Playing for keeps: Recruiting and retaining volunteer staff in volunteer-run organizations

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Volunteers face many challenges in organizing a successful nonprofit group. Balancing the growth and demands of an organization with family, career, and a personal life can be incredibly difficult. According to Tina Patterson, president of the Fraser Valley FiT Network, “It's a reality that people need to make an income so that they can survive from day to day. Even in attempt to meet their greater emotional needs, Maslow’s hierarchy comes to mind, the basic need of a salary is always a determinant in a person's decisions about their volunteer work and is a reality faced by our volunteers.”

Finding skilled volunteers is absolutely crucial for a nonprofit organization without paid staff, and this can also be a major obstacle in an organization’s success. Tarik Kadri, president, board chair and founder of Paper Kite Foundation, describes this challenge: “The majority of the people who apply to volunteer with our organization are looking to gain skills in a certain area. It is more difficult to get a candidate with a solid skill set looking to contribute their skills and experience to our organization.”

These challenges can make it difficult to recruit and keep the active volunteers needed to serve the community’s needs. But with a little determination, focus and strategy, volunteer-run organizations can have a great impact on their cause.

What makes volunteer-run organizations successful?

Dr. Michelle Gauthier with Imagine Canada believes that “volunteer-run organizations are more likely to be successful if they are meeting a real community need for service or engagement; maintaining the support and trust of their key supporters and beneficiaries; engaging volunteers effectively; and operating with sound governance and financial management.” These qualities help to ensure volunteer retention as well, since people naturally prefer committing their time to a well-organized group working toward clear goals.

What are some strategies for recruiting volunteers?

When looking to recruit new volunteers, it is easiest to start with those within the community served by your organization. Reach out to members, partners, and other groups that are in direct communication with your organization. From there, members and partners may spread the word to new people who may also be interested in getting involved.

For many volunteer-run groups, a website is the first point of contact about the services they provide. Be sure to include information about volunteer opportunities in a prominent spot on your site. Include descriptions of available positions and an overview of the application process, as well as online application forms and clear contact information. Use blogging or social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, to increase your organization’s online presence.

Building strong partnerships within the community your organization serves, as well as the geographic location in which it operates, can also be helpful for recruiting new volunteers. The Fraser Valley FiT Network finds success by creating strong relationships with like-minded organizations. This network of similar groups can then support each other in providing the best services to those in need. Local community members can be a fantastic resource for recruiting skilled volunteers, so don't be afraid to reach out to them. Bankers, auditors, or even local finance students could be strong candidates for financially-related volunteer vacancies and board positions. Brainstorm other skill sets that could benefit your organization and reach out to these professionals within your community. Even if they don't have time to join your organization themselves, they may be able to recommend others who will.

How can volunteers be retained?

Volunteer retention is perhaps the most crucial component of an all-volunteer organization. Long-term volunteers provide consistency, ensuring a clear direction toward a common goal and continued momentum over time. Having long-term volunteers also establishes a strong point of contact for anyone who needs to access the organization’s services and for people looking to become volunteers themselves.

New volunteers should be interviewed, trained, and supported as they become familiar with the organization and its important work. At Paper Kite, new volunteers are first interviewed by a volunteer officer to see if they are a good match, then they are invited to attend a monthly meeting to get to know the rest of the volunteer team. Finally, potential volunteers for positions requiring specific skill sets are asked to meet with board members in a formal interview. This screening process helps to establish clear expectations of each new volunteer.

Ensure that volunteer opportunities engage volunteers in a meaningful way. By presenting opportunities to gain new skills, overcome obstacles, or directly affect change for others, you'll promote satisfaction and dedication amongst your volunteer base.

What resources are available to help with recruiting and retaining volunteers?

There are countless resources available for volunteer leaders. CharityVillage offers a variety of articles and a series of live chats on volunteer engagement, as well as an eLearning course.

Imagine Canada is an excellent organization that strengthens charities in Canada by providing research, guides, and tools that assist nonprofit groups of all sizes in reaching their goals. Dr. Gauthier suggests that CharityFocus is a valuable tool for volunteer-run charities to provide information about key activities and outcomes that can be easily accessed by the general public, the media, donors and potential volunteers.

A number of volunteer-focused organizations exist in communities across Canada. Volunteer Canada provides a directory of local volunteer centres on their website, as well as training opportunities and volunteer screening guidelines.

Using the resources available, casting a wide net for potential volunteers and developing a clear strategy for volunteer retention will give your volunteer-run organziation the foundation for success.

Alana Ferraro is a professional fundraiser with over seven years’ experience in the non-profit sector. She graduated from Queen’s University and has a certificate in Fundraising and Volunteer Management from Humber College. She presently works as a freelance grant writer and fundraising consultant. To reach Alana with professional inquiries, please email her at

Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.

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