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, January 18, 2012 - 1:00pm
posted by
Sentari Minor,
Program Specialist,
The Rodel Foundation
of Arizona

In these hard economic times, nonprofits are famously struggling—fighting for funding and fighting for resources. Now, more than ever, it is important for nonprofits to play smart while building capacity. At the heart of this notion is leveraging volunteers.

In her blog post, “Don't Be Afraid To Ask,” Stephanie La Loggia says, "recruiting volunteers is one of the most important jobs in most nonprofit organizations.” And that’s true - the recruitment process is crucial but it’s also imperative to engage and retain those who can be, or who already are, key volunteers.

Ostensibly, volunteers are a source for one-time, episodic projects; free labor to tackle those tasks our organizations simply don’t have the time (or resources) to do. However, I've learned from both serving on boards and being a volunteer myself, that volunteers can easily become invaluable assets to an organization. Key volunteers are the most dedicated and skilled of your organization’s volunteers who can essentially take on the duties of staff when resources are limited.

Engaging and retaining these key volunteers is paramount to the success of most organizations. Through proper volunteer cultivation and management, the process can be both painless and productive.

Volunteers love to feel needed. When volunteers feel like their personal contributions are crucial to the fulfillment of the organization’s mission, they are more apt to stick around and do more. It is the role of the volunteer coordinator (or whoever assumes that responsibility in your organization) to connect volunteer skills with the organization's needs. Pair volunteer professionals with your professional needs. You would be surprised at what can be done in the way of capacity-building through your volunteer base. While finding these dedicated volunteers might take some time, it would be worth your efforts to identify volunteers who have shown some leadership potential. Ask if these volunteers would be willing to take on an extra role with some added responsibility, and then train them to do so.

Retaining those volunteers is an arduous task, but it can be done: again, with effective volunteer management. There need to be clear tasks, roles and responsibilities outlined and verbalized, much like that which is done for a staff member. Additionally, these key volunteers should be recognized and rewarded accordingly.

Of course, volunteers in this capacity can easily burn out. This can be avoided with an open dialogue about expectations and concerns and knowing that while your volunteers are quite capable, they are also busy in other realms of their lives. Being cognizant, respectful and appreciative of their time will keep both parties happy.

Organizations like HandsOn Greater Phoenix can aid in the recruitment and training of skilled volunteers. They recognize the need for experienced volunteers and know that nonprofits are leaning on volunteers to close gaps in their organizations.

All of this assumes, however, that your organization has someone who can devote time to training and orienting volunteers. Trust me, it is worth the effort to do so. A cadre of committed volunteers can do wonders for your organization and provide innumerable benefits. A campaign for skilled, dedicated, key volunteers is an absolute necessity for most organizations, especially those with shoestring budgets and overworked staff. If you really need the help making it work, just ask me, and I'll volunteer.

Sentari Minor is a Program Specialist for the Rodel Foundation of Arizona. He is part of the most recent cohort of the ASU Lodestar Center's Generation Next program. Additionally, he sits on the board of the Welcome to America Project and KEEN Phoenix. He is also a project leader for Hands On Greater Phoenix and does youth programming through the American Red Cross.

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Click here to read Pat Lewis' "Volunteering and Financial Statements - What’s Missing?"


I love the idea of using the skills and knowledge of your volunteers. Not only are you as an organization kind of getting more bang for your buck, but it also can be a great tool to make the volunteers feel needed like Stephanie said. Making volunteers jobs that really utilize the whole volunteer and then recognizing them for stepping up to the plate and being super useful to the organization is a great practice for nonprofits.

This also provides a nice way to get to know your volunteers more personally. If you ask what they are interested in and what they have experience in you start to establish stronger realtionships with them which is an even better way to retain them.

I found your post to be very accurate as it pertains to engaging and retaining skilled volunteers. From my own past personal experience, I have stopped volunteering for an organization when I felt like my efforts and contributions were underappreciated. As you mentioned, volunteers are active in other aspects of their lives and organizations must be aware of this to ensure that their volunteers don’t get overexerted. The suggestion about alleviating this by having open communication about the expectations of the volunteer was insightful. It would make great sense that by implementing this practice both the organization and its volunteers will be on the same page and there will be no confusion about the volunteers’ responsibilities. I have experienced volunteering for an organization and feeling frustrated and inadequate because the organization didn’t communicate what duties they wanted me to execute. Having these conversations allows the volunteer to take ownership and have a goal to strive for. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on this topic and learned a great deal.

An effective volunteer program includes the following essential key elements: 1)in-depth interviews 2)appropriate placement 3)detailed job descriptions 4)orientation to the organization 5) job/department-specific training 6)standards of behavior 7)treat volunteers as unpaid staff with high expectations, 8) communication and 9) Multiple ways to thank your volunteers. These components will serve you well in developing an outstanding volunteer program, with happy volunteers, who will stay with you for many years.

Over the last 8 years I have volunteered for many different types of organizations and have found that most do not know how to make sure they are using their volunteers effectively. Having taken a class on volunteer management I see more things that more organizations should do to make sure that they are using their volunteers to their fullest extent. I have volunteered for organizations in which I have sat around all day and not been made useful as well as organizations that put me to work the second I get there but are not there to make sure that I don't have any questions about what I am doing. Feeling useful while I am volunteering is nice because it gives me motivation to do as much as I can for the organization. After reading this blog it makes me want to take more control and find volunteer opportunities that make more use of my time.

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