How to work with volunteers

A hands-on guide for volunteer coordinators about finding, engaging, and managing volunteers to get things done.

Coordinating volunteers is an activity that requires drive, people skills, and a lot of organizational skills. From organizing food drives to building houses, people are actively doing good things – even though it doesn’t get as much coverage as it should. If you want to organize a volunteer activity, read below to learn how to recruit great people to do great things together.

Volunteer interview

How to recruit volunteers

Before you post your first volunteer call, it is important to identify how many people you actually need and how much they will need to contribute:

  1. List the areas you will need support on. Even if you list all the departments of your event or organization, it is very important to have the full picture of where you will assign your volunteers.
  2. Identify critical tasks. Although it is impossible to foresee all the tasks that your volunteers will be assigned, you can plan ahead by writing down a list of the basic activities they will have to do.
  3. Create roles and teams according to your task list. Organize your volunteers ahead of time by creating teams and critical roles that you need to fill – that way when the right candidate steps in you will be able to give them a defined role and make the most out of their time. Plus, you will get a headcount to know how many people you will have to recruit!

According to the book “Essential Volunteer Management”, there are three approaches to recruit volunteers for an event or nonprofit:

  • Warm Body Recruitment
    • The volunteer position is not critical to fulfill the organization’s main goal.
    • Open to volunteers with low or no qualifications.
    • Big number of open positions.
    • Roles offered are easily replaceable.
    • No training needed.
  • Periodical Recruitment
    • Volunteers are required for a short period of time or a defined event.
    • Assigned tasks require volunteer commitment in terms of time or effort.
    • Tasks are simple and to the point, like a brochure or poster distribution.
    • Every task is part of a sequence, so each has to be completed before moving on to the next one.
    • Tasks can be scheduled.
    • Due to the number of roles required, volunteers may be encouraged to recruit their peers.
  • Targeted Recruitment
    • Open to a small, defined audience.
    • Volunteers need to have a specific set of skills or niche characteristics.
    • Potential volunteers are approached directly.

These recruitment strategies can be implemented with different sources of volunteers such as friends and contacts of current volunteers, personal staff contacts, social media contacts and online communities.

Although in the past volunteers were recruited mostly by word of mouth, most calls nowadays are either published online or are announced on online volunteer matching sites such as Idealist, Network for Good, VolunteerMatch, or Points of Light.

No matter how you decide to outreach potential volunteers, it is important that you have an organization website that has a career and volunteer page, kept up-to-date to include available positions. To increase the efficiency of your message and attract the right kind of people you need, include testimonials of former volunteers.

After potential volunteers apply for open positions, it is necessary to verify they are indeed a good fit. Some ideas to complete the recruitment process include:

  • A personal interview between staff members and potential volunteers.
  • A written letter that includes the full disclosure of the activities expected to be completed by the volunteer.
  • A personal negotiation of the hours and activities in which the volunteer is expected to collaborate.
  • A signed contract that discloses the time and responsibilities of the volunteer.

You can easily identify if a volunteer is not a good fit it:

  • They have unrealistic expectations that cannot be met.
  • They seem to be easily disappointed.
  • During the interview process, they overestimate their skills and availability.
  • Their personality does not align with the values of the organizations.
  • They have a conflictive personality.

By providing a formal recruitment process, potential volunteers will see their work is taken seriously and have the chance to ask questions before committing their time for a cause.

motivational quote

How to keep volunteers motivated

Once you recruit a team of volunteers, it is necessary to keep them engaged as they start working with your organization. This entails the creation of a plan to recognize and thank volunteers for their effort.

No matter how long the day was, it is important to make people feel recognized as part of the team. Keeping people motivated is a critical task which can be organized in the following categories:

  • Sign-up rewards
  • Daily perks
  • Weekly rewards
  • Monthly rewards
  • Annual awards
  • Special Occasions rewards
  • Events perks
  • Special Tasks rewards
  • Post-project rewards
  • Departing Volunteers recognition

Rewards help volunteers feel that their effort is appreciated and actually made a difference. Make sure to pay attention to your team activities, and document your workflow to know who should get rewarded. Data is key!

If you need your team to finish an important activity (like handling a festival or hosting an event), give rewards that motivate and challenge them. These rewards can be given for doing a task, completing an activity on a limited time, or winning a competition. Make sure to keep everyone in the loop by announcing the rules in advance.

Keep rewards fair and square for your volunteers by tracking them using a whiteboard, online spreadsheet or volunteer software.

Although you should thank everyone in your team, it’s important to reward the most active and committed volunteers so they know that you’ve seen them go the extra mile. Beyond recognizing outstanding participation, individual rewards communicate that every little thing, and especially the little things, count in the big picture and are noticed.

