Recruiting Volunteers for Nonprofits: Getting Ready for Them, Finding Them, Keeping Them
In the rush to engage volunteers in our mission, we often forget to do a very important task: Plan for them. Planning for volunteers includes doing an internal evaluation of your organization and its needs, preparing a risk management plan, and preparing the process for all the steps of good volunteer management.
This guide will help you:
- Assess your readiness to include volunteers
- Assess and plan for risk management
- Prepare to recruit, screen, train, supervise and recognize volunteers
Why is it important to be so prepared? There are well over a million nonprofits in the U.S., all needing volunteer help. And people’s lives are getting busier all the time. You will want to make sure that your organization stands out from the crowd as a place where people want to spend their precious spare time.
It’s a myth that volunteers are “free labor.” However, volunteers do tend to donate and donors tend to volunteer. So the investments in time, energy and money that you make for your volunteer program are well-spent.
Table of Contents
1.) Readiness assessment
2.) Written materials
7.) Volunteer placement
8.) Providing a good volunteer experience
9.) Risk management
10.) Disciplining and firing a volunteer
11.) Volunteer board of directors
12.) Your volunteer program’s goodwill
13.) Web resources and books
Best Friends volunteer agreement
Best Friends foster care agreement
Here’s one of the most important things to do before you send out your first recruiting message: Sit down with everyone in your organization who will work with volunteers and have an open discussion about what it will mean to bring additional people into the group. Review how you are currently “doing business.” Do you need more help? If so, what kind? (Be specific.) Who will be responsible for overseeing your volunteer program? Does that person have the tools he or she will need?
A good first step is to conduct a readiness assessment. One good readiness exercise is to have staff do a volunteer wish list. Ask staff to consider their current workload and what they would really like to accomplish. Have everyone do the following:
- Make a list of all the tasks you do.
- Cross out the tasks that you feel you should do yourself.
- Highlight tasks that you could delegate to someone else. These are potential tasks for volunteers.
- Write down a “dream task” list, a list of all the things you would like to do but just don’t have the time and/or resources.
- Go through this list, highlighting the tasks you feel could be delegated to someone else.
Collect the lists and make a master list of all the highlighted tasks. You can combine tasks on this list, as appropriate, into volunteer positions.
You probably already have written information about your organization available to the general public. But, you also need written materials specific to volunteer recruitment and training. Make sure that these materials are clear and easy to understand. These documents should include the following.
Volunteer recruitment packet. You’ll want to have this information formatted in an appealing way to help you attract new volunteers. “What’s in it for me?” is the number-one question people want the answer to. Your volunteer recruiting flyer or brochure should include:
- The organization’s mission and goals
- An outline of the organization’s programs and services
- A listing and description of the organization’s volunteer opportunities
- Mention of the benefits of volunteering with your organization
- A questionnaire or application for the potential volunteer to complete
- Contact information for your volunteer management point person
Volunteer training packet or manual. This should include:
- The organization’s mission and goals
- Your organizational chart
- An outline of the organization’s programs and services
- Clearly defined organizational policies and standards
- An agreement for volunteers to sign
- Volunteer position descriptions
- Contact information for your volunteer management point person
The volunteer agreement indicates that volunteers will abide by the organization’s policies and provide their services on a volunteer basis (i.e., without compensation). You may want to consider asking them to sign a liability release, too, or including this wording in your agreement. Your organization can be held liable not only for injuries sustained by volunteers, but also for the actions of the volunteers.
Defining policies in writing can help to safeguard your organization. There’s no need to “re-invent the wheel,” fortunately, when it comes to writing volunteer manuals and agreements. There are many examples available by searching the Internet and by networking with other nonprofit organizations. (See the sample Best Friends volunteer agreement in the appendix.) However, you should have a qualified attorney review any legal documents before you use them.
Volunteer position descriptions are both a recruiting tool and a risk management tool. They should include clearly defined tasks, expectations and timelines for completion. Include information on who the volunteer reports to and who has the authority to make specific decisions. Also, include the benefits you offer to volunteers who serve in the position. Note that we refer to them as “position” descriptions and not “job” descriptions. Using the word “job” may give some volunteers the impression that they should be paid for the work they do, and that can lead to lawsuits. In the sidebar below is a sample Best Friends volunteer position description.
Volunteer position description
Reports to: This position supports the work of our Community Programs & Services division and will report to the local program coordinator.
Schedule and time commitment:
Location of work: Remote, from home.
