Tag Archives: recruiting

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:

An incredible volunteer recruitment success story in Texas

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI have been training regarding volunteer management topics since the late 1990s. A frequently asked question I have gotten in my trainings is, “How do I get more black American men to sign up as volunteers with our program?” This question has come from a variety of nonprofits and schools. When I started training in the 1990s, I had zero ideas – I could not answer this question. I have had a lot of black American women in my audiences, but not men, especially when I was based in Texas, so I decided to ask some of them what their thoughts were in answer to the question. Two said the same thing to me on two different occasions: “I have no idea. When you find out, let me know.” I gathered ideas over the years, but never had the opportunity to put my own ideas into practice.

I did not, and I do not, for a second, believe any particular ethnic group is less inclined to volunteer. I do believe that different groups help their communities in different ways, and a lot of unpaid help to communities isn’t called volunteering – black men in the USA are giving back, but the ways they volunteer often go unrecognized. I also believe different groups face various obstacles to traditional, time-intensive volunteering: conflicting work schedules, family care needs, lack of transportation, lack of information about volunteering and language barriers. When I say lack of information, what I mean is that the volunteer recruitment message via one particular channel often does not reach everyone you want to reach. For instance, if I put volunteer recruitment messages only in the local newspaper, the majority of the community, which does NOT read the local paper, will never see it. If I put the messages only on Facebook, it’s unlikely teenagers will ever see it. When I say language barriers, I don’t always mean people for whom English is not their first language; I mean that certain words don’t mean the same to absolutely everyone. Volunteer doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Community service doesn’t mean the same to everyone. Mentor doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone. So in constructing a message, you have to think about who you are talking to and what words might appeal to them.

With all of that in mind, the recent success of a middle school in Dallas, Texas in recruiting black American men to be mentors in their school has been inspiring and enlightening to me:

According to this web site, 68.4% of the student population at Billy Earl Dade Middle in Dallas identify as African-American – drastically different from that of a “typical: school in Texas which is made up of 12.6% African-American students on average. To qualify for free lunch, children’s family income must be under $15,171 in 2015 (below 130% of the poverty line), and 85.5% of students at Dade Middle School receive free lunch. To qualify for reduced lunch, children’s family income must be below $21,590 annual income in 2015 (185% of the poverty line). 3% of students at Billy Earl Dade Middle receive reduced lunch. As of 2016, the percent of students at this school who pass the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) across all subjects was significantly lower than average for Texas. In short, the student body at Billy Earl Dade Middle School was largely “at risk.”

Parent involvement in a child’s early education is consistently found to be positively associated with a child’s academic performance (Hara & Burke, 1998Hill & Craft, 2003Marcon, 1999Stevenson & Baker, 1987). A 2002 report from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, A New Wave of Evidence, found that students with parents involved in their schools and their school work, no matter their income or background, are more likely to:

  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs
  • Be promoted, pass their classes and earn credits
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior and adapt well to school
  • Graduate and go on to post-secondary education

In December 2017, Billy Earl Dade Middle School ran into some difficulty when planning its annual “Breakfast with Dads” event. The school’s community liaison, Ellyn Favors, told the school’s Site Based Decision Making Team that student participation had been low in the past due to young men not having a father/father-figure available to attend the event. Kristina Dove, a community member on the team, decided to post a call for volunteers on Facebook in the hope of finding 50 male mentors to accompany the middle schoolers at the event:

This post was shared by several of her friends, including Stephanie Drenka, a popular blogger and photographer. The post was shared and reshared over and over, more than 125 times by the day of the event. They needed 150 men to sign up. More than 600 men showed up for the event. The event had to be moved from the cafeteria into the gymnasium because of the response. The event was so successful, so powerful, that it was covered by national media and online stories were shared over and over on social media. 

Why was this volunteer recruitment so successful? Based on all that I’ve read:

  • It was a simple way to get involved: just one hour of commitment at the school, with no requirement for anything else.
  • Why their attendance was so important was boiled down to simple, inspiring wording – easy to understand and oh-so-inviting to be a part of.
  • It was so simple to sign up.
  • It was oh-so-simple to share this message, and apparently, everyone on the team did so, to start.
  • The team had strong, trusting connections with key members of the community, so when they shared that message on social media, it reached those key members – who amplified it even more.