Recognizing a volunteer is an opportunity not only to thank a person but also to create a team spirit. It makes the volunteer feel good, and it makes you feel great too!

managing volunteers

How to manage volunteers

Good volunteer management entails that the organization is aware of the existence and importance of individual volunteer responsibilities and goals. This might seem obvious, but many nonprofits are so thankful for finding people willing to become volunteers that they do not specify roles, tasks, or have a formal way to provide performance feedback.

You can use the position description as a starting point to set up goals and expectations. An in-depth role description should include the expected work outcomes and community impacts – after all, volunteers believe in your cause and want to know how their efforts contribute. When the volunteer starts working with the organization, the volunteer coordinator should guide him/her to create a plan and timeline to achieve their assigned goals. This conversation should also cover what actions need to be done, when performance will be evaluated, and what resources the volunteer requires to complete their tasks.

Many volunteers are high-school-aged, so they may face some additional challenges in which they will require supervision and feedback in terms of:

  • Self-management, as volunteering may be their first “work” experience and they could have trouble managing their task load.
  • Skills, as the volunteering experience may be a way for them to try out a possible career field.
  • Dealing with frustration, as they might be challenging themselves out of their comfort zone for the first time.

Volunteers should have a coordinator that mentors and guides them while they work at your organization. The responsibilities of this role also include:

  • Managing the day-to-day tasks
  • Solving conflicts
  • Improving the overall volunteering experience
  • Giving performance feedback to each volunteer on their team.

Evaluating the work of volunteers can improve their efficiency and keep them motivated. When feedback is provided with assertiveness, coordinators can boost personal morale while also helping individuals to create a plan to improve their skills.

Giving personal feedback to volunteers is not a replacement for daily management. It is also important to note that volunteer performance evaluations are not as strenuous as employee evaluations and that the format will depend on the level of involvement of each individual. Key volunteers might require more formal and in-depth reviews, while entry-level volunteers could receive more general feedback. Regardless of the position, all volunteer work should measure their performance based on clear goals and expectations.

The appraisal of volunteer work can provide insights regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. This is very helpful during the creation and update of volunteer training programs and provides a historical context for future evaluations.

Performance review meetings should be privately conducted by the volunteer’s coordinator. The coordinator should give the volunteer specific feedback regarding their performance, while also involving them to make their own assessment. Some questions that can be used during volunteer performance reviews include:

  • Using your role description as a reference, how are you doing in terms of meeting the expected outcomes?
  • In areas where you think you could improve, what things do you need to do to better your performance?
  • What resources do you need to be more successful at your volunteer experience?
  • What agreements are we making to improve your skills and performance?
  • How and when would you like to follow up to see if these performance agreements are met?

communication

How to communicate with your team effectively

To maintain healthy team communication, it is important to define a team mission that supports the overall vision and work of the organization. Coordinators should include their volunteers while creating this team vision as much as possible. Once this has been set, specific goals can be created in order to manage the day-to-day activities more efficiently.

Milestones and tasks should be tangible to all team members. You can use whiteboards, shared online spreadsheets or team management apps to keep everyone informed about important deadlines and tasks that need to be done.

Simplify communication by choosing a specific set of tools in which volunteers are allowed to collaborate and communicate. One example is Zelos, an app which allows coordinators to organize their volunteer teams, give important announcements, assign individual tasks, and even create private communication channels for teams assigned to specific tasks.

How to fire a volunteer

Sometimes coordinators may have to let go of volunteers, an action that should be a very rare occurrence. Some reasons to fire a volunteer include:

  • Theft
  • Not showing up
  • Activities that contradict the organization’s values, prevent others from completing their tasks or hinders the volunteer experience in general.
  • Conflictive personality
  • Refusal to complete assigned activities
  • Lack of motivation

Firing a volunteer is always a last resort. Before firing a volunteer, coordinators should exhaust all other options including transferring the volunteer to another assignment, one-on-one mentorship, skill training, and personal accommodations.

Steps to fire a volunteer:

  1. Meet the volunteer in person with a third-party present to record the interaction just in case something goes wrong.
  2. Be specific and straight to the point. Specify the ways in which the volunteer is not complying with expectations or has violated their volunteering agreement.
  3. Tell the volunteer you are sorry to let them go and wish them well. Do not resort to personal attacks.
  4. Escort the former volunteer from the premises.
  5. Communicate your decision to the staff and key team members.

Working with volunteers is a critical task which requires organization, time, and leadership. But by specifying goals, giving adequate feedback, communicating efficiently, and motivating others, coordinators can boost not only the performance of their volunteers but also the overall impact the organization achieves through their efforts.