At a recent For the City Collective breakfast, we held a panel discussion on the topic, “Doing More with Less: People” at the For the City Center. During the collective we discussed:

  • How leaders can build strong teams
  • How to create trust within the team
  • Caring for your employees holistically
  • Valuing volunteers
  • Managing an emotionally complex workload
  • Retaining people.

One of the themes that emerged was the critical importance of treating your volunteers well; by doing so they will be more fulfilled and the organization’s retention rates will be high. But how to do this? It starts and ends with the basics - treat your volunteers as you would want to be treated. Here are four simple steps to remember when working with volunteers.

The key to retaining volunteers starts with deciding that you need them.

1. Determine if working with volunteers is worth your time.

This first step is foundational: Ask yourself, is it worth your time or your team’s time to work with volunteers? This is a tough question and deserves an honest answer. It may be that the reason you’re frustrated with your volunteers is because you don’t actually have the time or interest, but saying no to “free help” seems like the wrong choice. Let’s be clear here, there’s no such thing as free, for you or your volunteer. It takes time to get the right volunteer, staff resources to train, direct and supervise that volunteer, and then of course supplies, reimbursements, and appreciation gifts. But done well, engaging volunteers can be the single best thing you can do for your organization. Don’t engage with volunteers because your organization should, do so because they are a critical part of your strategy.

2. Have a Volunteer Engagement Strategy.

Volunteer Alive has developed a Volunteer Involvement Framework to help Executive Directors and Volunteer Managers identify current volunteer engagement practices, consider potential new engagement practices, and identify the needs of the organization. With this framework, consider which types of volunteers are most needed by program, staff position, or administrative or organizational need. This, then defines your volunteer recruiting.

3. Recruit volunteers based on organizational needs.

This step is heavily reliant on the first step; if volunteers are important to the organization, then you should dedicate time and resources to recruiting the right volunteers for the roles you need. Recently, For the City released “Six Reasons Volunteer Interviews Matter,” a blog post which details the benefits of devoting time to the recruiting and screening process. Interviews identify a volunteers unique skills, assesses fit, gauges competencies, enhances volunteer satisfaction and retention, set expectations, and identifies future leaders.

Regarding recruiting processes, to funnel or segment volunteer candidates better consider asking applicants to complete a volunteer application questionnaire before a phone or in-person interview. Automate with Google Forms or Survey Monkey to remove time and personnel barriers. In this questionnaire, ask close-ended questions on time commitment, areas of expertise and areas of interest. In the interview, be clear on expectations, and be okay if this isn’t the right fit for them. If you are talking to a great potential volunteer, and the role doesn’t align, find a different role for them. Where there is clearly not a fit between the volunteer and your organization the most caring choice you can make for both of you is to graciously say “no” the volunteer.

4. Recognize your volunteers.

Even the most mission-driven volunteers become weary and recognizing their efforts can give them a boost. Incorporate appreciation throughout each month and across each staff member. Systematize it with calendar reminders or checklists for your team members. If you’d like to know more about how to recognize volunteers check out our post on “Seven Ways to Recognize Volunteers”.

This is it. Volunteers aren’t free, and you get what you pay for. If you’re looking for great volunteers, become the kind of organization that a great volunteer would want to work for.


Anne York
I am the Program Manager for For the City Ventures. Professionally, I've worked in management consulting, tech, and e-commerce. I earned an MBA from the University of Texas-Austin, and a double major in History and Political Science from Hillsdale College. I live in Austin with my husband and three kids. On the weekends, you can find us doing home improvements or soaking up all the fun that Austin has to offer.


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