“Volunteer Management: Recruiting and Retaining the Best ‘Free’ Talent” By Ruth C. White

If you work in a human services setting, it is a fair bet that at some point you have worked with volunteers. And furthermore there is a strong likelihood that you too were once a volunteer. Most non-profits in human services – as well as government agencies – would have a hard time accomplishing their mission without the time, energy and commitment of people who want to make a difference in the world and have chosen to do so without financial compensation. But volunteers come with a unique set of management challenges and this post will explore the good and the bad, and how to make the most of the volunteer/agency relationship. (Thanks go to the summer 2017 cohort of my management classes in the MSW program at USC with whom I explored this topic in class and many of whom raised the points included below).


There are many advantages to using volunteers beyond the world of free. First, volunteers will often do tasks that require less skill but are still integral to the operation of the organization. Activities like stuffing envelopes, making phone calls, helping out at events etc are often given to volunteers to do because they require little training. But as I will discuss later, this is often not the best use of their time. Volunteers are a great way to engage the community and make them more vested in what you do. If done well, the use of volunteers can also plug skill gaps in the organization. It is also great to have people who choose to help because of their passion.


However, engaging volunteers has its downside. For example, there is often a lack of accountability and consistency because they don’t have to be there. Depending on the level of skill needed, they can also be costly to train. Some agencies have a high turnover of volunteers, especially if they depend on students who need to put in time as a graduation requirement or use it as a way to pad their resumes for college applications. Without incentives to perform, many volunteers don’t have a strong commitment to a high standard of performance. Also, because agencies are happy to have the help, some managers feel that they have little choice but to take whoever shows up at the door.


Creating mutually beneficial relationships with volunteers starts with the recruitment process and continues through to good supervision and rewarding good performance. In other words, it is good to treat your volunteers like employees.

Define Their Role

Just like other job descriptions in the organization, volunteer roles need to be clearly defined with tasks and lines of accountability well-articulated. The number of hours, who they will report to, any legal responsibilities they may have are essential to a volunteer role and allow both parties to be clear on expectations. Ethical responsibilities should be outlined. If volunteers require background testing or any immunizations are recommended, this should be included in the role. This description can be used as a foundation for a contract with your volunteers. Having a signed agreement between agency and volunteer is a formal statement of commitment on both sides and is a great tool for accountability.

Choose the Right People

If you see volunteers as people who do the tasks you don’t want to do or don’t have time to do, then you wont invest the time to ensure a good fit between person and task. That good fit means that the skills of the volunteers are maximized. Treat your volunteers like employees, in terms of thinking of them as talent to be managed and developed. Conduct interviews with potential volunteers that explore their education, skills and experience and find roles that make the most use of their talents. Find out how they want to contribute to the organization, as well as what they want to get out of the experience. If you use skills assessment tools for your paid employees, use the same process for your volunteers. Just because someone comes to your door does not mean that they should come through the door. The better the fit, the more – and longer – engaged your volunteers will be, and the better their performance.

Orient Them to the Organization

Once you have chosen the right people for the task, a good orientation is really important. Give the volunteer a sense of the history of the organization, a good understanding of what the organization does and how they benefit the community and how what they will do fits into the mission and vision of the organization. Volunteers choose where they donate their time based on their own interests and passion so they are looking for a way to connect with an outcome they believe in. If training or certification is necessary make sure that these are completed before they start so that you do not have liability issues.

Provide Good Supervision

If their role and line of accountability has been clearly defined then when your volunteer shows up for ‘work’ they should know what to do and who to go to for guidance and reporting. Volunteer hours should be monitored and so a sign-in process of some kind should be a requirement of their participation. This is also something that funders like to track. For efficiency and effectiveness, it may be best to make volunteer supervision the responsibility of one person within the agency so that efforts can be well coordinated and easy to evaluate. The volunteer manager need not be the one that volunteers report to but there should be one person in the agency who has a ‘big picture’ view of volunteer engagement. Good supervision includes regular meetings with discussions of performance and a chance to explore opportunities for growth and development.


Engagement is an ongoing issue in workplaces because it drives work performance, so include volunteers as much as your operations can accommodate. In a report titled The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance, researchers at Harvard Business Review (HBR, 2013) found in a study of 550 executives that 71% rank employee engagement as very important to achieving organizational results and yet only 24% found that employees were highly engaged. So this is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed, even though the fact that volunteers are choosing to give their free time means they are by default more engaged. But it should not be taken for granted. Because of their unique perspective, volunteers can contribute a lot to program planning and development so involve them as you see fit. Whether it means that you have a ‘representative’ from your volunteers who engage in staff meetings or give reports to the board, or having them propose and lead new projects. The more connected people are to the organization, the more engaged they will feel and the longer they will stay.

Incentivize and Reward

Volunteers are a valued resource and so you should treat them as such. Even though by choosing to volunteer they know they are working for free, it does not mean that they should be taken for granted. The same HBR found that 72% of respondents rank recognition for high performers as having a significant impact on employee engagement. You can incentivize volunteers by giving away gift cards or swag for serving for a certain number of hours. If the agency gets any kind of discount, give volunteers access to these benefits. Certificates for in-house training acknowledges their new knowledge and skills. Reward volunteers for ‘landmarks’ such as 100 hours. It need not be anything fancy but a little award or a sign that names the volunteer of the month can go a long way to make people feel appreciated and inspires others.

In summary, the key to recruiting and retaining the best volunteers is to maximize their skills and engagement so that the relationship is highly rewarding for both parties, while making people feel appreciated for making the effort to join you in your mission of making the world a better place.

About the author

Ruth C. White, PhD, MPH, MSW is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, where she has taught in the Virtual Academic Center (VAC) for almost 5 years. She is the VAC lead for the course on management of human services organizations, which she has taught to hundreds of students. Prior to USC she gained tenure at Seattle University and taught at San Francisco State University for many years. She has worked as a volunteer with human service organizations in the USA, Canada, Belize, the UK, and Uganda. She currently resides in Oakland, CA where she is searching for the right volunteer opportunity.



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