Physical requirements: Extended periods of time working at a computer with repetitive typing, arm and hand motion.
Specific information for specialized positions. Some volunteer positions, such as providing foster care for animals in the volunteer’s home, may require specific, detailed agreements with the volunteers. It’s a good idea to clearly define guidelines in writing. For example, a foster care agreement might include the following information:
- That the organization is the legal owner of the foster animal
- What care the volunteer is responsible for providing to the animal
- Where the animal is to be kept (i.e., confined to the house, allowed outdoors, allowed to mix with other animals in the household)
- What to do in an emergency
- Who covers expenses, such as food, vet care and supplies
- Who is responsible for arranging adoptions
Again, in writing these volunteer agreements, you don’t have to start from scratch. Network with other volunteer managers to see what has and hasn’t worked for them. (See the sample Best Friends foster care agreement in the appendix.)
Orientations for new volunteers are a great way to introduce your organization and your volunteer needs to a group of potential volunteers. Many organizations find that hosting these meetings on a monthly schedule saves time and money, and reaches the most potential supporters.
Hosting a new-volunteer orientation saves staff resources by allowing you to communicate information once to many people. It lets you talk about all of your volunteer needs and answer questions in a group setting. In hearing about all the possible service opportunities within your organization, potential volunteers get an overview of what your organization has to offer. Or, they may decide that none of your volunteer positions are a good fit for them. By giving people the chance to decide not to volunteer with your organization, you save the time and cost of screening and training someone who may never show up to volunteer.
Elements of a new-volunteer orientation might include:
- An introduction to the history, mission and goals of your organization
- An overview of your programs, services and clients
- An overview of your open volunteer positions
- A chance to meet other staff members and current volunteers
- Open question-and-answer time
- A tour of your facility, if applicable
You may choose to have people attend your new-volunteer orientation before applying or as a next step after turning in their applications.
Your volunteer training should have these two components:
- Provide general information about policies and procedures that apply to all volunteers
- Provide detailed information about the specific volunteer position
You may choose to do group or individual training, depending on what works best for the type of position, the needs of the organization and the needs of the volunteers. Here are some tips for successful training:
- Role playing: Explain and demonstrate a task, then watch while the volunteer does it. Take the time to observe even those volunteers who have had prior experience; you may learn something new, or you may head off a problem before it starts.
- No stupid questions: Allow plenty of time for the volunteer to ask questions.
- Mentoring: Pair up a new volunteer with a veteran volunteer.
- Handbook: Provide written instructions and background information on the task or skill.
Let your volunteers know that you are always willing to answer questions. Training is an ongoing process and should include ongoing, two-way communication. Your application, orientation and training processes are all essential tools in ultimately retaining volunteers.
A first step in the successful supervision of volunteers is to designate one person as the volunteer coordinator or supervisor. This person should have good communication skills, a positive attitude, appropriate expertise, and adequate supplies/equipment to do the job. The right individual will be able to genuinely delegate responsibility, while providing safeguards to ensure that critical jobs are completed correctly in a timely manner.
The right attitude makes a difference. It’s important to be tolerant of individual differences whenever possible, without sacrificing the quality of care provided to the animals and the service provided to the public. If part of your larger mission is to encourage compassionate feelings and actions, then investing time in creating positive volunteer experiences is very important. Volunteers who don’t feel needed, wanted or appreciated will move on to other organizations.
Word-of-mouth, flyers, and posters are inexpensive ways of recruiting volunteers. You can also post requests for volunteers and information about volunteering on your website.
Word-of-mouth. Most people volunteer because they were asked. Here are ways to do that:
- Invite current volunteers to bring a friend to a special get-together.
- Ask board members to provide a list of potential volunteers.
- Ask your members, through your newsletter. Include a listing of your volunteer needs and provide a checkbox on the donation-response form for donors to request more information on volunteering.
Flyers and posters. A simple poster campaign is an inexpensive, but highly effective way to find new volunteers. You can ask current volunteers to help distribute the posters around town. Some tips:
- Your flyer or poster should list attractive, well-defined volunteer positions. Offer a variety of opportunities, involving different skills and levels of commitment. Keep in mind, though, that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” so keep the copy on the flyers to a minimum and include pictures or graphics.
- Distribution is critical. You can have the world’s most wonderful materials, but if no one sees them, they won’t help a bit. Display posters and/or flyers in your area’s vet clinics, pet supply stores, markets, health clubs, places of worship, libraries, etc.
Other ideas. Here are other ideas for recruiting volunteers:
- Open meetings: Host public meetings in your local community.
