14 Ways To Create a Volunteer Program Built for Impact

Are you using volunteers to extend the reach and capabilities of your team? No doubt about it, volunteering is on the rise, or at least, the desire to volunteer is. According to LinkedIn, more than 4 million people have shown interest in volunteering. Whether its recent retirees, those who are no longer content to just be successful, but want to do something significant, today’s millennials, and many others with significant gifting and skills want to make a difference, and they are exploring ways nonprofits might feed their desire to help.

Some people see those in their community going through tough times. Others may have been helped when they themselves went through difficulties, wanting to “pay it forward”. Many students have community service hours to fulfill. Whatever the reason, these individuals are out there and they are looking for ways to serve.

At the same time, many nonprofits have their own challenges. It seems like every nonprofit is trying to get its name and message out to anyone who will listen. Budgets are tight so agencies are unable to invest in their infrastructure. Everything is viewed as an expense rather than a capacity-building investment.

Donations are not growing with the demand for services, top level talent is being targeted and sometimes being recruited away to other agencies. Government financial support is uncertain even when budgeted and promised. As a result, agencies are unable to hire staff or consultants with specialized skills that can help them succeed.

This is no time for business as usual and, in fact, it seems like a good time to try a few new things to keep your agency ahead of the curve.  

While this may seem like the worst of times, I think we have a great opportunity to lead in a new way, a way that takes advantage of what resources are available and how to use them in better ways.

So how can the untapped volunteer market help overcome some of these challenges? Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do you actively and strategically recruit volunteers based on need or do you just work with anyone who comes through the doors wanting to help?
  • Do you interview new volunteer candidates to determine “fit” and best use?
  • Do you have an orientation and training program for new volunteers?
  • Do you periodically show your appreciation for all your volunteers do?
  • Do you think some part-time, unpaid, high powered financial, legal, and marketing skills could be useful to your agency?


Nonprofits are missing a great opportunity to leverage their volunteer program to make a greater lasting impact. Many agencies don’t take a strategic approach to volunteers and volunteering. Instead, they gratefully accept virtually anyone who comes through the doors, assigning them to an area with the most urgent need, often without regard to the volunteer’s own skills, desires, or suggestions.

Here are 14 Ways to help turn your volunteers into a powerful team bringing significant value to your agency.

  1. Remember that all volunteers could be doing other things, but they have chosen to spend some of their valuable time helping you carry out your mission.They should be treated respectfully, and celebrated frequently.
  2. Treat your volunteers as your “partners” instead of just part time workers. The reality is, many nonprofits would not even remain in existence without volunteers.
  3. Volunteers can save your organization a lot of money if you can tap into their talents and align their skills with agency needs.
  4. Volunteers often have very specific and individualized motivations (passion for the cause, giving back, meeting new people) for helping out so try to learn what these motivations are and let them do what they enjoy doing, if possible.
  5. Consider developing a Philosophy of Volunteer Engagement so everyone from the boardroom to the mail room understands how volunteers are to be treated and used, and that both volunteers and staff understand exactly what is expected of them, how they are expected to work together, and how they can best immerse themselves into the agency’s culture and work flow.
  6. Your volunteer coordinator should meet with and interview each volunteer candidate to determine fit, skill sets, desires and how best that person can deployed at the agency, based on agency needs. This could be a  great way to find candidates with much needed high capacity skills like marketing, social media, communication, or critical thinking.
  7. Look for energies and opportunities for alignment between their experience and agency needs.
  8. Explain the agency mission and needs. Many volunteers know far less about the agency’s mission and culture than we think. Try to find out what area of the agency services resonates with them and where you have needs and work to complete that connection
  9. Volunteers are a much a part of the agency as anyone else so be sure to integrate them into the organization just as you would a staff or board member.
  10. Even though they do not have a full-time commitment, volunteers will need full orientation, training, and retraining just like full-time employees.
  11. Do not treat them like outsiders. Share information, share progress, and share stories of impact from those you serve. Volunteers especially, want to know they are making a difference.
  12. Include them in staff meetings, when possible.
  13. Sit down with them periodically to get feedback on how they are doing. Determine if their volunteering experience is still rewarding and fulfilling, and what ideas or questions they might have to improve services and operations.
  14. Celebrate their service and thank them through luncheons, awards, etc. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but it is vital to show your appreciation for them in a real way.

This week will bring one of the biggest volunteering days of the year — Thanksgiving, as huge numbers of well-intentioned individuals offer their time to give back to those in need. More people are compelled to give time during Thanksgiving and Christmas then any other times of the year.

I challenge you to use this time wisely. Embrace the volunteers you have, show your appreciation for their efforts, and tap into them to expand your existing volunteer base. From one can come many.

One week from today, is #GivingTuesday, a worldwide movement urging people to give back as we kick off the holiday season. For many this will mean providing donations and other monetary gifts for nonprofits. But it’s often overlooked that giving of time can be even more impactful then donations, depending on the agency and need. Get involved in this initiative, learn more about it, and most importantly, give thanks, for the people in your organization that help make an impact every day.