Managing volunteers -

Managing Volunteers


Managing Volunteers

In this chapter, we examined the important contribution that volunteers can make to an organization’s fundraising efforts. Volunteer fundraisers are a crucial component of the development program either as officers of the organization or as ad hoc fundraisers, raising funds in the community. We discussed the role of both categories of volunteer and what the organization can do to support them.

We then focused on formal volunteer roles, highlighted the significance of job descriptions and person specifications and moved on to consider where an organization might find suitable individuals to fulfill these roles. In making the recruitment appeal we discussed the categories of information that should be supplied and stressed the need to emphasize what are likely to be the key motives a volunteer might have for offering their support

We concluded by exploring the issue of retention mapping out common sources of volunteer dissatisfaction and suggesting concrete actions that the organization might take to improve retention. We also discussed the need for regular evaluations of the volunteer program. Evaluations are part of a feedback system that provides needed information for continual improvement.


Facts and Figures

Around 61.8 million people, or 26.4 percent of the U.S. population, volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2007 and September 2008 (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2009). Both the level and rate of volunteering were essentially unchanged from the prior year.

Volunteers of both sexes spent a median of 52 hours on volunteer activities during this period (See Table 18.1). Median annual hours spent on volunteer activities ranged from a high of 96 hours for volunteers age 65 and over to a low of 40 hours for those 16 to 19 or 25 to 34 years old. It is interesting to note that fundraising is the most commonly occurring form of this volunteering, accounting for roughly 10-12% of all volunteering by every gender, age and racial group (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009)

Volunteers can play a multitude of roles, helping to raise funds during special events, and annual fund drives (through direct mail, telephone fundraising, business appeals, and online appeals). They may also be useful in developing grant proposals. While sometimes seen as the exclusive territory of fundraising professionals, volunteers can also be used in major gift campaigns, capital campaigns, and even in the domain of planned giving. (Boice, 2004; Burk, 2003; Sargeant,and Jay 2009).


Percent volunteering

Hours spent

There are a variety of high quality websites providing facts and figures on volunteering, including:

Volunteering America

This site provides information on  volunteering trends, statistics, tools, resources, and information for the nation, U.S. regions, states, and major cities. You will also be able to see how states and cities rank on different factors related to volunteering. The data underpinning this site were collected through a supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) September Volunteer Supplement. The CPS is a monthly survey of about 60,000 households (approximately 100,000 adults), conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Institute for Volunteering Research

In the U.K. the Institute for Volunteering Research is a hub for all things volunteering. The Institute is an initiative of Volunteering England in association with the Centre for Institutional Studies at the University of East London.

The Institute makes a range of documents available online which can be helpful for fundraisers. These include:


Volunteering England

Volunteer England logo

As the name suggests another site based in the U.K. Volunteering England is a volunteer development agency committed to supporting, enabling and celebrating volunteering in all its diversity.

They have recently created a gateway to the world of volunteer management with links to over a thousand resources and information on support, training and development opportunities for people managing volunteers. Although a resource hosted in England, it will offer genuine value in many different countries. Good practice is good practice, wherever you may be based. Find out more.


Formal Versus Informal Volunteering

Many nonprofits make a formal use of volunteers in fundraising roles. They go through a deliberate process of recruiting individuals to serve in this capacity and provide them with much the same level of training, support and recognition as they would for a comparable paid member of staff. In a very real sense these individuals are an integral part of the organization. They are part of the ‘internal’ organizational team and are rightly regarded as such. These individuals can engage in the whole spectrum of fundraising activity, but as we noted earlier the following types of involvement are common.

  • Special events.
  • Annual fund.
  • Direct mail.
  • Telephone fundraising.
  • Corporate appeals.
  • Grant proposals.
  • Major gifts appeals.
  • Capital and endowment campaigns.
  • Planned giving efforts.

By contrast there are often many other individuals who care passionately about the cause and who will volunteer to raise funds on an ad-hoc basis without a formal organizational role. In such cases there is no formal post the individual is fulfilling, they are simply persuaded to raise funds for the organization in a way they will find personally rewarding and appropriate. Many millions of Americans, for example, have engaged in Walkathons, Marathons and even Slimathons to support their favorite charity. Indeed, there are a plethora of ways in which volunteers can support an organization.

Many charities provide resources online to support informal volunteering. As an example, the ‘fundraising kit’ provided by Mercy Corps is available to download here.