- Local newspapers: Regularly submit success stories in the form of press releases. Take advantage of the free volunteer listings offered by some papers.
- Radio: See if your local radio stations will air a 30-second public service announcement for seeking volunteers. You may be able to get on a talk show as a guest.
- Newsletters: Many companies have newsletters (electronic or printed) for employees. Request that local companies share information with their employees about volunteer opportunities with your organization.
- Local cable access TV: Most stations have community bulletin boards and community-oriented shows.
- Community organizations and clubs: Offer to speak to their group or ask to distribute literature to their members.
- Recruitment days: Set up an information table at local pet supply stores or community events.
- Online recruiting sites: Websites like VolunteerMatch.com offer no-cost posting to 501(c)(3) organizations.
- Local colleges and high schools: They generally have bulletin boards (online and otherwise) where you can post volunteer opportunities.
Put yourself in the shoes of a member who wants to get involved. How easy is it?
Once an individual expresses interest, you’ll want to learn more about him or her to find the right fit. This is usually done through a questionnaire and an in-person or phone interview. In addition to basic contact information and availability, you’ll want to find out about prospective volunteers’ past work and volunteer experiences, what they liked and disliked about these experiences, what they see themselves doing within your organization, and why they are volunteering. Allow time to answer their questions, and be sure to provide them with a written copy of the appropriate volunteer position descriptions.
Assess people with care and match them with the appropriate volunteer position. Some people are seeking a challenge and an opportunity to take on a major project. Others are looking for an easy, stress-free volunteer experience. Take the time to find out what the volunteer is looking for and to find the right job for the individual. It’s not a failure if someone doesn’t seem like the right fit for your organization. If that happens, encourage the person to offer his/her services to another organization.
Another thing to keep in mind: It’s important to seek out qualified help. This is particularly important when filling critical roles such as board member or committee chair. Sometimes, in our fear that no one else will come along, we sign up anyone and everyone who expresses interest. Unfortunately, not everyone is a good fit to serve in your organization. They may not have or be unwilling to learn needed skills. They may not support the mission of your organization. Or, they may not be able to make the commitment you need for the position. It’s better to wait for a qualified volunteer rather than use staff resources and the volunteer’s valuable time trying to force a service relationship.
How can you keep volunteers motivated and involved? It takes an investment of time and resources. Here are some suggestions:
- Place volunteers carefully and do ongoing assessment. Don’t assume that volunteers will be happy where you have placed them; meet with them regularly and make adjustments as needed. Volunteers’ needs may change over time; a volunteer may be ready to become more involved, to take on a new challenge, or he or she may want less responsibility as time goes on.
- Share information. Keep volunteers abreast of developments within your organization and the humane movement in general. Share copies of articles and related information that pertain to their work, such as veterinary care developments, new dog training methods, or the latest adoption practices.
- Offer training opportunities. This may include an offer to attend a seminar or to receive a related publication.
- Provide encouragement and feedback on their performance. Always treat volunteers with respect and courtesy. Make time to listen.
- Provide needed supplies and equipment.
- Be open to constructive criticism and suggestions. Implement good ideas from volunteers.
- Don’t waste their time. Any meeting should be productive and necessary.
- Show appreciation and recognition. Here are some ways to do this:
- Thank-you notes (can be personal and handwritten or more “official”: signed by all the board members)
- Certificates or awards
- Parties and get-togethers
- Sincere in-person thank-you
- Small gifts
- Article in the local newspaper
- Mention in your newsletter
- Chance to participate in educational opportunities (seminar, conference)
In the rush to recruit and engage volunteers, risk management is often forgotten, but it’s an important part of a volunteer program. The goal of risk management is to plan for what can go wrong before it happens. It puts you, not the risk, in charge.
Volunteers act as agents/representatives of your organization — legally, they can be considered equal to paid staff in this regard. Therefore, your organization is ultimately responsible for anything your staff and your volunteers do in the service of your organization.
To manage risk, start with your organization’s mission statement and ask the staff these questions:
- In the course of acting on our mission, what bad situations could happen?
- How could we prevent those situations from happening?
- How will we handle those situations if they do happen?
- How will we pay for it (either to prevent it or fix the situation after something bad happens)?
The adage “Plan for the worst, hope for the best” is appropriate advice for risk management planning. You’ll want to make sure you train staff and volunteers to both prevent and respond to risks. Also, conduct a yearly review of your risk management plan and improve it as needed.
