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Idealist & Points of Light’s Guide to Volunteer Recruitment and Retention

Illustration of various volunteer management activities, conversations, spreadsheets, and resources.
Illustration by Marian Blair

Since 1974, the third week of April has been celebrated as National Volunteer Week to highlight the positive contributions of volunteers around the world. “Each year, we shine a light on the people and causes that inspire us to serve, recognizing and thanking volunteers who lend their time, talent, and voices to make a difference in their communities,” says Meg Moloney, Chief Operating Officer of Points of Light, an organization dedicated to facilitating volunteerism for nonprofits, businesses, and individuals.

National Volunteer Week is also a great time to start or spruce up your own volunteer program. But as with any endeavor, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s why Idealist teamed up with our friends at Points of Light to walk you through best practices for recruiting, managing, and retaining volunteers.

In this five-part guide, we cover all the basics, share our top tips, and get you on the right track to making the most of your volunteer program.

  1. Determining your organization's needs
  2. The volunteer listing
  3. Onboarding and orientation
  4. Managing volunteers
  5. Offboarding and networking

Part 1 | Determining your organization’s needs

A large part of the volunteer recruitment process is determining what you’re looking for and who best fits those particular roles. We encourage organizations to initiate a “volunteer needs assessment,” which challenges you to consider your goals and evaluate whether their achievement is a task best suited to volunteers.

Try itemizing your organization’s immediate plans—whether it’s taking part in a small, one-time activity or helping to run a larger-scale event—in a plusses, minuses, and implications (PMI) chart. Lay out all the pros and cons of having volunteers take on the associated roles, including considerations such as the level of training or experience required, time constraints, and difficulty of particular tasks.

You may find some projects would be a lot to ask of a volunteer, but there could be plenty of work within those projects that volunteers would be perfect for if you divide them up.

Once you’ve gotten a handle on what roles you’re looking to fill, you’re ready to move forward with recruitment!

Part 2 | The volunteer listing

While the process for finding volunteers is similar in some ways to finding paid staff, there are important differences to keep in mind as well. Here’s what to look out for as you draft and distribute your volunteer listing.

Keep your title clear, concise, and catchy. 

“Many descriptions might list ‘volunteer’ as the position, but that’s not a title,” Meg says. “We encourage creating something more descriptive which helps better highlight the value of the role and its function or purpose.” For example, rather than “We Need Volunteers (Basketball)!” we recommend something more like, “Volunteer Basketball Coach for Youth Program.”

Make the description count. 

“Position descriptions are the foundation for the recruitment and ultimate placement of volunteers,” Meg says. Special care should be taken to include information that will both inform volunteers and inspire them to sign up. As you’re putting together the description, keep an eye out for the following:

  • Mission and Purpose. In May of 2020, Points of Light found that 55% of adults wanted to focus on issues directly impacting their own communities. That’s why sharing the immediate and local effect of a volunteer’s potential work is critical. You’ll also want to detail how this volunteer opportunity enables your organization to deliver or expand on its stated mission.
  • Location and time commitment. Those looking for a volunteer opportunity often have a specific amount of time they’re willing to give. Be clear about how many hours, weeks, or months you’re expecting volunteers to work, so you’re only attracting individuals who can make that commitment. Also be sure to highlight whether this is an on-site or remote opportunity (or both), as you’ll get different pools of applicants depending on the flexibility of those criteria.
  • Required qualifications and specific responsibilities. This may seem obvious, but it can sometimes be difficult to know what details to include or leave out. When in doubt, err on the side of more information. If you’re looking for volunteers with specific experience or expertise, make that clear at the outset.
  • Training and support provided. Not all tasks are alike, and some require far more preparation than others. Make sure to note the training you’ll offer so you don’t scare anyone off from a seemingly challenging task.
  • Contact information. Another obvious but often-overlooked detail. Always provide clear points of contact—including a name to go along with a phone number and/or email address—in your position description.
  • Benefits! Volunteers are giving up their free time to help your organization out, and it’s nice to let them know what they stand to gain for choosing you rather than someone else. Benefits can include anything from a stipend, housing, and translation services to some neat swag or access to a celebratory event (digital or safely in-person) once the activity or program has wrapped.

Part 3 | Onboarding and Orientation

Once you start receiving responses to your listing, you’ll want to have an effective and efficient onboarding and orientation process—beginning with managing applicants quickly and efficiently. Idealist’s free Applicant Tracker is a great, easy way to organize and categorize prospective volunteers for just this purpose.

