By Raj Hegde

Whether you have a massive army of volunteers and volunteer management staff, or a handful of volunteers reporting to the founder of the nonprofit, volunteers are one of the most valuable assets.

Volunteers in the United States are 63 million strong. They hold up the foundation of civil society. No matter what kind of volunteer work they do, they are contributing in invaluable ways. They are heroes! They are your advocates, champions, ambassadors, and worker bees. They fill many roles in different capacities. Their diverse skill sets give your nonprofit access to a selection of expertise. These include board members, committee leads, exhibit guides, ushers, admins, and more.

Therefore, it’s imperative that you recruit and keep a strong volunteer base. That’s an ongoing process for every nonprofit as you’d need volunteers for a number of activities now and in the future. But those you already have must be retained by valuing their time, effort, and skills, and by managing them wisely. Let us see how it works.

How to Motivate and Engage Volunteers

  1. Check your assumptions about volunteers
  2. Design a volunteer engagement program
  3. Show your appreciation
  4. Value your volunteers’ time
  5. Play to their strengths
  6. Communicate and listen to their feedback
  7. Give volunteers the training and resources they need
  8. Cultivate your volunteers for other, bigger roles

1. Check your assumptions about volunteers

Before you focus on engaging and motivating your volunteers, check your own assumptions. Think rationally about the value that volunteers do or could bring to your organization. Your volunteers are like money in the bank and should be valued accordingly.

When a charity receives a gift of $25,000 or more for example, that’s considered a major contribution. But what about the volunteer who gives over one thousand hours of personal time to a nonprofit? What’s the value of that? Does your nonprofit know the value of a volunteer hour and the ROI of retaining supporters?

According to Independent Sector, the estimated national average value of volunteer time for 2018 was $25.43 per hour. For many devoted volunteers, that could amount to a $25,000 gift in a year or over a lifetime, as a result.

Treat volunteers as staff members for this exercise: List their jobs and hours and what appropriate staff members would earn doing the same jobs. Make sure to include a number for benefits that the equivalent staffers would earn. Sum up those numbers to make a powerful case for investing in volunteers.

Volunteers are not “free labour” and they’re not “low-skilled”. This attitude leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy of expecting and therefore tolerating, a mediocre performance by volunteers. Time donors require as much of an ongoing, organized investment as paid staff or money donors. This will make it possible to keep your nonprofit volunteers motivated and engaged, as well as accountable and reliable.

2. Design a volunteer engagement program

Often, volunteer involvement is handled far below the top of the organization. It may be a sub-unit of any department willing to house it that is not necessarily a logical home for it. A strong and healthy volunteer program is ideally handled from the top of the organization.

Volunteering should be perceived as a critical organization management function. It should be discussed in the boardroom and included in long-range planning and other mission-critical activities.

A volunteer engagement policy should be developed by management, key volunteers and leadership. It takes more than just creating a quality experience for volunteers, so include goals and strategies. In turn, this should become a set of guidelines and standards which a nonprofit can replicate across all volunteer touchpoints.

If you don’t have a volunteer engagement policy, take the first step by planning a brainstorming session on the topic of volunteer engagement. To get started, think about these three things:

What are the motivations of nonprofit volunteers?

The decision to volunteer, like the decision to donate financially, is an emotional one. Volunteers are motivated by different things. People generally get involved for one or more of the following reasons:

  • They want to contribute to a cause in which they believe
  • They want to learn new skills
  • Their need to fulfill business and/or social expectations
  • They want to have a sense of ownership and control that they cannot find in a work situation
  • They’re motivated by a desire for change
  • They want to have fun and enjoy what they are doing
  • They want to meet new people

Think about each of these motives and build your program around them. And be upfront about asking each of your prospective volunteers about their motives, so you can better match them with an assignment.

Why do volunteers leave?