To practice good risk management, examine the ways in volunteers are recruited, screened, trained and supervised. The following are good ways to minimize risk:
- Practice good matching: Put the right volunteer in the right position.
- Be aware of your volunteers’ diversity. Older adults have different needs and understand instructions differently than teens do. There may be language or cultural barriers for a volunteer. Tailor your training to the volunteer’s experience level (e.g., new volunteers may not know the jargon of animal welfare, so keep it simple).
- Be very specific about what you expect from volunteers.
- Have clear, specific, written policies and procedures. All volunteers should receive a copy of your policies and procedures, and a staff person should thoroughly review them with volunteers during training.
- Require volunteers to sign a statement saying that they have read and understand the policies and procedures.
- Discuss the volunteer release with new volunteers and clearly explain anything that might be confusing (e.g., volunteers must use their own medical insurance in the event of an illness or injury). Ask if they have any questions.
- Get feedback from volunteers about the effectiveness (or not) of training and supervision.
For more information about risk management, go to the Nonprofit Risk Management Center’s website, www.nonprofitrisk.org.
As part of good volunteer management, make sure your volunteers know that they are expected to perform their duties in accordance with your policies and procedures. Also, make sure they are aware of the chain of command. If a volunteer makes a mistake or seems to misunderstand expectations, follow the three-step process of coaching, written warning, and then termination.
Depending on the mistake or misunderstanding, you might be able to resolve the issue by providing additional training or partnering the person with a more experienced volunteer. Re-assigning the volunteer to a different position may be another option.
If you do have to fire a volunteer, always make sure a third person is in the room. Document every action by keeping updated records in your volunteer files. A volunteer’s personnel file and any disciplinary action involving a volunteer should be kept confidential, just as with a paid staff member.
Board members are volunteers with the following responsibilities:
- Provide leadership and approve policies
- Fulfill fiduciary and other legal obligations
Board members must understand that the well-being of the organization depends on their competence. In general, the board members avoid meddling in the day-to-day operations of the organization. They have one employee within the organization whom they supervise: the executive director. In some states, board members may be sued for their personal property if the organization is unable to pay its bills, so being a board member is a serious responsibility.
Board members should have an organized recruitment, screening, orientation and training process to complete. They should also report their volunteer hours and receive appropriate recognition for their efforts.
If your volunteer program is run well, it will inspire goodwill in the community. Public trust and confidence are crucial to the survival of any nonprofit, and the proactive approach is critical to preventing problems. What does loss of goodwill mean to your organization?
- Loss of competitive positioning for funding (donors prefer to give to organizations that have a strong positive image)
- Inability to attract new donors or board members
- Inability to attract talented paid or volunteer staff
- Negative publicity
- Inability to collaborate with other volunteer organizations
- Inability to attract corporate funding (companies sponsor nonprofits for the positive publicity they will receive)
To practice risk management with volunteers in terms of public relations:
- Cover public relations and professional behavior in your volunteer orientation and training.
- Appoint an official spokesperson for media inquiries and let everyone know who that person is.
- Make sure your volunteers are aware that the way they present themselves to the public reflects on your organization.
- Prepare volunteers for a crisis and tell them how to respond.
Bad publicity about your volunteers or volunteer program could damage public trust in your organization. Here are some red flags to watch out for:
- Discrimination in the recruitment and/or selection of volunteers
- Volunteers who aren’t properly trained
- Volunteers who are unsupervised or undisciplined
- Volunteers who appear to help themselves to resources meant for the animals or the organization
- Poor conduct on the part of the volunteer:
- Reckless or dangerous driving
- Unprofessional behavior while representing the organization
- Inappropriate treatment of others
- Talking to the media without permission
- Inappropriate use of technology
A comprehensive website on all aspects of engaging and leading volunteers.
Points of Light Foundation
A national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes volunteerism and contains information on training and managing volunteers.
Lists thousands of volunteer opportunities in your community and around the world. You can search by subject, such as “Wildlife and Animal Welfare.” Organizations can post volunteer opportunities and find volunteers by looking through volunteer profiles.
A nonprofit online service that helps interested volunteers get involved with community service organizations throughout the U.S. You can either find or post volunteer opportunities.
Volunteer Management: Mobilizing All the Resources of the Community by Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch, paperback, 1996
Volunteers: How to Get Them, How to Keep Them by Helen Little, paperback, 1999
Volunteers Wanted: A Practical Guide to Finding and Keeping Good Volunteers by Jo B. Rusin, paperback, 1999