions, because her husband works when the training is scheduled to take place. Without her suggestions, staff members of the organization might not have thought about the need for child care, and could have lost several very good volunteers.

  • If your organization doesn't already have one, you might consider appointing a volunteer coordinator or director. This person, who often reports to the director, may be a staff member, or could be a volunteer himself.

Typical tasks of a volunteer coordinator:

  • Recruits volunteers
  • Communicates with different departments and program coordinators to find out what needs to be done and how much volunteer time is needed to do it
  • Educates staff on the roles and responsibilities of volunteers
  • Interviews and screens potential volunteers
  • Takes charge of volunteer orientation and training
  • Expresses volunteer opinions and ideas to other staff members, and facilitates collaboration between volunteers and paid staff members

Smaller organizations, groups which need fewer volunteers, or those whose future is uncertain may find that a volunteer coordinator is unnecessary for their purposes. For them, the duties usually assumed by the coordinator can be split among other members of the organization in ways that make sense for the organization.

How do you plan the involvement of volunteers?

First of all, use the principles of strategic planning. Strategic planning is a process of determining how to get from "here" (where we are now) to "there" (where things ought to be).But planning for the involvement of volunteers will have important steps of its own. These steps are listed below. These are especially applicable for organizations having the resources and need for a comprehensive program for volunteer involvement. Smaller organizations, or organizations that rely less heavily on the use of volunteers, may want to adapt the plan suggested below, or might simply pick the parts which make most sense for their organization.

Essential steps of an effective volunteer program:

  • Have reasons and a rationale for wanting volunteers
  • Develop job descriptions
  • Recruit volunteers
  • Screen potential volunteers
  • Conduct orientation of volunteers
  • Train volunteers
  • Supervise volunteers
  • Retain volunteers
  • Evaluate volunteers
  • Recognize efforts and achievements

Let's go through these one by one.

Have a rationale and reasons for wanting volunteers.

You may have several reasons for wanting volunteers in general, and other reasons for asking for the help of specific people. It's important that you can articulate these; you might even want to write them down. When a potential volunteer asks, "Why do you need volunteers?" or "Why do you need me?" you should have answers ready.

These are two different questions, and should be thought about separately. First, what is your rationale for your organization having volunteers in general? To increase the quality or amount of services you provide? To increase community involvement? There are many good reasons for welcoming new volunteers into your agency; which are true for you?

Some examples of different rationales include:

  • "We think community involvement is really important to helping us stay on track."
  • "We want every child in our community to have caring adults to talk to, and we're a long way from that goal."
  • "Volunteers can help us reach our goal of financial independence."
  • "We believe that by using volunteers, we can establish a network of tutors who can significantly reduce the illiteracy rate in our city."
  • "Our organization wants to become financially independent, and none of us have the first idea of how to do it."

Your rationale doesn't need to be terribly specific, and it isn't meant to be unchangeable. As your organization grows and develops, so will your need and reasons for having volunteers.

Along with the general rationale behind your program, you need a good idea of what you want volunteers to do. What skills are needed? Do you just need warm bodies to help clean up the park after the local arts festival, or do you need people with specific talents, such as experience with newsletter layout, or public speaking skills? If you don't have distinct reasons for having volunteers, your program may reflect that. Volunteers may feel unneeded--and eventually, they may feel like leaving.

Develop job descriptions.

Now that your organization has decided exactly why it wants volunteers, you may want to write a formal job description. This is unnecessary for some tasks, especially those that are one-time events, such as passing out water to runners at your annual 10K run. But for more involved jobs that are longer term, a written description is an excellent way to explain the details to potential volunteers. It also shows that your office is professional and well-organized --the type of place where people want to work. Also, this is a good way for you to think even more clearly about how many volunteers you need and what you need them for.

A volunteer job description, much like the description of a paid job, should include the following:

  • Title
  • Rationale/Purpose
  • Nature of job/Responsibilities
  • Qualifications
  • Time requirement
  • Proposed starting date (and, if applicable, end date)
  • Boundaries: Authority invested in position, reporting relationships/supervision
  • Benefits

Recruit volunteers.

The next step in the process is to find the people you need--and convince them that they need you, too.

Recruitment is covered in the next section of this chapter, so we won't go into too much detail on it now. The two main components of recruiting, however, are worth mentioning here.

First, find out what potential volunteers want. What do they want to do? What things will make it easier for them to do that? What will make your agency more attractive? One excellent way to find this information is to conduct a needs assessment with potential volunteers.

Susan Ellis, an expert in the field of volunteer management, offers some advice. She writes, "Divorce, single parenthood, and caregiving to aging parents are only a few factors to which successful volunteer programs will adapt. Volunteer opportunities that respect people's limited time, welcome children to come along, and meet the social needs of adults to make new friends of both sexes (not to mention safer ways to meet a potential date!) will be the ones that attract today's volunteers."