In the UK the Institute of Fundraising has published a code of conduct on working with fundraising volunteers.


Volunteer Recruitment

1. Job Description

The first step lies in the identification of a need and the writing of a job description to fill that need. As a minimum the volunteer role description should contain the following information:

  •  Title. Organizations should avoid ‘volunteer’ and use the nature of the role as the basis for providing an appropriate job title.
  •  Overall purpose. The job description should explain what the purpose of the role will be, how it relates to other roles in the organization, and the contribution that it will make to the achievement of the mission.
  • Activities and key outputs. This section of the job description maps out the tasks that the volunteer will fulfill and the measures of success that will be used to gauge their performance. Some organizations map out a range of suggested activities to achieve the outputs rather than being prescriptive. This allows the volunteer some flexibility and respects the fact that individuals can often bring a substantial amount of personal and subject expertise to their role.
  • Supervision. It will also be important to specify the individual or individuals to whom the volunteer will report. In some cases this can be a supervisor in the functional part of the organization in which they are working, or it may be a specialized volunteer service coordinator (VSC). While the use of a VSC can assist in certain circumstances because such individuals have a good understanding of the nature of volunteering, it can often be better for volunteers to be supervised directly by the ‘line supervisor’ in whose department they are working. The reason for this is simply that the volunteer can then feel an integral part of the team rather than an outsider, donating their time.
  • Benefits. The job description should outline the benefits that will accrue as a result of the individual volunteering their time. By definition a volunteer is an individual who performs a service of her/his own free will without any remuneration, but  nonprofits are able to reimburse volunteers for expenses such as parking, travel, or child care or reward their volunteers with mechanisms such as appreciation events. In some circumstances a nominal fee can also be paid or there may be benefits offered relating to the organization itself. Volunteers to a heritage charity, for example, may qualify for free or reduced entry to the site for themselves and members of their family.
  • Timeframe and site. The job description will contain the details of where the volunteer will work, the hours it is expected that they will contribute, and for how long they will continue to work in this capacity. While some volunteer posts involve an open-ended commitment, many organizations are realizing that modern lifestyles no longer permit this level of commitment and that an open-ended need might dissuade volunteers. There may thus be circumstances where a specific timeframe is included in the job description so that both parties know from the outset how long the arrangement will last.
  • Arrangements for reimbursement of out of pocket expenses. A good job description will also contain a summary of the categories of expenses that will be reimbursed (e.g. travel) and the typical length of time it will take the organization to reimburse the volunteer. This is considered good practice because a clear statement from the outset can prevent any future misunderstandings (Fisher and Cole 1993).
  • Equal opportunities statement. Finally, every job description should contain an equal opportunities statement, which spells out the organization’s stance on recruiting individuals with disabilities or from minority groups. It is important to note that this should be more than a simple statement of policy from the management of the organization; it should also be backed up with training to staff, to ensure that the reality of volunteer recruitment is grounded in this statement.

Job descriptions help individuals determine the desirability and fit of the role with themselves. Individuals who are thinking about becoming volunteers need information to understand what the volunteer experience will be like. If an individual decides to volunteer after developing a clear understanding of the volunteer role that individual is less likely to be disappointed with the experience and quit, than an individual volunteering with a weak understanding of what will be required.

Further information on volunteer job descriptions can be found here.

The Supporting Advancement site offers a bewildering array of examples. Job descriptions for pretty much any role you can imagine!

2. Identifying Prospects

Once the volunteer roles are developed and staffing needs understood the next step is to develop a person specification. The person specification is an extension of the job description. It provides a detailed profile of the type of person needed to perform the role. Together the job description and person specification inform the recruitment process that follows. They should help target right individuals, shape the nature of the message that will be conveyed and the methods or media that will be used for that purpose.

There are numerous examples of person specifications online. We provide two examples below:

3. Recruitment Communications

There are two key components of the recruitment communication. The first is the medium that will be employed, the second the nature of the message that will be imparted. Extant research has consistently shown that face-to-face requests to donate time are the most effective at engendering support. Other media lag way behind this in terms of effectiveness. Peer-to-peer ‘asks’ from staff, recruiters, and particularly other volunteers are thus a powerful way of expanding support and should always be utilized before the organization employs more indirect means of communication.

In respect of the message that should be conveyed, Ellis (1994) suggests that designing an appropriate recruitment communication is a far from easy task. She argues that organizations can frequently sound ‘desperate’ to recruit the help that they need and that the very act of appearing so desperate may put off some individuals from offering their time.

