Tag Archives: staffing

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:

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)

Do NOT say “Need to Cut Costs? Involve Volunteers!”

(update: Just got a tweet from GiveGood2012, which said,

@jcravens42 love the blog. You’ve made us rethink our marketing gambit. Thank you!!!

Hurrah for them! For all of us! Now, just several thousand other people to go…)

Back in December of 2011, I blogged about Survival Strategies for Nonprofits, also applicable to non-governmental organizations, (NGOs), community based organizations (CBOs), charities, and government agencies focused on the community or the environment, etc., per the current dire economic climate. I wrote that blog in response to so many blogs on similar themes that I found unrealistic – or that said something like this:

Are you a #charity or #socent who needs help to cut costs? Read about our skilled volunteer matchmaking service (a tweet from GiveGood2012)

As my long-time followers know, these kinds of statements drive me crazy, because:

  • Volunteers are NOT free. There ARE costs associated with involving volunteers, particularly volunteers in high-responsibility roles. To involve volunteers effectively, YOU NEED MONEY.
  • People looking for jobs (and, in case you haven’t noticed, there are a LOT of people looking for jobs), as well as unions, read those statements and say, “See, this is where we opposed volunteer involvement – you are doing this to replace paid workers!” It’s why the union of professional firefighters in the USA opposes all volunteer firefighting programs. It’s why the unionized school employees in Petaluma, California protested volunteer involvement in schools. Why shouldn’t they be outraged – you just said volunteers could – and will – take paid jobs away!
  • It leads to poor decision-making by boards of directors and governments. I was contacted by a state historical agency once upon a time. There were patrons of the state historical library that frequented the site and helped fellow visitors in finding information on an ad hoc basis. The agency decided to formalize the activities as a volunteer program, so visitors would know they were talking to someone who officially-represented the organization, so helpers received the proper training, and so helpers received the proper thanks. The informal helpers became formal volunteers, and the volunteers loved it — they saw it as a “promotion”, as a recognition of their knowledge and past help. The volunteer program flourished over just a couple of years, and the agency decided to present it as a success story to the state legislature, which provides funding for the library. Unfortunately, agency representatives presented it in terms of money saved: they calculated a dollar value for each hour the volunteers had contributed, and said, “This is how much money we saved involving volunteers.” And the state legislature was very impressed — so impressed that they cut one of the paid staff member positions and other budget items, and told the agency to do more with volunteers “so you can save even more money.

If you are thinking of converting any roles at your organization from paid to volunteer, do not think of it nor talk about it as a way to save money, and do not think of it nor talk about it as a temporary solution.

Instead, think of it as a permanent re-alignment of your organization. You are doing this for strategic reasons – choose to reserve certain roles for volunteers because you have decided volunteers are the best people for those roles.

Consider this:

  • Does the American Red Cross train mobilize thousands of volunteers to staff most of its services during crisis situations because it “saves money”, or because volunteers are actually the best people for those tasks?
  • Does the Girl Scouts of the USA have volunteers deliver the vast majority of its programs to girls to save money, or because volunteers are the best people for those roles?
  • Do many women’s domestic violence shelters reserve the role of victim’s advocate for volunteers because it “saves money”, or because its clients prefer to work with someone they know is volunteering in that role – they aren’t there for the pay, but because of their desire to help?
  • Does CASA recruit and train volunteers to help children in the court system to save money, or because volunteers are actually the best people for those roles?

When I was directing the United Nations’ Online Volunteering service, administered through UNDP/UNV, the head of UNV at the time, Sharon Capeling-Alakija (whom I miss every day), said something really interesting in a staff meeting that I have never forgotten: she said the reason she was so committed to the OV service was because, without it, “the only way people can be involved in UNV is to become a UNV and going into the field for two years, or by becoming a staff member at headquarters – and most people can’t do this. With this, anyone can be involved in our work now.” I loved that statement. I’ve never forgotten it.

If your organization or program decides that its going to increase the number of volunteers it involves, then reserve certain roles exclusively for volunteers – for instance, all consultancies that will support staff, all front desk/phone staff, all bloggers, all conference support staff, all food servers, etc., and make it a permanent change that will last even when the economy gets better.

Not only are volunteers NOT free, this realignment regarding volunteer involvement will cost money – probably more money than you are already spending now to support and involve volunteers: more volunteers will need to be screened, trained more than once, and supervised and supported, and all employees and volunteer staff in leadership roles will need training on how to work with volunteers – and training is rarely free!

Develop a mission statement regarding why your organization involves volunteers. For example:

All tasks at our organization related to advising new entrepreneurs/mentoring young people/delivering meals/repairing bicycles are reserved for volunteers. We feel these roles, which are fundamental to the meeting of our organization’s mission, are best done by volunteers – unpaid staff donating their time and talent – rather than paid employees.

Such-and-such organization reserves certain tasks and roles specifically for volunteers, per our commitment to create opportunities for the community to participate in, offer feedback and endorse our work.

As a part of our commitment to both transparency and to creating opportunities for community investment in our organization, such-and-such organization welcomes volunteers in a variety of roles, including activities that directly support our paid employees, leadership positions and client services.


Just as some jobs are best done by paid employees, some tasks and roles at our organization are best done by volunteers. We therefore reserve certain positions for volunteers, including…


Our organization involves volunteers so that we can tap into skills, experiences and talents beyond what our excellent professional staff already bring to our organization and its work.


Every employee at our organization looks for ways to involve volunteers in his or her work. This is part of our commitment to involving the community in all aspects of our work.


Such-and-such organization is committed to helping to cultivate new professionals in the field of name-of-field-redacted. Therefore, we reserve certain tasks and roles for volunteer interns, to provide career-development experiences to emerging professionals.



Lots more advice on writing a mission statement for your organization or program, and examples of such, here.

Also see:

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

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