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On this page are ideas to help you work more efficiently with volunteers. There are tips on recruiting, engaging, coordinating, and managing the work of volunteers.

~November 2013 ~



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Shaping a volunteer program is a continuous process.  Good management is also a “moving target.”  Effective administrators of volunteer programs always consult their volunteers.  Gathering information can seem like a time-wasting task. Some managers are nervous about engaging volunteers in deeper ways. 

The fact is that organizations engaging volunteers in improving programs has lead to significant improvements.  It can be as simple as these three steps.


The usual way of running many a volunteer program is with social workers, case managers, art curators, historians, environmentalist, biologists, etc. All paid.  The Family Independence Initiative (FII) serves low-income families.  FII takes the stance that recipients of service can make better decisions because they are closer to the problems and the solutions.  FII encourages recipients of service to form volunteer groups to provide support and information to one another. 

The groups that form get access to computers, matching funds for grants, low-interest loans, and other resources.  Staff meet with these volunteer groups, but are forbidden to deliver service or OFFER specific directions or advice.  Group members must rely on one another, not FII’s employees.

The response of the low-come families to this power sharing has been positive.  One volunteer said she “felt respect.”

Evaluation of the volunteer groups is also carried out by the recipients.  Monthly information is collected and reported to the organization.  Time sensitive information helps the organization give feedback to the volunteer groups to help them monitor their own progress.


Conventional feedback is gathering a group and asking prepared questions for feedback—a focus group.  Creating a unique type of discussion can elicit interesting information.

Suppose the volunteers are not completing some task in a timely or accurate way.  Gather a cross section of volunteers for what they are told is a focus group.  The administrator of volunteers writes on a white board the following:  “70% of you are not completing or correctly submitting form X.”  The manager sits down and w a i t s-w a i t s-w a i t s.  A volunteer will start talking, be assured, probably in 15-20 seconds, if that long.  The power of volunteers taking over the discussion can lead to ideas that are common-sense solutions. 

This is akin to sharing power.  Volunteers are given the opportunity to work through an answer to the obvious problem, without being told or nagged.  The administrator provided data to which the volunteers could respond.

Shared power comes if the solutions are workable and achieve the desire end.  It needs to be mentioned that focus groups are useful for offering insights, but listening rather than talking can be more powerful.


Most nonprofit or volunteer programs gather data through an application. That document is a treasure drove of data.  Volunteers usually sign in and time served is recorded.  This information is a treasure trove as well, but only if someone gets it onto an electronic spreadsheet like Excel or Access. 

The wise administrator of volunteers is works best if the information is digestible.  Charts on most popular times for service.  Demographic information on the volunteer pool:  Men vs. women; age ranges by % or numbers; or geographic home for volunteers; and more (but only if you collect it!).

This information is key to successful recruiting.  Knowing who volunteers and why is the driver of recruiting methods.  For example, if data tells you that average age of volunteers is 73, sending a Twitter or Tumblr message is likely to meet a small percentage of those most likely to want to volunteer.  If you want to lower the average age of the volunteer pool, recruiting efforts might utilize social media.

Data can also solve problems.  Got a problem with attendance.  Get some data.  What day of week? What time?  What jobs or tasks are being done? Example:  A volunteer manager called me and said, “I think there are problems in the relationship between paid staff and volunteers.  What can I do?” (600+ volunteers)  I suggested we see if her “gut” feeling was accurate.  Survey of volunteers and paid staff showed an extraordinary approval level and mutual respect going in both directions.  So, was the manager right about “bad feelings” between staff and volunteers?  Yep!  But it was isolated to one staff member with high turnover of volunteers (and much grumbling from volunteers about the job assignment with that individual). 

It would have been easy for the volunteer manager to launch a huge campaign to “change attitudes” for the volunteers and the staff.  Color them confused!  Due to data collection she was able to isolate the problem and do something about it.

Also, it is not the job of the manager of volunteers to do the data entry.  This is a great task that might attract a young tech savvy volunteer (Ask older volunteers about his/her children or grandchildren’s tech skills and interest in a short term volunteer job.).  Could be someone who is homebound: caregiver for elderly parents, stay at home parent, disabled person, or person not able to come to organizational offices (12 year old Internet phenom!)




FAST is a clever means to remember the essential elements of managing volunteers.  It is short and succinct.

letter f

Find out what he/she wants to do and when. Be sure to offer an opportunity that fits his/her needs, or refer them elsewhere. Start the process for the volunteer to apply.

letter a

Assist with forms. Print them from the web site or have the volunteer do so. He/she fills out forms, and returns them to you. Someone needs to screen the prospective volunteer. Might be the manager or a trained volunteer.

letter s

Supervise him/her or find someone who can. At the beginning there is training and then reassurance.  Check in to determine if he/she feels prepared for the job or have questions or challenges.

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Thank the person for his/her efforts.  Keep track of individual  progress. To retain volunteers he/she needs to feel effective in their work and a part of the organization. Like paid staff he/she need support and structure.


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