Are You Ready to Recruit Volunteers?
By Lori Tsuruda

Lori Tsuruda
Lori Tsuruda
United We Serve, a major initiative to mobilize and engage Americans as volunteers as part of the White House volunteerism initiatives, is about to launch, but local charities don’t seem to be preparing for an onslaught of inquiries from potential volunteers.

With a chance to involve new volunteers, nonprofits should take steps to prepare to take full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity #147; and avoid disillusioning potential volunteers. (To learn more about United We Serve, click here.)

Volunteers are positive contributors, primarily the means by which our charities connect personally with our communities beyond our paid staff and client bases. Volunteers provide leadership, skills, connections, and fund raising expertise on our boards and beyond, as well as carry out important, hands-on work that furthers our missions. They are the unpaid proponents of our causes, as well as our donors.

Recruiting volunteers is just like recruiting paid staff, except there is no financial compensation or tangible benefits as incentives. Getting ready to recruit requires:
  • A positive volunteer culture — from senior leadership and staff to the entire organization
  • Clear definition and articulation of roles
  • Effective staff that can efficiently recruit, screen, train, engage, and retain volunteers
  • A process for periodically assessing and adjusting your organization’s culture, roles, process, and staffing levels
Although integral to many nonprofit organizations, volunteers are oddly absent from most charities’ strategic or business plans. To engage more volunteers effectively, we need to reassess what our organizations need, how volunteers can help meaningfully, and the best staffing, programmatic structures, and resources to build our capacity to engage them in our work.

A positive organizational culture motivates and retains staff and volunteers, reflects values, and addresses basic, motivational needs such as:
  • Making a difference for your cause with adequate resources, i.e., work space, tools, materials, and training
  • Feeling valued
  • Having one’s time and effort respected via appropriate supervision, constructive feedback, adjustments to responsibilities, minimal wasted time, etc.
Assuming that you have a positive culture, have assessed your needs, and have drafted position descriptions that describe benefits as well as needs and qualifications, ask yourself whether each role will attract motivated volunteers #147; and adjust accordingly so that they will. Then direct your marketing messages to specific populations in order to fill these specific positions you’ve developed, rather than engage in broad calls for unspecified help.

If you’re unsure where to start, consider your ideal volunteers, where you would find clusters of them, and what would attract them. Test, adjust, and retest your marketing messages and position descriptions on people who are potential volunteers but don’t yet know your organization.

The process of matching the best volunteer to each position can be staff intensive, and yet delays can significantly diminish volunteer interest and enthusiasm. When the number of potential volunteers increases, inefficient processes quickly shut down.

How do we identify promising prospects rapidly? I encourage local charities to develop short, “get to know us” opportunities like open houses and one-time volunteer projects. Potential volunteers show up, learn about a charity firsthand from staff and exemplary volunteers, take a tour, and ask questions to learn more about a cause, organization, and volunteer needs. Later they may work on a mailing or basic task like bussing tables to demonstrate stronger interest and reliability. Then invite these “pre-qualified candidates” to apply for volunteer positions using a structured application that forces them to select specific positions based on availability, skills needed, etc.

Follow up good, initial paper matches with standard interviewing and reference checking geared toward unearthing “wrong” answers that are red flags for exploitive or other potentially unproductive views. Don’t be afraid to reject a candidate (graciously and kindly!) when qualifications are not a good match for your agency’s needs, and don’t compromise the responsibilities of your positions unless you’re willing to do so for all volunteers.

Assuming there’s a strong match, place and train them. Use a probationary period and check to see how things are going for the new volunteer and his/her supervisor. Find out whether the position is what the volunteer (and supervisor) expected, and whether some responsibilities or marketing messages need to be adjusted. Continue recruiting to address your agency’s needs. Reassess periodically and repeat.

Lori Tsuruda, founder and executive director of People Making a Difference and president of the Directors of Volunteer Administration, assists charities and companies in building successful community involvement programs through hands-on projects. Call her at 617-298-0025 or email

Posted: July 2009