According to a United Way survey, here are the top reasons why volunteers leave an organization (in order of importance):

  • They were underutilized
  • The physical environment did not support their efforts
  • The atmosphere was impersonal, tense or cold
  • They made a suggestion that was not acted on or responded to
  • They did not see the connection between one day’s work and another
  • Veteran long-term volunteers wouldn’t let them into their “insider” group
  • They did not know how to say they wanted to leave
  • Employees treated them as an interruption, not as welcome, anticipated help
  • The reality of their experience was not what they expected when they signed on

In order for volunteers to keep volunteering, they must feel valued. They must see the results of their work and be respected. Considering why volunteers get involved and why they leave is a good catalyst for designing a volunteer engagement policy.

Pro Tip: Have a Volunteer “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities”.

Why do I need a Volunteer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities?

It’s quite a useful document to have. It can help you develop a policy and guide you through the stewardship process.

It can also be used as an interviewing tool and discussion starter. Don’t just give it as a hand-out. It will be ignored completely. Going through it with a prospective volunteer will help orient them and set the proper tone for the new relationship.

This process may also alert you to any potential problems with the match. One of the proposed responsibilities may make a prospective volunteer balk and reveal problems with the match you’d rather know sooner than later. Maybe it’s not a good fit, or maybe you can discuss how to fix the problem in advance.

3. Show your appreciation

Treat your volunteers like major donors. They give their time, energy, and sometimes funds. Show your appreciation with daily stewardship. Volunteers are diverse, and each one requires custom interaction — this will, in turn, strengthen your relationship.

The possibilities are endless, but there are ways to recognize volunteers that you can incorporate into your menu of individual kudos and group appreciation efforts.

Here are some of them:

  • First of all, thank your volunteers. And then thank them again.
  • Host a volunteer appreciation party, and if the budget permits allow family or other guests. Add a theme and encourage all staff to attend. Require employees that regularly work with volunteers to participate in a creative appreciation exercise.
  • Have a photo booth at a luncheon to record your volunteers celebrating. Put the photos on your website and post them on your social media.
  • Host a unique event. Volunteers at St. Anthony’s in St. Petersburg, FL. were treated to a short cruise captured on video and put on YouTube. Think of an excursion to a local attraction or field trip to a museum or performance. Venues may offer you a deal or donate the time, especially if you reciprocate by making them an official sponsor.
  • If there’s no budget for an event, each department could record a video message about why volunteers are valuable. Consolidate the messages and play the video during a routine volunteer meeting.
  • Send handwritten notes of appreciation. Handwritten notes are rare these days, so when it happens, it’s noticed and appreciated.
  • Share your volunteers’ success stories to demonstrate the important difference they make. If a volunteer helped a non-English speaking child learn to read a book in English all the way through, certainly that would be something to crow about.
  • Honour top volunteers in big and small ways. Small recognition efforts mean a lot — in print, online and event settings.
  • Designate a Volunteer of the Month recognition, or something that occasionally features volunteers in your newsletter, social media, and other outlets.

4. Value your volunteers’ time

People volunteer because they want to make a difference in the world. They have busy lives and competing responsibilities as we all do. Therefore, if they don’t feel like they’re making a difference, they won’t continue to donate their time and energy.

Signing on anyone who steps forward to help in vague ways, without clear objectives and coordination simply wastes time, for both the paid staff and volunteers. Give volunteers a sense of purpose while they’re working with you: set expectations, define goals, and make sure they have what they need to make the most of their time.

Volunteers meetings are important to support open lines of communication but don’t hold unnecessary meetings or wander off your agenda. Wrap them up quickly.

5. Play to their strengths

Volunteers enjoy using their expertise for a good cause. Therefore, allow them to apply their strengths to better your organization, and ensure the task is challenging and stimulating.

Don’t just use your volunteers to do the work nobody else wants to do.

If envelopes need to be stuffed, so be it, but perhaps put them in charge of the project. Do your best to utilize their skill-set while ensuring that each task or assigned department is meaningful and enjoyable to them in some way.

