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The Recruitment and Organization of Volunteers page and the Management & Supervision page have been merged into one new page. Everything from ideas to help you work more efficiently to the latest in research on keeping volunteers happy and productive, as well as ideas, suggestions and hints to build volunteer recruitment capacity.

~ July 2008 ~

Barriers to Recruiting Volunteers to Work in Government

Having people volunteer in government seems like an anomaly, but not so fast.  The US and other countries, as well, began with volunteering.  Nobody paid Ben Franklin to edit the Declaration of Independence for Thomas Jefferson.  Most older organizations began with only volunteers—Camp Fire, USA; Habitat for Humanity; MADD, to name a few.  Volunteering opportunities in government are not usually as well known as it might be.  In part the effectiveness of a government program has to address barriers that are complicated.  Here are some notions about why a volunteer program in a government setting might be struggling.

  • No one knows the program exists.  Is there a dedicated Web site?  A budget for promotional activities?  Staff knowledge of programs, so they might help in the outreach effort?
  • People expect tax dollars not volunteers to provide service.  Services in most government organizations are never enough for the needs.  Citizens scream for cuts, cuts, and more cuts of taxes, which reduces the resources.  This is the reason volunteers frequently step up and offer to assist, think of all the beach, river, and ocean clean-up projects.
  • People see government competing with nonprofits for the scarce resource of volunteers.  This is a real barrier, rarely addressed, but potent.  Many nonprofits work cooperatively with government in service delivery, but sharing volunteers?! Yikes!  Or people choosing a government volunteer option over one in a nonprofit.  The truth is the competition for volunteers crosses both sectors and nonprofits are competing with other nonprofits, too.  
  • No money to do a proper job in “selling” the program.  It is difficult to justify a budget line item for volunteer promotional activities or recognition items, when services and people in a government agency are being cut.  Unions frequently frown on this.  Those who manage volunteers in government settings get around this by getting community businesses and other organizations to donate services.  They also take advantage of anything that is free
  • No time to do recruiting, too busy with other parts of the job.  The largest single barrier to effective volunteer manager is the time allocated to it, whether in government or a nonprofit.  Most government-based managers of volunteer programs only do it as part of their task.  Those working in parks, for example,  often have only 10% or less of their time dedicated to coordination of volunteers.  Ample research exists that shows this is a formula for a less than effective volunteer program.
  • The union may object to having volunteers involved.  Colin Thacker in Volunteering In a Unionized Environment advocates for transparency and cooperation.  The only way to be successful in volunteer – union relations is to never supplant a job and work cooperatively with the union in the development of new tasks or services delivered by volunteers.
  • Lack of support from administrations of the organization. It is the rare government manager or administrator who knows anything about managing volunteers or the time it takes to carry out the various supervision activities to be successful.  The role of the coordinator of volunteers is to educate, educate, educate.  It is critical to have an annual volunteer program plan, that is approved by the manager, and regularly discuss progress with the person.  It is hard to pull someone off managing volunteers when the administrator knows how hard the person is working to achieve certain goals.
  • The belief that volunteers are a “free” source of help and no money is needed to support the program” may be the biggest myth of all in the government, nonprofit and corporate sectors.  Corporate executives want people to volunteer to demonstrate good community citizenship, nonprofit executives want people to volunteer to raise money and further the services of the organization, and government administrators want volunteers to supplement the services not part of the organizational mandate.  Often their simplistic view is that you can just put out a few promotional items and people will show up, be a perfect fit, not have ulterior motives for serving, need no training, and work as if there is no tomorrow and for no recognition of the effort, and for the next 15 years.  This view can limit getting needed resources to get the job done. 
  • The pervasive distrust and dislike of government.  Have you ever heard a politician say nice things about government?  The world’s most available whipping “boy” is government.  So, is it any wonder that the recruiting effort can be daunting.  First, the manager must overcome prejudices about government and its services, and that is before he/she gets to talking about the volunteer program and its many opportunities

In spite of these barriers thousands of government employees go to work each day in countries across the globe and engage people in volunteering in order to aid the social fabric of their nation, state or province, city, county or shire.  They do it with grace and inventiveness, all to the benefit of citizens.

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Program Bulletin Board as Motivator

Some volunteers are motivated by knowing their efforts are furthering the mission of the organization.  If it is a park--how many visitors; a tutoring program-- what has been the grade level reading improvement; homeless shelter--how many families served or placed in permanent housing.  The mission of the organization translated into facts, stories, and impact.
         The manager of volunteers fills this motivation need with a “Big Picture” bulletin board.  Create a large bulletin board--attractive, colorful, and easy to see, in terms of location.  At least every quarter list the “facts” and statistics that are the reason the person is volunteering.  Photos are worth a thousand words.  This tool helps volunteers see how their contribution relates to the bigger picture. 
         This is also a great job for younger volunteers or someone who does not wish to do direct service.  Recruit someone for this short-term task.  A graphic design student could put some “jazz” into the layout.  The volunteer administrator provides the facts and photos.

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Attrition:  Why Do Volunteers Leave

Attrition is the rate at which volunteers turn over in a given cycle, say annually.  I knew a manager of a youth program who knew that she would lose 45% of her volunteers in a given year—from September to June.  She knew she would be replacing that many when the next September rolled around.  (Yes, there were efforts to reduce it, but it stayed pretty consistent over several years).  Do you know your attrition rate?  You should!
         It is also important to know why people are leaving?  Was it a staff supervisor?  Being under utilized?  Being overworked?  Policies or program rules?  Life changes?  Attrition studies can be instrumental in making for more effective recruiting.
         One way to do this is with exit interviews, but another clever method is with “turnover causes” emails.  Get the technology people in the organization (or a volunteer with special skills) to help set up a programmatic email address that is only for volunteers who wish to post anonymous messages.  Check out Volunteer Today’s “TechTips” page to locate free short-term email addresses.  Publicize the site in every conceivable manner. Get the word out that the volunteer program really wants to know why you are leaving, even if the leave taking is for person reasons.  Check it periodically to get an idea of what is sending volunteers out the door.  And then fix anything you or your organization has control over. 

Training in Olympia, WA

Revitalizing Your Volunteer Programs: New Models, New People, New Strategies

Time: 9:30 AM - 4 PM
Location: Lacey Community Center, 6729 Pacific Ave., Lacey, WA

Cost: $75

Registration information: http://www.volunteer.ws/



Sponsor: Volunteer Center of Lewis, Mason, and Thurston Counties

Its is getting harder and harder to find volunteers. What's happening? Spend the day with nationally known author and trainer Nancy Macduff as she leads us in a lively exploration of the issues facing those who manage volunteers. Explore a new model of volunteering based on how people are asking to volunteer. Review the practical strategies for recruiting and managing traditional and non-traditional forms of volunteering. Go home with practical ideas to enhance your volunteer program.

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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