Had any one of those bullet points been missing from this equation, I’m not sure the recruitment would have been as successful.

What will happen now?

  • I hope the names and contact info of everyone who signed up is in an excel spreadsheet or database program, for easy reference.
  • I hope a variety of volunteering opportunities are created to entice these men to continue to be involved and accommodate their schedules, opportunities that range from more just-show-up episodic volunteering to more one-on-one, higher responsibility opportunities (and these will, of course, require more training and screening).
  • I hope the school is revisiting its safety policies and ensuring those are being followed.
  • I hope things are being put into place right now so that, in six months and a year from now, all of these activities can be evaluated, and successes can be bragged about and attract much-needed funding for the school so those successes can be amplified.

Congrats to Dade Middle School for getting it right. I’ll aspire to do the same.

Also see:

A volunteerism blog, not a political one

During this election season in the USA, there has been a lot of talk about the role volunteers played in the work of various campaigns, including the presidential campaign. But most of it has focused on the “free labor” aspect. Yet, as we all know (right?!), volunteers are NOT free.


The reason volunteers were effective in various campaigns this time around – and, well, always – isn’t because they were unpaid labor. Rather, it was because volunteers were the best people for certain tasks, and could do certain tasks far better than paid staff.


I got a lot of phone calls related to the election for the last three months. I realized after several of them that, when the person said, “I’m calling from the such-and-such campaign…”, I almost always interrupted them at some point, even if they were calling from a cause or campaign I supported, to say, “Hi, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have absolutely no money to donate to the campaign whatsoever.” But when the person said, “I’m a volunteer, and I’m helping with the such-and-such campaign…” I let them finish their spiel and answered all of their questions (but still couldn’t give money).


I thought about why I was doing that, why I was being so much kinder to the volunteers, and the answer was, for me: the people that are volunteers are supporters of such-and-such campaign, no question. A lot of people will do anything for a paycheck and, therefore, I wonder if the motivation for the political call from someone who is being paid isn’t actually all about the commission they are trying to make for every person that donates. With a volunteer, I know, absolutely, that that person is volunteering from a passion for that candidate. And I want to be a part of that.

I ended up volunteering for a campaign because one of those callers said, up front, that he was a volunteer and he was NOT calling for money – rather, he was calling to see if I would be voting, if I would be supporting a certain presidential candidate, and if I wanted to volunteer. And I said yes. And there was something so warm and energizing about sitting in another volunteer’s house, with lots of other volunteers, calling potential voters on my cell phone, rather than being paid to sit in a corporate-esque phone bank making calls – do you think people could hear that in my voice? I do.


That is not to say people that are paid to work on campaigns don’t have passion. I have been paid to do public relations and marketing, and I’m quite passionate about the causes I’ve been paid to promote – I’m not sure I could do the same for something I don’t really feel personally supportive of. I used to cringe when I worked at the UN Volunteers program and people would try to say that UN Volunteers had more passion than UNDP workers in the field – having worked in the field, I could never tell the different in what contract someone had just based on the passion they exhibited, or didn’t in the field.


But the fact remains that, often, the public responds more positively to someone that says, “I’m a volunteer” than they do to a person that says, “I’m an employee.” And exactly the opposite is true as well in certain situations – some people will refuse to work with “just a volunteer”, even if that person has more qualifications and expertise than a paid employee of the same organization.

It goes back to what I’ve said again and again: for some tasks, volunteers are the best people for the job, and for some tasks, employees or paid consultants are the best people for the job, and it does NOT have to do with saving money!

Also see:

Writing a mission statement for your organization or program.

Going all-volunteer in dire economic times: use with caution

The Value of Volunteers (and how to talk about such)

Recruiting Computer/Network Consultants (paid or volunteer/pro bono)

There are two reasons mission-based organizations (nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, and public sector agencies) need to recruit computer/network consultants, paid or volunteer/pro bono:

  • Staff at mission-based organizations such as nonprofits, NGOs, schools and government offices have a great deal of expertise in a variety of areas – but, often, such staff do not have expertise in computer hardware, software, and technology-related networks. That means that staff at such organizations often have to rely on consultants, either paid or volunteer, for such expertise.
  • An organization needs to recruit paid or volunteer / pro bono consultants to participate in its program delivery to clients or the public: an organization that helps nonprofits build accessible web sites, for instance, or a community center that helps the low income community it serves regarding computer literacy may want these consultants, paid or volunteer, to design and lead classes.