Depending on the size and scope of your projects, onboarding and orientation could include interviews, background and reference checks, and training sessions. “Orientation can take place in many ways, including virtually,” Meg notes. “In some cases, it is on the same day as the volunteer project, whereas other organizations might provide monthly orientations volunteers can sign up for.”

Other options include downloadable documents or pre-recorded videos that cover the basics, supplemented by more program-specific information prior to the start of a particular event or activity. “One of the most important goals,” Meg adds, “is to ensure the volunteer understands how their efforts help to support your organization’s mission.” As always, mission-focused communication is key.

Interviewing volunteers

Though not always necessary, it could be helpful to sit down with prospective volunteers to confirm that they have the required skills and qualifications, determine if they will need any individual support (regarding accessibility or other considerations), match them with a specific role, and share more information with them about your organization.

Here are some questions Idealist recommends to help you get the information you need, and help the volunteers you choose get the most out of their experience:

Why would you like to be a volunteer at our organization? 

This simple question can yield valuable insight about an applicant’s motives and interests. Listen for alignment to your mission as well as indications of what they hope to gain from volunteering. This will allow you both to have informed mutual expectations.

Can you tell me about an aspect of a volunteer experience that you’ve really enjoyed, and a part that you wish had been different? 

With this question, you can get a sense of what kinds of commitments prospective volunteers have made in the past. It may be useful to hear if they’ve previously volunteered in the sector to determine what kind of training and onboarding will be most useful for them.

Why do you think this volunteer opportunity is a good match for you? 

You will have a sense of this based on their application, but it can also be helpful to hear a candidate articulate the strengths and abilities they bring to your specific opportunity. There may also be experiences that didn’t make their resume but nonetheless set them up for success. Hearing about their strengths will also help you brainstorm additional projects they could support.

How much time would you like to volunteer? 

We suggest phrasing this question alongside your expectations for volunteer time commitment. For example, “We’re looking for a commitment of X hours a week and would value having volunteers able to work one weekend day a month. Is that something that would work for you and your schedule?” Always confirm that the time volunteers are able to contribute aligns with your organizational needs.

Tell me about a time your responsibilities got a little overwhelming and you weren’t able to get everything done. What did you do? 

The ability to adapt to changing work demands is a necessary quality for volunteers. Asking about a time an applicant faced a challenging situation allows you to understand how they deal with instances where things don’t go as planned. Following up with questions like, “What would you do differently if this happened again?” can help you assess their ability to reflect and grow from their experiences.

Orientation

Whether it occurs before the volunteer project or on the first day, an effective orientation process—be it virtual or in-person—is a great way to introduce volunteers to one another, to the task at hand, and to the organization as a whole. “Effective onboarding and orientation processes should help to set a strong foundation for a positive volunteer experience,” Meg says. “It helps to understand the supervision and support needs of the volunteer, while also providing an opportunity for the organization to lay out what types of communication the volunteer might expect.”

When formulating your orientation process, make sure to cover these requirements:

  • Give clear instructions and provide the relevant information. This includes any supplies they need to bring with them, parking and public transit options, how they’ll gain access to the building or facility, and any other information required to arrive prepared. Also, be clear about what you’re providing so they aren’t worrying unnecessarily about something you’ll take care of for them.
  • Set clear rules and expectations. The most integral part of a successful volunteer process is making sure everyone is on the same page. This includes giving volunteers an idea of how much work you’re intending to get done (each shift, week, month, etc.) as well as any policies, procedures, and protocols they must adhere to.
  • Be mindful of the goal, but also the people. Many volunteers are there because they want to make a difference, and they want to feel they’re accomplishing that while assisting your organization’s goals. “It’s important to ensure that all communications have the right tone and are engaging and relevant to the volunteer,” Meg says. “Any communication should make it clear that they matter and their contributions are appreciated.”

Part 4 | Managing Volunteers

Whether the project is large or small, a good system of management is key to a successful volunteer program. Here are best practices and suggestions to help your program run smoothly.

Assign a volunteer coordinator

It is crucial to keep volunteers informed about who they should report to, reach out to for support, and rely on for guidance or further instruction.

Depending on the size of your organization and the type of work being done, this structure could entail a network of volunteers of different ranks or experience, or a full-time volunteer coordinator in charge of overseeing all projects, managing groups, and handling recruitment and onboarding.

