Helping Hands: Volunteer Management Deconstructed

Volunteers aren’t paid; not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless. As funding streams tighten and more non-profits rely on volunteers, it’s crucial that organizations are able to find the volunteers they need, keep them coming back and track their contributions appropriately.

Whether you’re looking for a receptionist, marketing extraordinaire or friendly face for the seniors’ program, how you recruit your volunteers has a significant impact on whether you’ll find the volunteers you’re looking for.

1. Be clear and realistic
In your position description, have you clearly defined what you’re looking for, not just in terms of skills and experience, but time commitment too? 67% of Canadians don’t volunteer because they feel they don’t have the time to do so. Be sure to articulate honestly how much time, how often and over how many months, you expect the person to volunteer. Whilst evaluating this, it’s essential to be realistic and flexible in your expectations. Attempting to recruit a communications guru with 10+ years’ experience to volunteer three days a week at your office for the next year may not be likely as someone with such experience will likely be working during office hours and with a busy schedule, hesitant to commit for such a long period. Additionally how well explained is the position? Does the potential volunteer know what they’ll get out of it? That by volunteering as a Raffle Ticket Seller they’ll be taking part in your biggest fundraiser of the year and helping to raise $30,000 for a reading program that’ll give Adult Learners crucial literacy skills? Try asking a friend or colleague to read over the position and honestly say whether they’d be interested in doing it. If they wouldn’t, it’s unlikely the average person will want to either. Their feedback will help you improve it and better articulate the position. Avoid being misleading though!

2. Tap into local networks and events
Your local volunteer center is a great place to start as typically when people are looking to volunteer, if they haven’t already got a certain organization in mind, it’ll be their local volunteer center that they go to to be pointed in the right direction. Also volunteer fairs are a perfect way of getting in front of people who are already thinking about helping out. It doesn’t have to stop there though. Social media, your organization’s website, your newsletter, speaking at local schools, reaching out to different organizations are just a few ways of encouraging people to volunteer at your organization.

And don’t forget word of mouth is still one of the most effective ways of advertising. Do your current volunteers and colleagues know about your most urgent volunteer needs? Ask them to help you spread the word.

3. Finding not your Average Joe
If you’re looking for someone with a specific skill that the average person doesn’t have – e.g. fluency in Dutch, Martial Arts teaching skills, ability to knit, extensive computer programming experience – be prepared to do some targeted outreach in specific communities and networks. Try local community groups, schools that teach that skill, professional associations, retail stores that the people may tend to frequent, to reach the types of people you are looking for.

Retaining volunteers

The search is over. You’ve now interviewed and recruited the perfect person for the role. Now, you just have to hope they stay…

Firstly, low volunteer retention isn’t always a bad thing. Do you know why your volunteers are leaving? If not, ask! If the most common reason is that they were originally job seeking and have been offered a job, such situations can’t be avoided and your volunteer opportunity may well have contributed to their recent job success. However, in a situation where they have chosen to leave for reasons other than change of circumstances, it may be worth looking into your retention activities.

A good place to start is knowing why each person has chosen to volunteer with your organization and what they hope to get out of it. A volunteer who wants to add to their resume to help them move up the career ladder and a volunteer who is simply looking to make friends and social connections will expect different things. Determining their motivation should be built into the recruitment process and revisiting it during periodic evaluations between the volunteer and their supervisor can be useful in ensuring they are getting what they want from their volunteering experience.

Additionally creating an atmosphere where the volunteer feels included is essential. Knowing how their tasks help the organization achieve its mission is important, especially when the volunteer is not working directly with the organization’s clients and cannot see the immediate benefit of their time and efforts. Finally, whilst volunteer recognition should be an ongoing part of your volunteer program, specific times like National Volunteer Week are a great time to do something special for your volunteers and re-emphasize your appreciation.

Keeping track of your volunteers

As the number of volunteers your organization works with grows, using Excel spreadsheets to capture information from volunteers’ contact details to their assigned shifts will become increasingly tedious and inefficient. Fortunately there are a range of volunteer management websites and software packages available to help you with the scary beast that is tracking volunteers information and hours electronically. Deciding on which system is for you will depend on various factors including how many volunteers you’ll need to track and your organization’s budget, but here are a few free websites to get you started: Volunteer Spot (, Your Volunteers (, Big Tent ( and My Charity Manager (  And if you’re able to spend money on a system, it’s worth taking a look at TechSoup Global and Idealware’s detailed report on Volunteer Management Systems which compares six of the most popular systems available

Once you’ve decided on the software that’d right for you, keeping on top on things like scheduling volunteer shifts, sending volunteers reminders and tracking hours for those all important reports will be a piece of cake.

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