Staff at mission-based organizations such as nonprofits, NGOs, schools and government offices have a great deal of expertise in a variety of areas, such as health care, child welfare, environmental management, community outreach, human resources management, microfinance, emergency logistics, and on and on. But staff can feel a sense of both awe and fear about tech consultants — that whatever the consultant says goes. Staff may feel unable to understand, question or challenge whatever that consultant recommends.

What can mission-based organizations do to recruit the “right” consultant, whether paid or volunteer, for “tech” related issues, one that will not make them feel out-of-the-loop or out-of-control when it comes to tech-related discussions or the delivery of tech-related services?

See this updated version of Recruiting Computer/Network Consultants (paid or volunteer/pro bono)

Your flow chart for volunteers

Too often, volunteer involvement is described this way:

Volunteers contact us, we give them an assignment, they do it. Ta da!

This simplified description comes often from people who are from the for-profit/corporate sector or who are in senior management – they have no idea how much work it takes behind the scenes for successful volunteer engagement.

Volunteers should certainly feel like getting into an assignment is seamless and quick, but to give volunteers that experience actually takes a LOT of planning behind-the-scenes by the organization. For instance, there are rarely a plethora of well-defined tasks or roles laying around a nonprofit office waiting to be done by just anyone with some time on their hands and a good heart. It takes a lot of time and support to develop volunteering assignments, including “micro-volunteering” tasks that will take just a few hours, and not just any person is appropriate every assignment – some require particular skills, a certain amount of time within a specific time frame, or work at a particular type of day.

In addition, a person’s desire to volunteer is often not enough for a volunteer to be successful: a candidate needs to be screened at least a bit in order to make sure the volunteer understands the very real commitment he or she is making, even if that commitment is just a couple of hours. The candidate may need to be further screened to make sure he or she really does know how to do the assignment. To not do any screening means much more time down the road for the organization, tracking down volunteers, correcting sub-par assignments, finding more volunteers or staff to re-do assignments that were poorly done or not done at all, etc.

And, ofcourse, supporting volunteers takes a lot of time, no matter how automated you make the process. Someone has to be contacting volunteers to ensure they are getting assignments done, have the support they need, etc. Someone has to keep volunteers in-the-loop about what’s happening at the organization, and to recognize the value of their work – otherwise, those volunteers go away.

A terrific, easy exercise that can be really helpful in showing just what it takes for your organization or an individual department to involve and support volunteers successfully 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 this mapping exercise alone, by yourself (if you are the coordinator of volunteer program or involve large numbers of volunteers yourself), or you can do this with a group of employees and volunteers. A dry erase white board with markers is best, but any computer program that allows you to do a flow chart or graphics will work as well.

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):

Don’t be surprised if, in doing this process, you find gaps in your volunteer management process. I’ve done this mapping process with several departments and organizations, and the results have been revealing. Many times, I’ve found that an organization thinks it isn’t recruiting enough volunteers when, actually, it is — a lot of people are, in fact, responding to recruitment messages, but their information isn’t being forwarded to the coordinator of volunteers, or the volunteers are getting responses weeks or months after they express interest, instead of within hours or a few days. If I’m evaluating a volunteer program and an organization cannot produce such a chart — they don’t know what happens when someone calls, they don’t know how information gets to the coordinator of volunteers, the coordinator can’t say how many calls or emails he or she gets every month from potential volunteers, etc. — I know just how deep problems may be regarding the organization’s recruitment, involvement and support of volunteers.

Doing a chart correctly may require interviewing more than one person. For instance, just to map the volunteer in-take process correctly takes interviewing every person who answers the organization’s phone or main email address.

When I’m in charge of coordinating volunteers, I find this exercise quite helpful because it helps me educate fellow staff quickly on what it takes to involve volunteers successfully and helps explain why I’m doing whatever it is I’m doing.

Again, the example above is just for a volunteer in-take process (it doesn’t show how a volunteer is matched to an assignment, or how an assignment gets developed in the first place), and your map could be different for your organization. Maybe you don’t have an onsite orientation; your volunteer orientation may just be an email message, or may be an online video candidates for volunteering can view on their own. In either case, your map needs to show how you know they have read that email message or viewed that video.