Diagnosing the causes of volunteer recruitment problems

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI see it and hear it over and over: comments from nonprofits or churches or schools saying they are having trouble recruiting volunteers.

Before you hire a consultant, even me, to see what the problem is regarding why you don’t have enough volunteers, you might be able to diagnosis the problem yourself. The only catch is that you MUST be honest as you answer these questions. Also, answering these questions is rarely a one-person exercise; you may think you know the answer, but you need to ask other staff members, including volunteers themselves, what their answers are to these assessment questions. Don’t be surprised if your receptionist or a volunteer gives you a very different answer to any of these questions than you yourself would give.

Questions to diagnose your volunteer recruitment problems:

  • Is it easy to know just from looking at your web site what volunteers do, the different roles, the time commitment, the training requirements, and how to sign up?
  • Is there an OBVIOUS link from your home page to information for potential volunteers, a link as obvious as your donation link?
  • When someone calls or emails about volunteering, or submits an application, does that person get an immediate reply regarding next steps? In fact, do they get info at all, or does someone take their name and say someone will get back to them and then, most of the time, no one ever does? Often, when I’ve been asked to assess a volunteer recruitment at a school, THIS is where the problem lies: plenty of people are calling to volunteer, but they never get the response they need to get started, or the response comes months later, when they are no longer interested or available.
  • Are your next steps for volunteering with your organization something that the volunteer can get started on in a few days? In several weeks? In a few months? The further away the next step, the more likely the volunteer candidate won’t follow through.
  • Are your volunteering opportunities listed at the most popular third party volunteering sites for your area? For instance, where I live, the most popular volunteer recruitment sites are VolunteerMatch and HandsOn Portland. Go to Google or Bing and type in volunteer and the name of your city and see what comes up. Also see these tips for Using Third Party Web Sites Like VolunteerMatch to Recruit Volunteers.
  • Do you need to alter the volunteer role so that a volunteer would get more out of it, in terms of training, career-development, university class credit, or personal fulfillment? Is there anything you can do to make the role more fun?
  • Can the people you are trying to recruit as volunteers afford to volunteer – to work for free? Do they have childcare responsibilities that are preventing them from helping? Could you offer childcare? Could you pay for parking or mass transit, provide lunch for volunteers, or do anything at all to ease their financial burden?
  • Could you make the service time commitment less for volunteers? Could you try to recruit more volunteers for shorter shifts, for instance, instead of fewer volunteers for longer shifts?
  • Do you have a myriad of opportunities available for volunteers, like Short-term Assignments for Tech VolunteersOne-Time, Short-Term Group Volunteering Activities, and virtual volunteering?
  • Does the task you are asking volunteers to do seem especially intimidating or daunting? Could you make it less so, by reducing the time commitment the volunteer would have to make, or by guaranteeing that there is a seasoned volunteer or employee always with the new volunteer? Or by taking away the tasks in the role that are the most intimidating and giving them to paid staff? Or by better-assuring candidates that they will be fully trained before they are put into potentially challenging situations?
  • Are you asking too much from volunteers in terms of a time commitment, training and the responsibilities they will undertake as unpaid staff? Do you need to convert such roles into paid positions, in order to better attract the people that can make the time and emotional commitment to the role?

A terrific, easy exercise that can be really helpful in diagnosing your volunteer recruitment problems is to create a flow chart mapping your volunteer engagement, or a series of maps for different parts of the volunteer management process — the volunteer in-take process, the volunteer assignment development and matching process, the volunteer support assignment, etc. You could do charts for each of these processes, and then show how they all intersect. You can do a map on what you do, and don’t do, now, and then alter it to show how it SHOULD be. A dry erase white board with markers is best, better than any computer app:

Here’s one example of what a volunteer in-take flow chart could look like as a result of your mapping exercise (every organization is different):

Let’s be clear: people WANT to volunteer, including the much-derided millennials. Just go to Quora or Reddit and see how many people, mostly from that generation, are posting questions about how to find volunteering. And people are hungry to connect: in this age of always-online, there are so many, many people looking to connect in a meaningful way offline. Your obstacle to recruiting volunteers isn’t that people don’t want to volunteer; it’s that people that want to volunteer can’t easily find your information, or your volunteer roles don’t fit their interests or schedules. What worked to recruit volunteers 30 years ago doesn’t work now; if you are having trouble recruiting volunteers, it’s overdue for you to take a hard, in-depth look at both how you recruit, what your in-take process is like, and the volunteer opportunities you have available.

Also see:

2 thoughts on “Diagnosing the causes of volunteer recruitment problems

  1. Laura Rundell

    Hi Jayne – Thank you so much. There is a lot of really great food for thought here.

    I would argue that there a few critical steps that an agency has to undertake before even doing the self-examination you listed in this article.

    1) Does your agency consider the volunteer program to be an organization-wide priority? Do you have a dedicated volunteer manager/coordinator whose sole or main responsibility is executing a well run volunteer program? If an agency doesn’t invest in a well trained volunteer coordinator, I would assert that recruitment will continue to be a challenge, no matter how well designed the web site or how flexible the opportunities.

    2) Does your agency have an ongoing problem retaining paid staff? If paid staff are unhappy and there is a lot of turnover, volunteers may sense this and be less inclined to invest their valuable time at your organization. If an agency doesn’t value the contributions of paid staff, will they value the contributions of unpaid volunteers?

    From my point of view all the best recruitment tips won’t make up for a lack of organizational investment in a volunteer program or for an organization that struggles with staff satisfaction and retention.

    1. jcravens Post author

      For a deeper dive into volunteer recruitment issues, I absolutely agree, Laura. I have long said that a volunteer program should have a mission statement defining WHY they involve volunteers, beyond “We can’t pay staff.” More here: http://www.coyotecommunications.com/volunteer/mission.shtml

      What I’m trying to get at in this article are the very immediate, obvious things an agency can correct quickly. Any time I’m asked to help with a volunteer program, these are the things I look at first – and I usually find they aren’t doing these very simple things. Same with people who whine online about not being able to find volunteers, especially schools.

      But you are right that, for many organizations, they may do all this and still have issues, if there are deeper problems.


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