Engaging Volunteers in a Not-for-Profit Organisation

Every day, across the globe, millions of people volunteer their spare time to help not-for-profit organisations reach their goals, help people and improve their communities. We salute these hard workers, and we look at ways to better engage your volunteers.

People who are passionate about a particular topic will often give up their spare time freely to help a not-for-profit or charity organisation. These volunteers are amazing people, who give their time so freely, and deserve our heartfelt gratitude. The issue for these organisations is; volunteers can be hard to attract, their time is finite, passions wane and not for profits frequently find a high churn rate of experienced volunteers.

In this article, I’ll cover some of the ways that I have personally discovered, in my 20 years of volunteering, and we look at what some of the experts say as well.

Attracting volunteers

Before putting out a call for volunteers, you should ensure that you have an easily understood mission, a structure to your organisation, and the appropriate legal paperwork up-to-date. For example, in Australia, if you have volunteers in community service that interact with minors, you will need your volunteers to have a Working with Children card.

“The better you communicate your impact, the more your organisation will become a magnet for all forms of giving.”

– Joe Waters

Be insured

Your volunteers are a precious resource for your organisation. Although volunteers may not covered by regular employee insurance or compensation, you are still required to ensure that all volunteers have a safe work environment, and importantly, the right insurance coverage.

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Have a position description

The best organisations I have worked with in the past have clear expectations written out in the form of position or job descriptions. There are many hundreds of examples available online, and as a start, a simple one page overview to what is expected of them, and what the volunteers tasks will be, is usually sufficient.

In this article, 4 Ways to Fail your Volunteers, Eli Raber writes that one of the failures is ‘setting blurry expectations’. Make sure any volunteers are clear on your expectations, by using an appropriate position description.

Send the right message

Your volunteers are often the lifeblood of a charity or not-for-profit, so please treat them as such. Ensure you show that you care for them, and will encourage them to grow personally into their roles. Show a positive work environment, and plenty of gratitude when advertising for volunteers.

A volunteer recruitment campaign requires, at the outset, that you can easily answer a few questions:

  • What do we need?
  • Who could provide this?
  • How can we communicate with them?
  • What would motivate them?

Working through such questions will help you identify and locate the right volunteers that you need.

Use appropriate mediums

When hunting for volunteers, it is best to stand back and consider where you believe they will be most receptive. In some cases, one of your events, or when canvassing audiences, other times you may find a page on your website, or using social media may be the most appropriate platforms.

Promotion mediums could include;

  • Distribution of brochures
  • Social media
  • Speaking to various groups
  • Asking any existing volunteers or employees
  • Notices in appropriate media
  • Street or window posters
Engaging Volunteers

Credit: Clotee Allochuku, Flickr

Engaging volunteers

Now that you have a team of volunteers (well done!), it’s not enough to just sit back and expect their undivided attention. Engagement is even more important for volunteers than regular paid employees; volunteers need constant encouragement, gratitude and motivation to stay on course.

Create the right environment

A positive work environment has an amazing effect on your team. I’ve been involved in some organisations that whilst they have great missions, their environments were not conducive to great engagement. Engaging volunteers is often as easy as having the right culture.

Follow tips such as those found in our article, Engaging employees: the five ‘C’ pillars.

Give regular gratitude

Whilst a paid employee still expects gratitude in the form of the occasional thank you or outward display of care, it could be argued that unpaid team members actually deserve more.  One of the key ways to encourage and motivate a volunteer starts with a simple thank you.

You may wish to read our article on 40 Great Ways to say Thank You to your Employees for more inspiration on low-cost or free ways to show you appreciate your volunteers.

Ask constantly for suggestions

The best way to demonstrate you value a volunteers input, is to ask them for their suggestions. It’s often a case that the front line team will have great ideas around how to save valuable budgets, or improve community services, that may be easy to implement, and can mean significant savings or growth for your organisation.

Follow typical employee engagement tips

On this blog, we regularly write about methods to encourage organisations to engage their employees well. Swapping out the word ‘employee’ to ‘volunteer’ means these are just as relevant for your not-for-profit or charity. For example, our post on simple and effective employee engagement ideas is just as relevant for volunteers.

Consider using pulse surveys

We have discovered that our pulse survey system, 6Q, is just as relevant for volunteers as it is for employees. Being able to regularly ask and measure how your volunteers are feeling, and get valuable feedback from them is paramount for an excellent organisational culture.

Hint: Sign up for a free 25 day free trial, and if you do decide to use 6Q, then speak to our support team before you upgrade; you may be eligible for a sizable discount.

Volunteer thank you cake

Photo: San Jose Library, Flickr


When volunteers leave

It is inevitable that volunteers who were once very passionate and committed, may make the decision down the track to leave their role. The most important step here is to not take it personally, and now more than ever, show the gratitude you have for their past work for you.

Find out why they are leaving

Just as exit interviews are a must for regular paid employees, they are just as useful for volunteers that are leaving your organisation. These interviews show that you care, and are willing to open yourselves to criticism. Questions you could possibly ask, include

  • What is your main reason for leaving us?
  • What could we have done to encourage you to stay on?
  • How would you describe the culture we have here?
  • How well do you feel our process and procedures helped you in your time here?
  • What would you suggest to improve volunteer roles here at our organisation?

Ensure you give appropriate gratitude

Whilst you have hopefully created a culture of gratitude within your organisation, this is a great opportunity to stand in front of the team, and make a speech about why you are sad to see this volunteer leave (be careful not to make them feel guilty, however), and to express a few kind words of thanks.

In Summary

We’ve discussed why volunteering is such a wonderful exercise to undertake, we have looked at various methods of attracting and engaging volunteers to your cause, how to engage them fully when they are under your care and management, and what to do when they inevitably move on.

With the right planning and thought, encouraging volunteering, engaging volunteers and making a wonderful culture to keep them on task isn’t as difficult as you may think. Good luck!

Miles Burke

Miles Burke

Miles is the founder of 6Q. He is passionate about peer-to-peer recognition, company culture, employee engagement and wants every workplace to be the happiest it can be. Miles is also MD of Bam Creative, an author and public speaker.