how do you attract volunteers

The growth of any nonprofit requires the constant evaluation of where their untapped potential resources lie. 

A famous demonstration of this in action concerns McDonald’s. Their original business plan relied solely on taking a cut of each franchise’s profits, until a sharp-eyed accountant highlighted that their greatest resource was, in fact, real estate. Buying the square yards on which the franchise was built on top of and leasing it back to the franchisee is how McDonald’s saw their business become the household name and industry leader it is today.

I use this analogy because I believe every nonprofit is sitting on untapped potential: the volunteer. In no other industry do people of every walk of life offer their time, experience, and labor for free like they do for nonprofits. It’s a blessing—yet it’s often a poorly managed one. 

It doesn’t matter on what scale your nonprofit runs, the goodwill and talents of volunteers are the jet fuel to growth.

Too often volunteers become people offered the menial jobs. They become the stamp lickers, the change counters, the ones passing out leaflets. Time and time again while working at a nonprofit, I saw people come in to help who had skills to be major advocates for the organization that were never fully appreciated, often to the detriment of the charity.

This blog post will offer some practical tips to ensure you are creating the best relationships with your volunteers and ensuring you are maximizing the potential of those passionate about your mission.

Interview, interview, interview your volunteers.

When you recruit new volunteers, how often is the person’s skills examined in such careful detail? I advise having lengthy conversations over a call or orientation. Get to know your volunteers and what they can do. Make the time to ensure this is a priority and then you can begin placing the individual where they are most valuable. 

Some volunteers will truly want to do little more than help in basic roles, which is obviously appreciated as well. But by working out where a volunteer’s greatest potential lies, you can discover the real resources at hand. Ask them about their job history, skills, hobbies, and interests. You never know what expertise may come in handy!

Have an open door policy with your volunteer communication.

Establish an ongoing communication path with the volunteer, one where they feel at ease to reach out with ideas. Remember, not everyone will have the communication skills or time to constantly get in touch, so make sure it’s on your to-do list to touch base regularly with them. 

Their abilities may not be clear on day one, but by a month or so in, they may have a better idea of what they can really do or have suggestions for improvement. Regular, thoughtful communication on your part will increase the likelihood of your volunteers offering more value over time, feeling appreciated, and not drifting away out of lack of engagement

Put your ego aside. 

I have witnessed salaried staff higher up the “food chain” than the volunteers find it hard to embrace non-paid staff as equal. Sometimes the fresh ideas are disregarded with a “this is just how we do it” mentality.

New ideas coming from a volunteer is without a doubt one of your greatest gifts. Remember, they have fresh eyes and valuable perspectives. Try to put ego aside; it can get in the way when someone draws attention to flaws we hadn’t seen ourselves. At the end of the day, the mission should be about best helping the people served, not who brought the idea to the table.

You may even consider an anonymous suggestions box so that ideas can find their way to you without needing to be delivered in person or through intermediaries.

Give your volunteers a chance. 

When it comes to allocating duties, don’t be afraid to pass significant responsibilities to volunteers.

Volunteers appreciate when you recognize their potential. Infused with energy, they will likely try harder to prove your faith in them was well placed. The greater the challenge, the greater the passion, and the individual will find working with your nonprofit stimulating. 

Reward effort and dedication through volunteer appreciation.

Even down to making your volunteer a coffee occasionally, consider what you can do to make sure your volunteers never feel taken for granted.

Here are some ways you can reward your volunteers’ efforts:

  • Create a structure of reward for volunteers
  • Regular thank you cards
  • A box of chocolates
  • An online gift card
  • A group meal once a month
  • A simple thank you award and email
  • Volunteer of the month

Remember, a volunteer’s motivation is different to paid staff.

Often a volunteer comes to you as part of their journey. They may see their time as a way of supporting a nonprofit that benefited them or their family in a time of need. They may have been through a rough time recently or be needing companionship or support. This is very different from your average employee whose primary reason they work for you may be financial. As your volunteer serves your nonprofit, it is also the nonprofit’s duty to not just manage their volunteers, but serve them too.

In summary there are a multitude of factors motivating anyone to become your supporter, and a person’s time and expertise is an incredibly valuable resource and not to be squandered. Take time at the start to fully know them, make a conscious effort to support them, to reward them, and to maximize their potential. The value of the volunteer, even if you only have one or two, is a precious resource, with a profundity of positive benefits to everyone involved. 

Nonprofit Sustainability

Nick Wood

Nick Wood

Freelance Journalist & Author
Nick Wood is a freelance journalist and author. Specializing in the nonprofit Industry, digital media, and the travel sector. With years of experience working within the industry on the ground in the UK and further afield. Founder of light-on-light, a project addressing the stories of individuals and organisations making a positive and intentional impact on society. For enquiries, nickjohnwood@mail.com.