Second, find ways to tell potential volunteers how volunteering for your agency can give them what they want. Recruiting can take place in many different ways: volunteers can tell their friends about the organization; you can have informational meetings; ads can be placed in the local paper; and there are many, many other possibilities. It's up to your organization to choose the recruitment tactic (or tactics) that make most sense for your program, budget, and needs.

Screen potential volunteers.

A well-run recruitment effort should dig up many people offering their services to your organization. That's terrific, it's just what your organization needs. But some of these people may not be appropriate for your agency, or for the job they offer to do.

Why not? Well, some of them may not be suited for the job they apply for, and others may actually pose a threat to your agency. Additionally, as with paid staff members, your organization is legally responsible for what volunteers do while they are on the job. Organizations (and, in some states, individual executives and board members) are responsible for the actions committed by their volunteers while working.

What does this mean? Well, if a volunteer is going to the store to get paper for the newsletter, runs a red light, and hits someone, she may be personally liable for the accident. However, the person she hits could choose to sue the organization she works for as well, hoping that the organization is richer than the individual.

Here's another example: if a volunteer has a history of molesting children, you don't want him or her to run the childcare center at your clinic. First of all, the children may be at risk. And as with the situation above, the parents of any child who is harmed at your clinic may choose to sue the organization for allowing such a person to work with children--even if you didn't know about his or her history. In this case, too, most states have laws that forbid a person with a history of molestation to work with children--and again, even if you didn't know the person's history, you would still be breaking the law.

Screening volunteers is a good way to minimize these risks. For example, if the position involves a lot of driving, you might want to ask about a candidate's driving record. If it turns out she has had several speeding tickets in the last year, you might decide that a different job would be more appropriate.

Different agencies choose to screen volunteers in different ways. How you choose to screen your volunteers is especially dependent on what the volunteer will be doing, how much responsibility he/she will have, and the duration for which the volunteer will be working. Some of the most common screening tools include:

  • A written application
  • An interview with organization staff members and/or volunteers
  • Letters of reference
  • Essay questions can tell you more about the person as well. These may be part of the written application form, or may be offered individually. Some typical examples include, "Why do you want to work for our agency?" and "What are the values that guide what you do?"

Essay questions can also be tailored to the job a volunteer will be doing. For example, a crisis counseling hotline essay question might be, "What would you tell someone who calls and says that her boyfriend never listens to her, and doesn't seem to care about her feelings?"

  • Criminal checks, which are done through the police department, are called for in some cases, such as when the volunteer will be working with children.
  • Some organizations ask that the volunteer sign a work agreement, usually with the director of the organization or the volunteer's supervisor, which lays out what the volunteer will and will not do.

Conduct orientation of volunteers.

When you have chosen volunteers from your pool of candidates, the next thing to do is explain to the new volunteers the basics of the organization, its philosophy, and what they will be doing. For larger volunteer programs, those that require extensive training, or those that will include a long time commitment with the agency, this often takes the form of a formal orientation session. These generally lasts for an hour or two and includes a tour of the facilities, and introduction to important staff members. Volunteers are often given copies of written materials (for example, a volunteer training manual, or brochures describing the group's work).

Less formally, someone in the agency might introduce a new volunteer to others in the office, show him around, get him started working, and offer to answer questions as they arise.

Train volunteers.

More complex tasks may require extensive training of volunteers. For example, Headquarters, a crisis-counseling center in Lawrence, Kansas, requires over 100 hours of training before volunteers speak with clients. Other types of programs, too, might have long training programs before volunteers actually go into the field.

Supervise volunteers.

Even though volunteers aren't on the payroll, you won 't want to leave them to their own devices, without any sort of supervision and direction. Many people look on their volunteer experience as a time to learn, and gently delivered constructive comments can help the volunteer to grow. Further, what your volunteers do will certainly reflect back on your organization as a whole, so it's important that someone (the volunteer coordinator, if you have one, or perhaps the director in a smaller organization) keeps tabs on what people are doing.

Retain volunteers.

Once you have excellent people working with you, you want to keep them. Just having a well-run program will go a long way to keeping volunteers--people like to feel they are involved with something useful, and not that they are wasting their time in an inept organization.

There are also more specific things that the group can do to make sure that volunteers want to stick around. These include:

  • Paying special attention to the jobs that volunteers are given. The volunteers-- tasks should include challenges that build on skills the volunteer already has while allowing him to learn even more. For example, if a volunteer is artistic, you might ask her to help design the agency brochure. That way, she can use her talent as an artist, and she also has the chance to learn about layout.
  • When trying to match jobs with volunteers, it might be a good idea to have a database that has the names of all of the organization's volunteers, their availability, and their interests. That way, when a specific job comes up, you can see who might be available and interested in doing it, before going outside of your organization.