Rather than conveying desperation, extant research suggests that recruitment messages should be upbeat and convey three distinct categories of information.

  • the importance of the cause;
  • the efficacy of the program of work the organization undertakes;
  • the benefits that the post would offer the volunteer (e.g. feeling useful/productive, or the social interaction that would be afforded)

(Wymer 1999; Okun 1994)

The framing of the communication should also reflect volunteer motivation. Sargeant and Jay (2009) summarize the volunteering literature noting that volunteers can also derive utility from:

  •  the ability to make a difference;
  • the ability to enhance their self-worth or self-esteem;
  • the ability to obtain experiences that can be useful in paid employment;
  • the ability to meet others—it is interesting to note that women appear to derive more social rewards from volunteering than men (Ricks and Pyke 1973);
  • the ability to prepare for a volunteer ‘career’ after retirement;
  • the ability to get inside institutions and organizations and ensure that they are doing what they profess to be doing.

While researching this site we found many resources describing motives for volunteering in many different countries.

The following websites are also helpful:

Several articles both cautioning about and explaining how to recruit and work with celebrities as volunteers, from The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “Philanthropy Careers” site.

Encouraging Involvement in Community Work – A self-teaching module on gaining participation by community members.

National Service Resources – Provides a wide range of volunteer recruitment resources for folks managing volunteering  in the United States

Stronger Together:  Recruiting and Working with Ethnocultural Volunteers – Online manual by the Central Volunteer Bureau of Ottawa-Carleton (Canada) about how to make volunteer programs attractive and accessible to ethnic minority volunteers, based on input from program managers with experience.

Finally, there are a range of third party sites that promote volunteering opportunities. In the United States, these include:

Federal Volunteer Programs

National Volunteer Programs

In the UK there are also sites that specialize in promoting volunteering opportunities.


Retention Strategies

The major reason volunteers give for quitting during the first six months of service is that the experience is not what they expected (Fisher and Cole, 1993; Sargeant and Jay 2009). In other words, individuals had a set of expectations in mind when they first volunteered and the actual volunteer experience was disappointing (Lee, 2004). The issue of inflated expectations being met with a disappointing experience can be dealt with in several ways. First and foremost, during the recruitment process, the prospective volunteer needs to be provided with a realistic set of expectations regarding what the experience of volunteering will be like. The volunteer job description can be used to help describe the role in detail to the prospect.

Some short-term attrition of new volunteers can be reduced by recruiting strategies which provide prospects with realistic expectations of the experience. Prospects who realize that particular forms of volunteering will not be personally rewarding can then decline the opportunity rather than quit after induction thereby wasting organizational resources and demoralizing staff and other volunteers.

The major reason volunteers give for quitting after longer periods of service is that they no longer feel that their service is meaningful (Sargeant and Jay 2009). This may mean that they do not perceive their contribution to be important to the organization or that the values they wanted to express through their volunteering fail to get expressed. Perhaps they wanted to help needy children through their fundraising and no longer believe that their fundraising is actually achieving this goal. Perhaps they think that their efforts are not really making a meaningful difference for the organization. They might also have failed to assimilate into the social network of the organization and might not feel part of the community. As a consequence their social and esteem needs go unmet.

Simmons (2007) summarises the reasons volunteers give for terminating their support as follows:

1. A sense that their service is not valuable.
2. A sense that they do not matter as a person, only as a “worker.”
3. A sense that their contribution is not as valid as others.
4. A lack of community.
5. A lack of connection with a bigger purpose.
6. Poor leadership and management.
7. Poor communication/direction.
8. Lack of appreciation.
9. Failure to recognize them as a donor.
10. Lack of development of them as a person.

There are many web resources to support volunteer retention. The major hub appears to be the Corporation for National and Community Service website. It provides a good deal of information on recruiting and retaining volunteers. Through its studies on “Volunteering In America,” the Corporation delivers increasingly detailed reports on the trends and habits in volunteering across the country, in order to better understand who is serving in our communities and how, when, and why they serve.


Recognition Programs

Appropriate recognition can build loyalty. Nonprofits may either create a formal recognition system or deal with recognition on a more ad hoc basis as the need arises. Simple communications, such as notes of thanks, a mention in a newsletter or internal paper, or an expression of gratitude to a spouse or employer have all be found to be effective forms of recognition. Other nonprofits have nominated volunteers for external awards, displayed positive client comments on noticeboards, or created a graduated reward programme, such as providing passes to community parks and recreation areas and passing on coupons from local businesses. Also, certificates, pins, and recognition dinners form the backbone of volunteer recognition programmes in the US.

