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Visit this page for ideas, suggestions and hints to build volunteer recruitment capacity.

~ October 2005 ~ Topics

Spontaneous Volunteers

Most managers of volunteers have been confronted by the spontaneous volunteer. "Hi! My name is Martha and I wondered if I could volunteer for a few hours today?" And she is standing in front of you. Send her away? Get her to sign up for the next orientation? Send her to another organization? Tell her taking just anyone is not the way we do things here? So many choices.

The reality is that in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita more people will see spontaneous volunteering as a viable option and not just when there is a crisis. Although, there is nothing like pictures from a hurricane or tsunami to bring out the best in human beings.

If the spontaneous volunteer is not going away and is likely to increase in numbers, how can this be managed? First, let's step back and take a look at why this phenomena exists. There are some social scientists who believe that humans have been hardwired to varying degrees of altruistic behavior. In fact there are tests for children as young as 18 months that can demonstrate altruistic behavior. So the spontaneous volunteer is potentially responding to a normal and natural instinct to "help."

It is also true that most volunteer programs in organizations are based on a hierarchal model, much like the military. It is a top-down structure. The structure of nonprofit organizations is based on the experience of its original founders, the corporate board. Government departments, which were often organized similar to the military, are top down structures. These structural models make it hard to accommodate those who "just show up." There is a conflict between the "institution" and "human nature." Here are some tips to begin the process of developing a system to manage the spontaneous volunteer.

Never turn people away. Keep a list of tasks or jobs that require no pre-training. The three F's: filing, folding, following.

    Filing - storing, sorting, filing paper files or computer files.

    Folding - in any program with "things" brochures, clothing, packets, etc. there is folding and working with them in some way.

    Following - experienced volunteers can use a hand with their chores. Select a volunteer who is a good delegator and suggest ways the spontaneous volunteer might help them.

Put them to work immediately. Get rudimentary information—name. Then get them to work doing something simple and near to the manager of volunteers or a specially trained experienced volunteer.

Create a short "sign up" form, not the usual application. After the volunteer has worked for a short period, ask them to stop, come and complete the information form. Include:

    • Name
    • Contact information
    • How he/she learned about your organization
    • Emergency contact information
    • Demographic section that is optional

Train volunteers to supervise spontaneous volunteers. Organize long term volunteers to supervise the spontaneous volunteer. Teach them about supervision, motivation, and the like. Move them into place when someone just shows up.

Say thank you. Find a simple and inexpensive way to say thank you. A book mark with the logo, contact information, mission statement or the organization is an appropriate way to say thank you to someone you may never see again.

Create a committee. Organize an ad hoc committee to help organize the response to spontaneous volunteers. This helps legitimize their presence in the organization and gives experienced volunteers a say in how to put them to the best use.

For more information, check out an article that Linda Graff has written called, "Working With Disaster Response Volunteers" that also discusses spontaneous volunteers.

Interested in more information? Check out our online bookstore for: Volunteer Recruiting & Retention: A Marketing Approach, by Nancy Macduff and To Lead is to Serve, by Shar McBee.

Details for Volunteer Recruiting & Retention Book Details for To Lead Book

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Volunteer teams plan events, raise money, build houses, put on dinners, and serve on boards and committees. Here are some tips to have the most effective teams in volunteerland.

  1. Be flexible and accepting. No one is perfect and the members of teams have strengths and weaknesses. Perfectionists make lousy leaders, because he/she has trouble accepting less than perfect in others. Being flexible and accepting that each person wants to improve is the key to success in working with teams.
  2. Have fun. Volunteers sign on to work, but only if fun is involved. Have pizza parties, make "inside"jokes, give goofy inexpensive items as rewards (a light bulb for person with best idea of the week) or post baby pictures at a meeting.
  3. Share leadership. Let everyone on the team be the meeting leader. Do not allow a few to do the glamorous jobs, do the dirty work yourself, and spread tasks around the team.
  4. Encourage free speech. Do not shoot down crazy ideas, and do not allow it from others. Encourage people to speak freely and experiment with new ideas. This boosts confidence and encourages the risk takers.
  5. Never dwell on mistakes. No project is done perfectly. Keep the group away from focusing on mistakes. Help them look forward.
  6. Be personally credible. The manager of volunteers who is the organizer of the team gains credibility by being "real." Let people see your mistakes, do not hide behind your title or responsibilities, be sincere, and invite input.
  7. Never have a team without a plan. Teams work most effectively when there is a plan. Work from the mission of the organization. When a team is planning a large event and are mired in the details of catering, seating, and entertainment, it is easy to forget why they are devoting hours to such hard work. A plan helps everyone focus and it begins with the mission and purpose of the parent organization.

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The Points of Light Foundation has forms available to nominate volunteers and volunteer organizations for the Daily Points of Light Award. It is designed recognize individuals and groups that demonstrate unique and innovative approaches to community volunteering and citizen action, with a strong emphasis on service focused on the goals for children and young people set by the Presidents Summit for American's Future. The award is given five days a week, excluding holidays. If you would like nomination forms, call 202-729-8000.


By calling 1-800-VOLUNTEER in the U.S., individuals can be connected to their local volunteer center. This is a national interactive call routing system designed to get volunteers connected to people who can help them volunteer.

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