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Volunteer Recruitment and Retention

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
July 31, 2023

Non-profit agencies exist to serve a specific cause or community. They fill the gap between what is available, affordable and accessible from public and non-profit organizations. They provide valued and valuable services to many. To succeed, even with paid employees, volunteer participation is critical. To succeed, they must find means of recruiting and retaining a passionate, engaged, talented volunteer workforce.

While non-profits have long existed, the sector has seen marked expansion. Since 1975, the population in the United States has grown 60 percent, while the number of non-profits has expanded nearly 500 percent. There are now approximately 1.5 million non-profits, with nearly 12.3 million employees. In 2023, it was reported employment in the non-profit sector had increased 33 percent over 15 years, with 29 percent of this being volunteers. Over the same time, many people have found the need to work multiple jobs, limiting their available time. Consequently, while the number of non-profits has exploded, the pool of potential volunteers has effectively shrunk.

Over the past few years, we have seen extensive coverage of employment levels rising and falling, of quiet quitting and quiet firing, but this has almost exclusively revolved around paid employment. Non-profits face similar challenges to recruitment and retention as found in the public and private sectors. Many best practices can be benchmarked from these other sectors, but non-profits face unique challenges which must be considered.  

Clear Expectations: There are often clear expectations for paid employees. Frequently, these expectations are written as job descriptions. Volunteer positions often lack this clarity. Without clear expectations of the roles to be filled by volunteers, non-profits might not have effective processes to screen, onboard, assign and lead them. If volunteers have unclear expectations, they may quickly become disillusioned and quit. This latter is often seen when recruitment messaging suggests volunteers will be exclusively engaged in activities they find exciting and rewarding. This avoids the reality many will be involved in the more mundane activities associated with keeping any organization functioning. To address these concerns, there must be clear expectations of the roles to be filled by volunteers, and this must be considered when recruiting, leading and managing them.

Active, Targeted Recruitment: It is common to see volunteer recruitment efforts limited and static. They often take the form of posters, webpages and flyers. They are passive approaches, relying on potential volunteers to reach out. A more effective approach would involve more active, targeted recruitment. Active, targeted recruitment involves time and commitment. The necessary skills sets must be identified. Individuals or groups within the community who have these skills must be identified and approached. This requires the active engagement of one or more members of the non-profit agency in on-going recruitment efforts. They will reach out to those with specific skills sets, including those available during odd hours. They will pursue partnerships with trade and academic institutions, creating work studies and internships. Active, targeted recruitment can be used to enlarge the pool of volunteers, but also may be invaluable in finding a narrower skill set needed only for a specific project.

Robust Inclusion Efforts: New volunteers often feel somewhat isolated, which is to be expected in anyone coming into a new environment. Non-profit leaders must make robust efforts to make these individuals feel included, and this must become part of the organizational culture. This means some form of formal onboarding and orientation. This means on-going communications from day one, including opportunities for input and feedback. This means realistic, relevant training. This means introducing team-building efforts, helping to create and sustain effective working relationships. In agencies with both paid and volunteer employees, it means preventing any schism from occurring, dividing the agency into differing camps.

Recognition/Awards: Volunteers come into non-profits with a drive to serve and a passion for a specific cause. This is a powerful energy we need to capture, and a spark we need to keep alive. Too often, non-profit leaders forget that while a passion for public service brings people in the door, once inside they are influenced by the same motivational and morale factors as employees in any organization. Volunteers need to be periodically recognized for their service. They need to feel appreciated. There should be rewards for long-term service, as well as for exceptional contributions. These rewards might be tangible or intangible, and can take the form of simply reminding volunteers periodically “we appreciate everything you do.”

While non-profits have long existed, the sector saw a marked expansion in the last quarter of the 20th century. The spirit of volunteerism was alight. In his 1989 inaugural address, President George H.W. Bush remarked “I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led….” This is a wonderful perspective on the value non-profits bring to our communities. To keep this spirit alive, non-profit leaders must find a means to ignite this passion in volunteers, stoking the flame to keep it burning even when times are tough.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, SHRM-CP, IPMA-CP is an HR training and development consultant and independent scholar. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He served in local government and non-profit agencies for over thirty years, and has taught at the graduate and doctoral levels since 2004. He may be reached at [email protected]

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