It's important, however, not to give a volunteer more work (or more challenging work) than he can realistically take on. The volunteer and his supervisor should talk together honestly about how much he can sensibly hope to accomplish while still feeling he is getting the challenge or satisfaction he desires. This is a delicate balance, and one that both the volunteer and his supervisor should think about thoroughly.

  • Recognizing and thanking volunteers is also very important in convincing people to stay. This is talked about more in #10 below.

Evaluate your program.

In a comprehensive volunteer program, you should evaluate how well volunteers are doing. This includes how well they are meeting their goals, as well as how well their work is helping to fulfill the agency mission. Often, volunteers (like paid staff) are evaluated every six months or year.

An important part of the process is self-evaluation by the volunteer. How well does he feel he is doing? What would help him work more effectively? Are there other programs or projects at the organization that he would like to take part in? A self-evaluation is often forgotten by supervisors, but is often enormously helpful in increasing volunteer productivity.

How do you fire a volunteer?

Sometimes, a volunteer simply isn't working out the way you hoped. Often, people are wary of firing someone, especially when that person isn't paid. But when someone isn't doing the job they agreed to, you need to take action. Often, you can come to an understanding of why things aren't working out, change those conditions, and the volunteer can turn into a fantastic resource in that position.

But sometimes, our best efforts fail, and you need to take a person off of the job they are doing. How do you do that? Different things may be appropriate, depending on the reason you need to let them go. Be simple and honest. You might say:

  • "I think we have a job better suited to your talents than the one you are doing now."
  • "I'm afraid your actions aren't in keeping with the agency's philosophy. You might be happier volunteering somewhere else."
  • "We've found someone better suited to the job you're doing."
  • "We no longer need your help on this project."
  • "I'm sorry, we need to let you go."

Recognize efforts and achievements.

This is one of the most important things you can do for your volunteers. It's always important to recognize the work of your employees, and this is especially true for volunteers, who don't, after all, receive monetary compensation for what they do. Everyone wants his or her efforts to be noticed! If someone feels important to the organization, too, it's much more likely that they will remain an active member.

You can recognize the work of your volunteers in many different ways. Some of the more common possibilities include:

  • Awards (e.g., plaques and certificates)--these can be agency awards, or you might nominate your volunteers for other awards, such as those which are city or statewide competitions.
  • Celebrations, such as lunches or award dinners.
  • Media attention--you might have a "volunteer of the month" whom you write about in the organization's newsletter, or you might submit a story about an outstanding volunteer to the local newspaper or television station. Many local newspapers have regular columns celebrating the accomplishments of community volunteers.
  • A personal touch. Greet volunteers by name--people appreciate being remembered.
  • Gratitude. Don't forget to smile and say thank you--and say it often!
  • Sometimes, you might ask an outstanding volunteer to take on more responsibility, or even offer him a paid position with the agency.

In Summary

Volunteering can be a tremendously rewarding experience, both for the individual who offers his time and for the organization to which he gives it. Many people are willing to help out, if they feel that their contributions will be well used and useful. By developing a plan of action for involving volunteers, you will be better able to tap into this rich resource.

Jenette Nagy

Online Resources

Community Building Institute at Xavier University features success stories that focus on volunteer involvement in building community.

Idealist, a project of Action without Borders, posts volunteer opportunities around the globe. Topical discussion boards include a volunteering focus.

Independent Sector is a national leadership forum, working to encourage philanthropy, volunteering, not-for-profit initiative and citizen action that help us better serve people and communities.

The International Association for Volunteers offers training and information to encourage and strengthen volunteering worldwide.

Network for Good helps nonprofit organizations reach new audiences through Internet strategies. You can recruit volunteers online using a volunteer match database.

Service Leader offers guidance on all aspects of managing volunteers, as well as advice on becoming a volunteer. A virtual (online) volunteering link is also offered.

The United Nations Volunteers Program supports human development globally by promoting volunteerism and mobilizing volunteers. A practical toolkit, Measuring Volunteering, is available in Adobe Acrobat format.

VolunteerMatch is a nonprofit, online service that helps interested volunteers get involved with community service organizations throughout the United States..

Print Resources

Ellis, S., & Noyes, K.  (1990). By the people: A history of Americans as volunteers. (Rev. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Herman, R. (Ed.). (1994). The Jossey-Bass handbook of nonprofit leadership and management. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Morrison, E. (1994). Leadership skills: Developing volunteers for organizational success. Tucson, AZ: Fisher Books.