Defining Roles for Volunteers: 7 Tips for Writing Precise Task Descriptions

volunteers at roll call; representing the importance of good task descriptions

When writing a call for volunteers, the way you outline a role is crucial in attracting the right people. Potential volunteers need to understand what your organization is looking for (and how they can help) in order to make a commitment.

By including details like time expectations, required experience, and skills to be learned, you make it easier to connect the work that needs to be done with the right volunteer. 

Here are seven tips for setting accurate expectations and defining roles clearly when putting out a call for volunteers.

Task Descriptions Should Define a Time Commitment for Every Role

Volunteers want to know how much time a task may take them before they sign up. If there’s vagueness around what exactly the role entails and what the time commitment is, people might be hesitant to sign up. 

You can overcome this hesitation by breaking each advertised role down into individual tasks, then defining the expected time required to perform each one.

Science Buddies does this. That organization provides hands-on science resources for parents, teachers and families. Science Buddies gives each task a clear, simple title (e.g. “Volunteer as a Science Fair Judge”) and outlines approximately how long each task should take. They get granular, too: Some tasks are presented as five-minute commitments. Science fair judges, on the other hand, know upfront that they should set aside the better part of a day for that task.

Outline the Skills or Passions Desired to Connect With The Right Person

It’s important to find volunteers who are both qualified for the role and enthusiastic about it. So, be clear about what skills the volunteer is expected to have. That clarity helps ensure a volunteer understands their purpose and fit within your organization. 

A good example of how to detail different roles comes from the Colorado chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA): “We know that our members have diverse skill sets, which is why we provide a variety of opportunities for you to share your perspective, roll up your sleeves and work with your peers to develop new solutions for architects and design a better world for all of us to enjoy.”

This introduction stands at the top of the volunteer page, where numerous, specific roles are outlined. This lets volunteers browse for opportunities where their professional skills can be put to good use. 

You might also find someone who’s a good fit for the role by outlining passions. This is especially helpful when working with younger people who may not have a great deal of professional experience. Ask yourself what volunteers should be passionate about in order to succeed in this role. Then, you can use the answer to this question to define the role.

For example, the Luckiamute Watershed Council starts out its social media volunteer description with questions that would be enticing for a passionate social media wiz: “Do you have a passion for engaging with the public over the internet? Want to help us sort out the mysteries of getting noticed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook?”

Then, the team outlines the tasks, working conditions and time requirements, so volunteers get a full picture of what they can expect from the role.

volunteers with forms and serving food; representing the importance of specific and precise task descriptions

Explain What Skills Will Be Learned in Your Task Descriptions

Although volunteering is primarily about giving, there are many personal and professional skills to be developed in the process.

Volunteer Centre Sheffield in the UK does a great job of highlighting this. Their task profiles include a detailed lists of tasks, the skills needed, and the skills that will be learned. 

The Humane Society does this, too. For their state affairs research assistant volunteer role, they include a number of descriptive learning opportunities for volunteers, such as the chance to “strengthen online research, data compilation, and critical thinking abilities.” 

Task Descriptions Should Include the Whole Scope of Each Position in Detail

Setting standards for expectations early on can ensure that everyone stays on task. In New Jersey, Palisades Emergency Residence Corporation (PERC) goes into great detail when describing what its thrift store volunteers are expected to do.

Rather than saying that the volunteers are responsible for cleaning, PERC describes what things are meant to be cleaned and how. PERC says that maintaining the store’s physical appearance “may include some clean up of spills or broken items, dusting and cleaning shelves, putting misplaced items back on the right shelves, decorating for holidays or other special events.”

It may not always be a holiday, and there may not always be something spilled or broken, of course. Still, task descriptions with this much detail help ensure that volunteers understand what they’re responsible for in such a situation.

Update and Refine Volunteer Profiles Regularly

Your nonprofit’s needs are always changing. Volunteer profiles should reflect that. 

Think of your volunteer profiles as living, breathing documents, Doug Toft at the nonprofit news site MissionBox suggests. Profiles should keep pace with your constantly changing organization to accurately reflect what you’re looking for and how people can support your mission. If you need help with the updates, get your volunteers’ input. 

Updating your roles regularly helps volunteers know that they’re looking at a relevant description, not one that’s three years old. You could even note when the profile was last updated. First Robotics Competition places this information in the footer of their volunteer role descriptions guide. This makes it clear on every page when the roles were updated. 

young volunteer with a senior working on a laptop; representing the importance of good task descriptions

Answer Frequently Asked Questions 

Working with previous volunteers can help you create a FAQ section to accompany volunteer roles. 

The Accreditation Commission for Health Care (ACHC) does this for hospice volunteers. See slide 25 of the linked presentation, which details the training, time commitment and age requirements of the role. Anticipating and answering such questions can streamline your volunteer recruitment.

Habitat for Humanity of Broward in Florida also maintains a volunteer FAQ. They answer questions about orientation, clothing, lunch and weather. While these may seem like trivial questions, they’re the very things your volunteers are wondering. Answer them upfront so potential volunteers can make quicker decisions about whether they’re able to commit.

Connect the Role to Your Mission

People want to volunteer because they want to help. So, be sure to outline exactly how this role futhers your organization’s mission.

MIT Alumni publishes a number of opportunities for alumni who want to get involved in supporting past, current, and future students. Though there are dozens of roles available, MIT makes it clear that each role has its own specific goals. 

Take the listing for Social Ambassador, for example: “The goal of the MIT Social Ambassador role is to broaden the reach of digital content that is relevant to MIT alumni. Social Ambassadors have no set term; you may sign up for the program or leave the program at any time.”

Outlining the goals of the role helps people understand how their efforts will serve a greater purpose.

Whether it’s defining the time commitment or answering common questions, volunteer task descriptions should be both detailed and approachable. When you can define exactly what you’re looking for, you are more likely to find someone who fits that description.

Images by: lightfieldstudios/©123RF.com, Div Iv, Dmytro Zinkevych/©123RF.com