To build a loyal volunteer community, look beyond the short timers

Let me tell you something about those practical volunteer manager skills that you have acquired. Once those abilities are wired into your brain, you can walk away from them for a while and pick them back up whenever you need them.

It’s like riding a bicycle.

That’s what I have found these past couple of months, while assisting a local nonprofit by screening volunteers until their new volunteer manager comes on board.  It’s been fun to jump back into the interviewing process because it comes so naturally.  And all of that training in behavior-based interviewing has been necessary to assess the fit of prospective volunteers for a very specialized role.

What’s been frustrating is interviewing applicants who make it clear that their primary interest in volunteering is to acquire job skills – their desire to help the clients is often secondary.  This particular program gets most of its applications from college or graduate students hoping to gain direct experience in the field.

Now don’t get me wrong – most of these students will become responsible, reliable volunteers who fulfill their one year commitment with flying colors.

The problem is that these students won’t stick around once their commitment is fulfilled.

That kind of nonstop revolving door leaves a leader of volunteers with a dilemma: how do you manage a volunteer pool that is:

1) not primarily motivated by the mission, and;

2) likely to move on in a year or so?

Do you settle for the volunteers who apply but won’t stick around – or do you hold out for the ones who really love your organization and will stay on for much, much longer?

We got super-clear on this issue in my CASA program – we only considered volunteers who were motivated by a desire to help and not seeking professional advancement. We would only bring on the most qualified candidates – even if it left a waiting list of cases to be served.  That philosophy paid off for us in increased volunteer retention and overall high satisfaction rates among our volunteers.

Does that mean I think that more programs should turn away student volunteers?

No. There is no reason to turn away a volunteer who fulfills the stated commitment and does a great job at the role. If you are accepting volunteers who are not primarily motivated to by professional advancement, though, you need to expand your marketing and also attract the ones who will stick around.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Get clear on who is your Ideal Volunteer. Every program has one – it’s your job to fully understand who that person is. What common traits or demographics are shared by your most successful volunteers? Doing a DNA Study will help you pinpoint what makes your standout volunteers ticks.
  2. Get smart about what you say to attract volunteers You want to write your volunteer position notices so that they appeal the volunteers who will stick around. That takes thoughtful, careful messaging.
  3. Get geeky about data. Track your referral sources and note where your Ideal Volunteers hear about you. That’s where you want to focus your energy –
  4. Hold your ground if you don’t get the numbers you need. If you are feeling spread thin between managing your volunteer program and marketing, then it’s time to have a conversation with your supervisor.

Many, many nonprofits underestimate how much time and person-power it takes to properly recruit volunteer volunteers. You might need to hire more staff, or spring for paid advertising, or simply get yourself trained in how to write copy that delivers results.

And one more thing.

Even though this discussion seems to be all about getting more efficient and effective in your practices, there’s another important question operating beneath this conversation:

What kind of volunteer manager do you want to be?

If you’re fine with resolving the immediate problem at hand (filling spots with available volunteers), you may not be inclined to make any changes. But if you want to create a program that truly serves your organization, and if you want to build a community of volunteers who are fully invested in your cause, you’ll want to raise your vetting standards.  It’s decisions like this that make your work more than just a job. You set yourself on a path to greater purpose.

Want to learn more about marketing to your Ideal Volunteer? I’m thinking of hosting a webinar on the marketing & messaging secrets of the for-profit world.  There are some very effective practices out there that are rarely taught to nonprofits.

Email me at if you want to ramp up your reach to mission-driven volunteers.