ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012 - 9:00am
posted by 
Shelley Gillespie,
Venture Court Productions


Nonprofits love volunteers. After all, they are the lifeblood of many organizations. When budgets are tight— and they always are with nonprofits— volunteers take up the slack.

So, how do you recruit volunteers who will integrate well with your paid staff, perform the functions they are assigned, and stick around?

Recruiting those committed and talented volunteers does take time and a strategic approach.

An example from my past— I was a regular volunteer for my alumni organization and usually said, "Yes" when asked for anything. At one meeting, I was asked to run a particular volunteer effort and said, "Yes," without really thinking about it. As the officer who had asked me walked away, I suddenly realized that the volunteer position was going to take place during the time my son was scheduled for an extensive surgery and recovery period. Not a good time to volunteer.

So, I quickly found the officer and explained that I wouldn’t be available this time. She looked put out and walked away.

Did they ask me to volunteer again? No, they did not. I subsequently took my volunteer efforts elsewhere.

Best Recruiting Strategy
What works best? Honesty is number one!

How many times have you been told that "It will only take a little time" to do a particular volunteer effort? After you’ve been roped into it— and you feel like you’ve been "roped" and hog-tied, too— you find out the time presented as the commitment was not near the amount of time required.

A volunteer won’t be making a repeat commitment unless they have a real need or desire to stay with the group after having their time commitment misrepresented.

When I worked for the Girl Scouts, I was a star recruiter. I was honest and told the potential leaders what their commitment would involve. Most of my leaders stuck around and were stellar in their performances. They also realized that their daughters would benefit from their continued involvement and they knew they could share memorable experiences.

Planning, Presentation and Training Help
After honesty, having the potential volunteer’s position mapped out and described is key. If the organization takes the time to write "job descriptions" and offers training, a volunteer will have a better idea of what to do to succeed. What volunteer wants to be a failure at a task? Volunteers want to feel proud of what they do, just like paid staff.

So, make them feel proud, offer awards that are meaningful (but not necessarily costly) and ask them for their opinions. I was part of a volunteer leadership/training group that was asked regularly to help plan what was offered. As a result, when I actually participated as a trainer, I felt more empowered.

Shelley Gillespie is an award-winning journalist and the author of
Hiking for the Couch Potato: A Guide for the Exercise-Challenged. After all of Shelley's volunteerism and recruiting, she has discovered a new “calling.” She recently published a child's version of Hiking for the Couch Potato titled “Hiking for the Couch Potato Kid: Birds, Bugs, Butterflies and Other Beasties.” Shelley is on a mission to find ways to get kids outdoors. She currently offers workshops to help kids explore the outdoors and get active. Shelley is a former “couch potato” who is committed to making the world a healthier place, one child, one step at a time. She is enlisting the help of readers to spread the word. Contact her at, or visit her website for more information.

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Click here to read Sentari Minor's "Engaging and Retaining Skilled (and Key) Volunteers."


Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Shelley! As a nonprofit student, and an avid volunteer, everything you said was spot on. Volunteers want to be apart of something that they feel is impactful in some way, we want to be just as proud of our work. Volunteers don't want to feel like they are taken advantage of or "roped in", which was so key in the honesty part you brought up. The more I feel like the organization is grateful for my help, the more I want to help and recruit others!


Thank you for your insightful post. As a volunteer, I have unfortunately encountered various volunteer positions that are one-time, day-of volunteering (mainly charity races). Although such a large volunteer source is vital to the success for a special event fundraiser, volunteer coordinators must connect with volunteers (as you mentioned). Oftentimes, I did not feel recognized and appreciated for my volunteerism.

In comparison to volunteer jobs where there was no training and no connection provided, I would arrive late, with Starbucks in hand, and not feel guilty or concerned about my actions. However, when I volunteered at events where there was volunteer orientation and training (even for the one-time, day-of event), I felt more connected to the special event and more responsible for my actions. Thus, I showed up on time without Starbucks!

Essentially, not only is it imperative to connect volunteers and reward them for stepping up to assist the organization, they also need to connect prior to the event. Fostering trust and responsibility with volunteers will diminish the 'I don't care if I am late because I am giving up my Saturday morning' scenario.

What ways, if any, can we connect with volunteers beyond training/orientation?