Many organizations choose to publish their procedures for the recognition of volunteers. Examples include


Program Evaluation

Finally, the leadership of any nonprofit organization should strive to continually improve. This does not imply dissatisfaction with the organization, but the acknowledgement that it is a good managerial practice to try to find ways of improving the organization’s activities and operations. This philosophy of continual improvement should also apply to managing the volunteer programs (Wilson, 2008).

In order to continually improve the volunteer fundraising program, the VPM will require information to help her make good decisions (Saul, 2004). Relevant feedback can include:

  • The proportion of volunteers is being retained each year
  • Trends in this data.
  • Whether volunteer staffing requirements being met.
  • The level of staff satisfaction with volunteers’ performance
  • Key areas in which staff feel volunteers’ performance needs to improve
  • Levels of volunteer satisfaction and trends in this data.
  • Data in respect of the aspects of their role volunteers like most and like least.
  • How volunteers rate their own performance.
  • Ways in which volunteers believe performance could be enhanced.
  • Volunteer perceptions of the quality of their supervision

Additional resources to assist in the evaluation of programs can be found at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

There is also: Economic Impact Of Volunteers Calculator

Created by the Points of Light Foundation estimates the appropriate wage rate for volunteer time based on what the person does and the value of specific tasks according to market conditions as reported by the US Department of Labor.  A starting point for organizations to determine the value of the time their volunteers give doing a wide variety of volunteer jobs.

The Economic Value of Volunteering – The European Volunteer Centre’s compilation of efforts in Europe to measure the economic impact of volunteering.

Innovation Network OnlineTools – Innovation Network’s Point K Learning Center offers collaborative tools and resources for assessment, planning, and program improvement.

Investing in Volunteers Project (UK) – Investing in Volunteers is the UK quality standard for all organizations which involve volunteers in their work. The Standard enables organizations to comprehensively review their volunteer management, and also publicly demonstrates their commitment to volunteering.

The Impact of Investing in Volunteers – Text by Ben Cairns and Romayne Hutchison from the Centre for Voluntary Action Research at Aston Business School

Measuring the Difference Volunteers Make: A Guide to Outcome Evaluation for Volunteer Program Managers – Text by Melissa Eystad, Editor. With permission of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, this extremely useful 1997 guidebook (now out of print) is available free of charge in electronic form.

Voluntary Sector Evaluation Research Project (Canada) – Canadian initiative to improve the capacity of voluntary organizations to assess their performance and communicate their effectiveness to their funders, stakeholders and the public.


Recommended Reading



  • Bennett, R. and Barkensjo, A. (2005) ‘Internal Marketing, Negative Experiences and Volunteers’ Commitment to Providing High-Quality Services in a UK Helping and Caring Charitable Organization’, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 16(3): 251-274.
  • Mitchell, M.A. and Taylor, S. (2004) ‘Internal Marketing: Key to Successful Volunteer Programs’, Nonprofit World, 22(1): 25-26.
  • Okun, M.A. (1994) ‘The Relation Between Motives for Organizational Volunteering and the Frequency of Volunteering by Elders’, Journal of Applied Gerontology, Vol. 13, No. 2, 115–26.
  • Ratje, J.M. (2003) ‘Well Prepared Volunteers Help the Brand Image’, Marketing News, 14 April, 17.
  • Ricks, F.A. and Pyke, S.W. (1973) ‘Women in Voluntary Social Organizations’, The Ontario Psychologist, Vol. 5, No. 2, 48–55.
  • Starnes, B. & Wymer W. (2000). Demographics, personality traits, roles, motivations, and attrition rates of hospice volunteers. Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing, 7(2): 61-76.
  • Wymer, W. (1999). Understanding volunteer markets: The case of senior volunteers. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 6(2/3): 1-24.
  • Wymer, W. (1998). Youth development volunteers: Their motives, how they differ from other volunteers, and correlates of involvement intensity. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing 3(4): 321-336.
  • Wymer, W. & Starnes, B. (2001). Conceptual foundations and practical guidelines for recruiting volunteers to serve in local nonprofit organizations: Part 1. Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, 9(1): 63-96.

Test your knowledge with our Quiz: Managing Volunteers

Volunteers will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no volunteers.

Ken Wyman