From passion to professionalism: How to move your volunteer program from one to the other

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Volunteer programs are as unique as the organizations that they support, not to mention the people who manage these programs! Administrators of volunteers come from many different backgrounds and with many different experiences, but what they have in common is that they are charged with providing expertise in a wide variety of areas.

The foundation for success as a manager of volunteers comes from both a passion to work with people, as well as the ability to manage a variety of projects and activities that focus on the ever-changing landscape of an organization's strategic direction and program goals.

So how do we take this passion and turn it into a top-rated volunteer program? Being an administrator of volunteers requires a very diverse skill set, which I've outlined in more detail below, and it is important to be self-reflective about where you naturally excel and where you might need to spend a bit of time improving your skills. Though each sector has their own focus and priorities, these areas of expertise are present in the role description for all managers of volunteers. If they aren't at your organization, they should be!

Matchmaker and forecaster:

  • Understanding and being able to build on the diverse and always changing needs of volunteers.
  • Reading between the lines of the role descriptions to understand the how the skills of the volunteer can compliment the needs of the organization. Providing the appropriate screening, training and support to ensure a successful match.
  • Staying up-to-date on economic, social, technological and environmental trends to keep your volunteer program current and relevant.

Human resources:

  • Keeping up with pertinent legislative changes and connecting with Human Resources to ensure consistency of policies and procedures for both staff and volunteers.
  • Providing appropriate and timely training and evaluation of volunteers on an ongoing basis.
  • Ensuring that a performance management system is in place so that best practices and risk management practices are re-enforced and followed up on.
  • Working with and educating all staff on best practices on how to work with volunteers, whether they are supervising volunteers or just engaged in a a more superficial way.
  • Developing and reviewing the goals and objectives of the volunteer program to ensure that they are in line with the goals and objectives of the organization.


  • Understanding and developing target marketing strategies annually to connect with the appropriate volunteers.
  • Annually ceveloping both a marketing and a communications plan based on your organizational activities and evaluating these plans on a regular basis to track success.
  • Ensuring that current marketing trends and technology are used to reach diverse audiences.
  • Gathering both stories and hard data to ensure that you are appropriately marketing your volunteer program and impact stories both internally and externally.

Special events:

  • Planning interesting and relevant special events including recognition and educational opportunities for staff and volunteers.
  • Learning about how to best plan special events, including the use of project management tools to keep on budget and on track.
  • Developing a model of volunteer leadership and succession planning for committees and events volunteers.


  • Researching and learning about coaching, mentorship and relationship management so that you can bridge the gaps that sometimes occur when working with all the diverse groups of volunteers and staff.
  • Building relationship support resources such as evaluations, exit interviews and focus groups to ensure that you are current on the issues that both volunteers and staff are dealing with.

Supervisor and catch all:

  • Understanding best practices in supervision, including 360 degree evaluations.
  • Spending the appropriate time in the lifecycle of the volunteers to ensure that they are provided with the appropriate support for their role.
  • Developing tools and resources, including data management tools, to track the volunteers' experiences and capture all necessary information. Using both qualitative and quantitative data to both support the volunteer but also to tell the story of their impact.

As you can see, we are charged with wearing a variety of hats in our role of leaders of volunteers and we must approach all of these roles with equal seriousness to ensure a seamless volunteer experience.

Vital to the success of a volunteer program is ensuring that you as the leader of the program understand the different roles that you provide and ensure that you have the appropriate support, training and education to perform your role at an optimum level.

The next steps

I have included some takeaway ideas for you to consider, which will be key to your understanding of the diversity of your role and, ultimately, to the success of your volunteer program:

  • Consider recruiting a Human Resource volunteer who can help with developing resources and training for both volunteers and staff.
  • Develop a performance management system for volunteers including a 360-degree feedback mechanism. Remember to carefully consider role descriptions.
  • Consider adding key competencies to volunteer leadership and high skilled roles so that volunteers understand the soft skills that are expected in the delivery of their role.
  • Take the time to read and stay current on sector trends so that you can adjust your program to reflect the community in which you work.
  • Look to project management tools to keep you focused and meeting timelines.
  • Sign up for current information on marketing and social media, human resources best practices and communication techniques from national or reputable companies and media outlets. There is great information available in blog posts and monthly newsletters.
  • Find a colleague that you admire and consider asking them to coach you. Everyone can benefit from someone to bounce ideas off of, work out some problems and be a cheerleader for your program and your work.

Finally, write down some of the best practices that are mentioned in this article and fit them into your annual work plan. There is always room for growth and learning new ways to manage your volunteer program.

Lori Gotlieb is the President of Lori Gotlieb Consulting as well as co-developer and facilitator for Humber College Volunteer Management Leadership Certificate. She is a volunteer management expert and an internationally published author and workshop facilitator who has taught workshops to many different audiences across Canada. Lori is the past president of the Toronto Association of Volunteer Administration, a content editor for the International Journal of Volunteer Management and member and Past Chair of the Advisory Committee at Humber College, Fundamentals of Volunteer Management and the Enriched courses.

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