Thank you,
Amy Lindsey


Excellent points about volunteers and volunteering! After a couple not-so-great experiences, I personally won't volunteer in an organization that doesn't have a formal volunteer program in place. I think that if a person has a clear idea of what they're expected to do and how they're expected to do it, they'll feel confident in what they're doing and accomplished once they've completed it. Organization is key! Feeling overwhelmed and confused as a volunteer is difficult and makes you feel like an outsider, which is not good for retaining or attracting new volunteers.

I completely agree with your opinions expressed about volunteering and volunteers! Honesty truly is and should be a hallmark component of any volunteer program. I've been in volunteer situations where I was expected to do jobs I was never told about or expected to come in on days that were not specified up front. It was not that I was unwilling to do these things, but I was almost offended that I was expected to do them without any notice. Details of a volunteer position should always be layed out in front of a potential volunteer, and work and life commitments should also be considered. Feeling like a part of the organization and appreciated are key to a productive and happy volunteer staff.

Thank you Shelley for sharing your thoughts about volunteers! I have had the opportunity to volunteer in several different organizations, and I have found that the ones that I have had the most reward from are the ones who have had set training, goals and organization for me as a volunteer. They also understand that I have a life outside of the organization and if something happens unexpectedly they are able to still work through it because of the organization. These are important to recruiting and keeping volunteers.

Greetings Shelley. Your blog post reminds me of the article we had to read for class, The 'New Collar' Workforce, where the author mentions that the most "identified challenge in the sector is difficulty in recruiting and maintaining skilled staff", now if they're having a difficult time with staff then what makes them believe they will succeed in recruiting and maintaining volunteers?
The time committed to an organization is priceless, if a volunteer has a positive experience then the organization will benefit from it however if the volunteer does not have a pleasant time let alone feel like the work they were asked to do had much meaning behind it then the nonprofit will experience a disadvantage. I enjoy volunteering, however, the moment I am asked to take part in a task no one is taking seriously I try to find another task that I know will benefit the organization and if, after that, I see that the members of the organization are not taking me serious then I head out in search of another organization. Which is why I completely agree when you state that organizations should have "the volunteers position mapped out and described".
When I look for an opportunity to volunteer I look for organizations who have taken the time to make a "job description" for a volunteer because that shows me they take their volunteers seriously. I am not someone who enjoys attention for the volunteer work that I do, however, receiving a simple 'Thank You' card from the organization shows me that they know who I am and are aware of the work I have contributed. Being organized, showing honesty and thanking volunteers is key for the success of an organization, in my opinion.

Thank you for sharing your ideas on recruiting volunteers! I agree honesty, and job descriptions are key to keeping volunteers happy. As having been a volunteer myself it is frustrating when you sign up to volunteer with a specific job, and it doesn't go as planned. I find it best to remember to stay flexible. However, as I want to work in the nonprofit sector it will be important to remember what a volunteer would want.

You are exactly on, and the way people ask will never change. They feel as if they are conning you into doing something. When in the truth of the matter is if you want to do it you will, if not there was no harm in asking. You do not have to say it will take one hour, and in reality you know the person will be there volunteering for three hours. As you said if there is honesty, and the volunteers know what is expected of them, most of the time they will do their best to get it done. Clear expectations of what would be needed will bring in more people because they know what they are getting into, and bring them back because of the clear planning.


I believe many of us have had similar experiences with volunteering and different organizations. I myself have felt that the time I volunteered was not appreciated and made the hard decision to leave to a different organzation. I think this is where finding a way to professionally thank the volunteers is critical. I also agree that job descriptions can make all the difference. My organzation including the board and members are all volunteers and the only aspect in which we were to count on their volunteer work time was through these job descriptions. However, I am unsure how to create such guidelines for memebers who volunteer for a group in which the volunteer opportunities are not constant or the same in task? This I hope to find an answer soon.

I love your comment about “being roped in” – this tends to happened too many of us as volunteers, but I’m happy to say that it’s been an even balance of the good and the bad. Being involved with well-organized and coordinated volunteer managers makes a big difference and makes the decision of returning that much easier. As for those events that have not been so well organized, it is an opportunity for me to learn and avoid any missed steps, or even provide some suggestions (when appropriate) to help make the experience a little smoother.

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