Also, make sure volunteers know who to go to if there are larger issues their immediate superior can’t handle—especially if that superior is themself a volunteer. “Every volunteer should be clear on the supervisory structure,” Meg says. “Many organizations may engage volunteer leaders to lead projects or programs, but volunteers must still be able to go to a supervisor if the volunteer leader is unable to assist them with their questions or needs.”

Stay organized

Tracking progress as well as schedules, tasks, and dependencies is a must for any project—and volunteer projects are no exception. Taking stock of a volunteer’s logged time can also help you assess hiring needs and ensure expectations are being met.

Whether you use Excel spreadsheets, Google Docs, or a more robust volunteer management platform, staying on top of active projects, noting milestones, and minding timelines is key to any successful volunteer program.

Create a volunteer handbook

It’s helpful for volunteers to have a concrete reference point for any questions or concerns that may come up. Compiling a resource of basic rules and procedures, as well as frequently asked questions and contact information for relevant departments, managers, or team leaders can save volunteers a lot of time and spare them a great deal of confusion.

A volunteer handbook could include things like:

  • An overview of basic organizational policies.
  • Employee guidelines relevant to volunteers, such as dress codes and codes of conduct.
  • A breakdown of general expectations based on the organization’s mission and goals.
  • Safety protocols and precautions.
  • A volunteer agreement (to be signed by volunteers).

Provide check-ins or volunteer meetings

Whether the opportunity is short- or long-term, you’ll want to keep your volunteers informed about new developments and take time to address any questions or issues. These check-ins could be one-on-one, in-person or virtual conversations, or weekly coffee-break meetings with a volunteer supervisor or manager.

Offer training opportunities

One of the many benefits of recruiting volunteers is their potential for growth—whether that means ascending to higher-profile volunteer positions or transitioning to part- or full-time employment. It’s wise to keep an eye out for those who go above and beyond and give them opportunities to move up. This can be as simple as a brown bag lunch to brush up on Excel skills, or a Q&A session with a colleague who has expertise in a specific issue area.

When you provide good volunteer management, volunteers will feel valued and included, and will be more likely to volunteer with your organization in the future—which leads us to the final section of our guide: Offboarding and Networking!

Part 5 | Offboarding and Networking

If you’re interested in continuing your volunteer program beyond a particular task or event, it’s helpful to have debriefing protocols and means for communicating with your volunteers in the future. It’s far easier to keep great volunteers than to find new ones, so put some time into developing relationships to keep volunteers engaged, informed, and—of course—coming back to volunteer with you!

Recognize good work and express gratitude

As always, the core of your communication should be mission- and people-focused. “Recognize the volunteer as a person, not just the time they spent with you. Make it personal,” Meg says. Lunches, happy hours, swag, and thank-you cards are great ways to show your appreciation. Because volunteers are not compensated, these forms of recognition are particularly meaningful.

“It’s also important to consider the ways that individual volunteers might want to be recognized and what motivated their involvement,” Meg says. “When possible, it’s great to share the impact of the volunteer project or program. For example, ‘With your support we were able to box 120 pounds of food—equivalent to 100 meals—which will be distributed throughout our community.’ Tie it back to your mission!”

You may also want to recognize volunteers by posting about them on your social media channels and website, or in newsletters (with their permission, of course!). 

Pro Tip: Past successes also make for great volunteer outreach materials; if you can use the testimonials of current or previous volunteers in your recruitment efforts, you’ll bring the entire program full circle!

Keep in touch!

Perhaps the biggest sign of a robust volunteer program is whether people keep coming back—and the best way to do that is to establish clear and consistent forms of communication. “Points of Light engages people through our email lists and social media,” Meg says. “Additionally, some of our Global Network members will periodically host volunteer get-togethers to continue fostering the relationship between the volunteer, the organization, and its mission.”

If you can keep volunteers connected to your mission, interested in your progress, and inspired to contribute, you’ll eventually have a network of dedicated and dutiful volunteers that can help your organization truly thrive.

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Idealist and Points of Light believe that every action matters. Big or small, global or local, in groups or individually, any step taken towards building a better world is a step in the right direction.

Learn more about Points of Light, and discover the power of enlisting dedicated and motivated mission-focused volunteers by posting a volunteer listing on Idealist today.

Ready to get started? Start finding great volunteers today!