Responding to the Constant Need for Volunteers

I have heard countless nonprofit professionals say, “We need a volunteer to handle the job.” Often this phrase is uttered before any kind of thoughtful review process is undertaken of what is really needed by the organization. It is often easier to just assign a volunteer to a task then to think through what are the real needs and to find the most appropriate volunteer.

There are a number of steps that should be implemented before volunteers are brought into the equation. The first is to clarify why a volunteer is needed in the first place. Where did the idea come from? What were the reasons why the job or task could not be fulfilled without a volunteer? What are the specific tasks needed to be performed? As soon as these questions are answered then a job description can be written for the position.

We usually think of a job description as only for paid positions in businesses and organizations, but whenever a task needs to be performed, its duties, responsibilities and requirements should be enumerated. This includes volunteer positions, as well. The staff member working on the document therefore needs to go through the process of defining the position. He should consult with other people in the organization to clarify the volunteer’s function and state what, if any, are the necessary requirements in order to carry out the responsibilities of the position. For example, if someone will be working with children in an after-school program or group home, it is important to determine that the person has some experience working with children. In a similar vein, a person who has an interest in working in a senior center for people with Alzheimer’s disease must have an understanding of their condition and how to interact with them.

Once the volunteer position is defined and its qualifications are agreed upon by both the organization’s administrator and whoever will be responsible for selecting the person, then the agency can begin the recruitment process. Recruiting for volunteers has two sides to it. On one hand, the agency must select the person best suited for the position and on the other hand, the prospective volunteer has to be interested in and attracted to the organization. Volunteers have their criteria for selecting the agency where they will be donating their time.

Often the organization’s current team of volunteers is a good source of new volunteers. If they are finding the experience sufficiently rewarding they will be happy to suggest that their friends consider volunteering for the organization. This is often the most effective way of finding appropriate volunteers.

Once the candidates for the volunteer position are selected then the next step is to provide them with some basic training. It is not unusual for a nonprofit to select a few volunteers and then train them as a group. For example, a hospital or a museum may accept 30 or so volunteers at once. This will enable people to learn together and to establish a connection among the new team of volunteers.

The organization has to integrate the new volunteers into the mix of veteran volunteers who have already been contributing their time to the organization. This should be done in a way that welcomes the new volunteers while also recognizing the knowledge and experience of the veteran volunteers. When this is done successfully, it increases not only the numerical strength of the group but also the spirit among the volunteers.

It can happen that the veteran volunteers place a stigma on the new volunteers by continually referring to them as “new.” The agency must provide support to both groups so there is an integration of both groups and there is no stigma attached to the length of time a person has been volunteering. This is often a matter of being sensitive to the groups’ status and developing a process that meets their needs.

After the initial orientation and/or training as been completed and the volunteers are placed within the organization, there should be ongoing supervision and educational programs provided by the agency. This is an important aspect in motivating people to maintain their commitment to the organization and enthusiasm for the work they are doing. These can be either group or individual sessions depending on the nature of the work.

Finally, in addition to ongoing supervision, the volunteer should have the opportunity to receive feedback from the professional who is responsible for overseeing him or her. Part and parcel of the experience is the volunteer must receive feedback on their efforts from the organization. If their performance is very good then they should know how their efforts are perceived. If they are not able to complete their task successfully then they should not only be made aware of this, but they should receive assistance from the professional staff. It may be that a particular assignment is not appropriate for certain volunteers and if this is case then the assignment should be changed. When there is not a good fit between the volunteer and the agency then a change has to be made, even if it involves ending the relationship with the volunteer.

Volunteers are not “staff members who work for free”. There are many reasons to engage volunteers and it is very important that the agency have a clear understanding of the roles that are appropriate for volunteers and the process utilized to select and assign them. At the same time, the volunteer must be clear about his/her reasons for volunteering. When the agency’s and the volunteer’s reasons align, there is a greater chance for a mutually successful experience.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

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  1. says

    all well and good for larger organizations, but small ones need volunteers as well. and they are often without resources to even begin to have a ‘staff member’ coordinate it, search, interview, assing, supervise, etc.

    not sure what the solution is, but i would love to hear your thoughts about that as well. thanks.

  2. Stephen G. Donshik says


    The solution is for a staff member, and if it is a really small organization, the director, to recruit a coordinator for volunteers in the organization who is a volunteer. There are organizations that do not have the resources for staffing volunteer departments so they look for one volunteer who will head up the department. Once the person is in place then he/she can receive supervision and support from one of the professionals or the director and the volunteer coordinator will implement the program. When this model is used, it communicates a nice message to the community that the organizaiton is really serious about using volunteers and they give the role to a volunteer.

    There are various other models that can be employed. This one happens to have a number of side benefits.

    I hope this provides some guidance.



  3. says

    Thank you Stephen for getting the conversation going. As a consultant who specializes in volunteer engagement, the most common mistake that organizations make is to recruit first and hope for the best. Rarely is recruitment the issue in volunteer engagement. Nearly all organizations, no matter their size, have sizable circle’s of influence (donors, venders, current and past volunteers, board members, employees, clients and their families, neighbor’s and funder’s) from which to cultivate volunteer talent. Too often organizations are in such a hurry to respond to a need that they barely take the pulse of a prospective volunteer and screening rarely happens. Then the organization is shocked when the relationship doesn’t work out. The organizations that we see who excel at volunteer engagement, do so because everyone in the organization is a talent scout cultivating talent to meet organizational need. These organizations wisely understand that when volunteers are cultivated for the skills and talents that they will willingly share, the organization has access to a broader talent pool and can meet the demands of their marketplace even in these challenging economic times. Finally, cultivating volunteers for their leadership ability and creating opportunities for volunteers to lead other volunteers addresses the staff capacity issue.

    In the world of robust volunteer engagement the role of staff changes from doing the work to delegating it. This requires the ability to convene, facilitate, and support volunteers so that staff can steward other critical initiatives.

  4. says

    The topic of appropriate use and support of volunteers is an important topic for non profit organizations and volunteers alike to consider. At Skilled Volunteers for Israel we use a collaborative process to place our volunteers. As we work with professionals who come from outside Israel and want to volunteer in Israel, we play a critical role in screening the volunteers for the organization. We recognize that many non profits do not have the staff resources to do this screening, particularly for volunteers from outside Israel.

    Identifying a real need within the organization in which a volunteer can make a meaningful contribution, identifying the roles, responsibilities and expectations of the volunteer and the organization in advance of the volunteer’s arrival and documenting those expectations in a placement proposal are all methods in which we facilitate successful placements.

    Organizations interested in utilizing volunteers understand that integrating volunteers takes staff time and resources. However, with appropriate placement processes and use of organizations such as Skilled Volunteers for Israel which partner to support the organization in those processes, the value and contribution that volunteers can make to an organization is worthwhile. Volunteers also provide a means of expanding that non profits network.