Recruit, Engage, and Retain in a Changing Volunteer Culture
By Bethany Kendall

Bethany Kendall
Bethany Kendall
Strengthening your nonprofit’s ability to recruit volunteers—and fully leveraging your volunteer network—requires the same level of thoughtful planning that you give to board and staff development.

Just eight years ago, volunteering was at an all-time high in the nation. Recently the U.S. Bureau of Labor reported we are witnessing the lowest rates of volunteering in a decade. We may not be able to identify the exact attitudes, pressures, and other forces which have brought about this decline, although the economy may certainly be a factor, but we can and must think more rigorously about volunteer engagement.

Volunteers bring not only necessary skills and capacity to implement program services, but they also lend passion and energy to your mission, and can be powerful advocates for fundraising, awareness and other resource development.

Effective volunteer recruitment and retention begins with reflection on key questions: What will volunteers find motivating in the mission or service opportunity? What kinds of support and resources do they need to do their work well? What forms of recognition or reward will they consider most meaningful?

Motivations for Volunteering
It may be helpful to think of various forms of volunteer motivation. Perhaps a prospective volunteer is seeking to network for professional advancement, or gain college acceptance. People also volunteer to have a sense of belonging, or they may have been persuaded by a trusted contact. Often the draw is passion for the mission; long-term volunteers serve not just to make a contribution, but also to make a meaningful difference.

Potential volunteers are busier now more than ever, so it is critical that you think through building or deepening engagement at each of these levels. It is equally important to consider constraints; how can you design a more flexible service opportunity, for example, to accommodate a volunteer’s competing obligations? Elicit, recognize, and respond to your volunteers’ needs and interests #147; and draw attention to the community and change of which they are or will be a part.

Providing the Necessary Support
Perhaps most critically for volunteers, in order to understand the impact they are making—and often overlooked by their nonprofit supervisors—is knowing what is expected of them, and what support or guidance they will receive. A comprehensive orientation process is therefore key.

Be sure to give new volunteers general information about the organization, clarify specific details about roles and/or projects, and introduce them to longer-term volunteers who can describe the value of this experience from a peer perspective.

Let your new volunteers know, as well, what the organization will provide to invest in their successful performance #147; whether that is specific equipment or material, a particular model for workflow, a team of collaborators and mentors, meals, or transportation.

Ongoing professional development—beyond orientation—is also valuable for evolving volunteers’ skills and abilities, facilitating peer connection, and deepening commitment to the mission. Think creatively about negotiating time and resource constraints. You may want to engage more experienced volunteers, for example, as workshop facilitators, guides or mentors. Informal networking events and round table discussions may be other models that would serve your organization’s volunteers well.

However you choose to support your volunteers, be sure to confirm usefulness and relevance. Ask volunteers for their regular and candid feedback, and appropriately respond in your programming, so that they know they are heard.

Effective Supervision, Reward, and Recognition
Yes, volunteers offer time, skills and hard work, but that doesn’t mean you can neglect their performance management. Supervisors, be they staff members or senior volunteers, should always let your organization’s volunteers know that what they are doing is central to the mission, why their role is so vital, and why they were chosen to fill that responsibility.

Supervisors should also encourage honest dialogue about satisfaction, project progress, and volunteers’ perceived sense of purpose #147; to drive process improvement, but also to indicate appreciation and a desire to make the volunteer experience meaningful.

Reward and recognition round out the mosaic of volunteer engagement, and are perhaps the most important elements of volunteer management. Various forms of gratitude will resonate differently for volunteers, so consider how each may be received. Some volunteers may take great pleasure in public recognition, while others would prefer a more private thank-you message or call. New, elevated responsibility may be another reward for certain volunteers, as an expression of confidence in their abilities.

One reward which seems to hold universal appeal: hearing how their service has made a difference in someone else’s life.

Bethany Kendall is president & CEO, ESC of New England, a nonprofit providing management consulting and related services including the Encore Fellowship Program to other nonprofits in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Contact her at
July 2014