The Proper Use of Volunteers

By Colin Rice

This post is the second post of a series on using volunteers in small and mid-sized nonprofits. The first post is The Value of a Volunteer

When considering the use of volunteers in your organization, you should keep in mind that there are essentially five broad roles that a volunteer can fill while working with you:

  1. Service delivery (e.g. delivering the food for Meals on Wheels)
  2. Fundraising
  3. Administrative tasks (e.g. helping with mass mailings)
  4. Governance(e.g. being on the Board)
  5. Donor (may seem like it doesn’t fit here, but it is mentioned below and will be discussed in a later post)

In this post, I will only be discussing the proper use of volunteers in the first three roles. Governance and Board issues have been written about thoroughly and there are a number of good resources to learn more about that volunteer role.  Also, the idea of viewing images (1)volunteer as donors, and how to approach them as such, is a topic that requires a bit more attention and will be written about in a follow-up post. It should also be noted that this discussion is in relation to the type of volunteer that is most commonly used by small organizations today. This means general volunteers who are either not highly trained in a specific area or those who are not intending to use their particular skills in their volunteering. The use of skills-based volunteers for more high level tasks (reviewing your tax documents, creating your website, designing a logo for your organization, etc…) is certainly not something to be overlooked, but this is a topic all its own and will be discussed in a later post.

Within the first three categories (service delivery, fundraising, and administrative tasks), it is easy for an organization to get used to simply giving the most menial and repetitive tasks to a volunteer. This could be putting together hygiene kits for a shelter, packets to be mailed to raise money, or answering phones at the office. Clearly this is beneficial in that it takes little training, has little risk in the event of a mistake by a volunteer, and allows your paid staff to better spend their time by performing tasks that require a higher skill level. However, it is always important to keep in mind that in order to have volunteers that will stay invested and keep coming back, they must feel that they are contributing to the organization and its mission rather than being used by it. A few of the main ways to foster this engagement and show your appreciation are described below:

Effective CommunicationThis may seem obvious, but too many organizations overlook this simple way to keep volunteers excited about their work. No matter what you have someone doing, make sure they know the purpose of the task and, most importantly, concrete ways it contributes to the organization’s overall mission. This does not mean you need to convince them that the activity they are performing is crucial to the survival of the organization. Rather, they need to understand how the task is part of a process that will help the organization advance toward its goals (be specific!). If you are unable to clearly state the connection between the task being assigned and how it enhances your ability to work towards your mission, then you may need to reconsider whether the task is even worthwhile to the organization or if you are just trying to find something to keep the volunteer occupied. If the latter is the case, then you may need to reconsider your use of volunteers. While there is no doubt that an effective volunteer program can add considerable value to an organization, you must remember that correlation is not causation. In other words, just having a volunteer do random work for your organization does not automatically add real and lasting value.

imagesVarietyA second way to cultivate volunteer engagement (and increase the likelihood that they will return) is by ensuring that there is at least some variety in the tasks that you assign them. This is more important when trying to build ongoing relationships with volunteers than in a situation where you do not expect a volunteer or group to return (such as a class coming from a school to help for one day). With regular volunteers (or those you hope will become regular), you certainly do not need a new and exciting task for every time they come by, but it will be beneficial to the organization and the individual if there are at least a few different recurring tasks that they work on during their visits. Whenever possible, they should also be asked to help with tasks that demonstrate the value they are adding to the organization in a more direct way. For instance, if a volunteer always comes to your office to help prepare packed lunches to be given out at a shelter, ask them to come along to deliver them occasionally. Clearly this is a very basic example, but be creative. Some volunteers may even enjoy sitting in on a strategy or brainstorming meeting to see what actually goes on in a nonprofit, and what needs to happen to deliver the goods or services that your organization does.

AcknowledgmentI realize that this is probably the most straight-forward of all, and hopefully no organization has ever had a volunteer and not at least said ‘Thank you’, but I still feel this is worth a quick mention (this also ties in closely with ‘effective communication’). While a simple ‘thank you’ or quick note does go a long way, being a little more creative and/or specific can go even further. Instead of just letting them know that you appreciate them, let them know WHY, and be sincere! This will resonate more with them and remind them of the value they were able to add through their work. For thank-you_2236580bexample, “It looks like you stuffed about 150 envelopes today, that’s awesome, and that could be 150 new donors! Thank you so much!” or “We really appreciate you answering the phone for us this afternoon, without having to worry about it I could focus and was able to finish a new grant proposal that would help us start an after school program.” In addition to this, there are plenty of ideas you can find in terms of gifts, awards, and events. While I do feel there are plenty of these other means of recognition that are very worthwhile, I would only caution against overvaluing their benefit. Don’t order a bunch of small trinkets with your organization’s name on it just so you can say you gave your volunteers something. Gifts, awards, and events should not cost much at all, and should fall under one of the following descriptions: useful, meaningful, sincere, or just really fun.


If you stick to these guidelines, you will have a very solid base strategy to implement or improve your volunteer program. There is certainly plenty else to take into consideration, but as far as how you actually deal with someone who is starting to work with your organization, these ideas should help you to establish fruitful and ongoing relationships with your volunteers. One final thing that should be stressed in all aspects of dealing with volunteers is that personal relationships are important. No matter how much a person cares about the cause you are working for, they will not continue volunteering somewhere where they do not like the staff or feel that they are ignored. So take some time to talk to your volunteers and get to know them, maybe sit down and stuff envelopes with them for 30 minutes (performing tasks alongside volunteers is generally just a great way to strengthen their connection to the organization, and show them you are not pushing all the ‘bad’ work onto them). As a final piece of motivation to pay attention to these issues, just remember that it takes much less time and resources to have recurring volunteers than it does to recruit and train news ones.