Pro Tip: Respect their uniqueness

It would be natural to assign an accountant to the finance department or a former nurse to the patient ward of a hospital, but realize that volunteers may want to do something different than they do or did in their professional lives. The accountant may prefer to work with animals or be meeting and greeting people. The nurse may prefer to work on an art exhibit.

As long as they’re capable and can do the job, assign them to their preferred task/area. A happy volunteer is a loyal volunteer.

6. Communicate and listen to their feedback

Listen to what your volunteers say. Volunteers who feel ignored probably won’t be volunteers for long. Therefore, ask their opinions, listen to their suggestions, and always follow up. When a volunteer approaches you with an idea, listen and ask questions. If it can be accommodated, let them know when it’s put into effect.

However, if it’s one that is not actionable, follow up with a timely explanation. Understand what the volunteer wants, learn what their expectations are, and communicate regularly. The level of your volunteers’ engagement reflects your ability to listen to their wants, needs, and suggestions.

Pro Tip: Create a feedback survey.

Volunteers should be able to speak up directly, but some people are not comfortable giving constructive feedback in a group setting or during one-on-one meetings. A well-designed survey can be distributed regularly or available at all times to solicit feedback. Or use an online survey app like JotForm Survey Maker or SurveyMonkey. And make their names optional. This way a volunteer can raise their concern(s) without singling themselves out, and it will guarantee honest feedback.

7. Give volunteers the training and resources they need

Certainly, volunteers at nonprofits deserve the utmost respect. Provide them with the resources and tools they need to be successful, whether it’s a pen and paper or a computer with the proper software. Providing resources also includes providing sufficient training to do their jobs.

It’s critical that the staff who are interacting with your volunteers are “on the same page” when it comes to volunteer engagement standards. Volunteers should have a welcoming point-person available to them who has time for their questions. This point-person should have the capacity to orient them to your work, and the desire to help them improve their skill set.

Conducting regular performance evaluations with volunteers is another way to treat them as co-workers and show them you support their efforts and want to see them succeed. Respect them enough to spend time talking about their work and increase their responsibilities (when appropriate).

8. Cultivate your volunteers for other, bigger roles

Your volunteers may also be leaders — staff, advisors, board members, and consultants. Your volunteer pool may yield not only other human resources but donors. Sure, you’ll have volunteers who just want to show up and assist with whatever task you provide. However, the care and feeding of all of your volunteers are critical for your organization’s reputation and growth. You never know where resources will come from, so think of your volunteer force as a network of opportunity.


Motivating and engaging nonprofit volunteers is easier than your organization may think. Your volunteers want to make a difference.

Allow them to grow and, together, your work will create change that supports your mission. And don’t forget to have fun with your volunteers—they are phenomenal people that share your same desire for success.

Raviraj Hegde heads the sales and marketing team at Donorbox. His growth-hacking abilities have helped Donorbox boost fundraising efforts for thousands of nonprofit organizations.


Worth Watching

Here’s a useful webinar on How to Find Your Next 20 Volunteer Superstars with free tools and smart strategies. In conversation with Tobi Johnson, an internationally sought-after expert and master trainer in volunteer management, we discuss how you can attract a committed fan base to your cause.

Tobi Johnson is known for her modern thought leadership, highly practical evidence-based strategies, and innovative, “big hat” thinking around engaging, supporting, and acknowledging the work of volunteers. She is the President of Tobi Johnson & Associates, a consulting firm whose mission is to help non-profit organisations make connections with remarkable volunteers. In 2015, she founded VolunteerPro, an online training and networking community for leaders of volunteers. Each year, she also conducts the Volunteer Management Progress Report, a global state-of-the-industry survey. In 2018, nearly 1,600 professionals from 16 countries participated.

Take your time to watch the video and learn the art of attracting the best volunteers.

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