Avoid the 7 Deadly Sins When Working with Volunteers

Given that this is National Volunteer Month, I want to acknowledge the often unsung heroes of the nonprofit sector.

Like monetary donors, volunteers are supporters. We need to recognize that and act accordingly. Volunteers are a valuable resource for nonprofit organizations. They provide essential free labor. They serve as ambassadors in the community for your organization. They donate twice as often as non-volunteers do. They are just as likely as donors to include a charity in their Will. People who volunteer and donate are far more likely to include a nonprofit organization in their Will compared to people who do only one or the other. Volunteers are supporters!

Unfortunately, volunteerism is on the decline in the USA. This will be potentially costly to the nonprofit sector.

As I pondered the problem of declining volunteerism, I had the good fortune to “meet” Kelly Ronan on Twitter. Kelly is an Indiana State University Bayh College of Education Scholars-to-Teachers Program Scholar and a candidate for the Certified Nonprofit Professional credential offered through the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance.

I’ve been impressed with the material about volunteerism that Kelly regularly shares on social media. So, I invited her to share some of her insights and wisdom with us. I’m happy to report that Kelly has generously accepted my request, for which I am grateful.

Her guest post below looks at some best practices in volunteer management that will help you more effectively recruit and retain volunteers:


There are three key best practice areas when it comes to volunteer management. By mastering these three areas, you will help your nonprofit organization to more effectively recruit and retain volunteers. You’ll also help ensure that each volunteer’s experience is a good one thereby developing a valuable ambassador and potential donor.

1.  Start Off Right

To get off on the right foot with volunteers, you need to avoid missteps. But, that’s not enough. You also need to understand what motivates each individual so you can meet their needs.

Let’s first look at the many potential mistakes we can make with volunteers. For example, let’s consider Energize’s “7 Deadly Sins of Directing Volunteers” with this listing:

  1. To recruit a volunteer for a cause or program in which you do not believe.
  2. To sign a person up even if he or she is not right for a vacant volunteer position you need to fill, or to ask a volunteer to take on a role that misuses or underutilizes that person’s talents.
  3. To restrict a volunteer’s effectiveness by not providing adequate preparation, training, or tools.
  4. To ask salaried staff to work as a team with volunteers if you yourself do not have volunteers helping with the responsibilities of your job.
  5. To be so concerned about your own job security that you do not stand up and fight for the needs and rights of the volunteers you represent.
  6. To offer volunteers certain opportunities and working conditions, and then not deliver.
  7. To waste a volunteer’s time – ever.

You need to be honest, ethical, and fair with volunteers, just as you would be with staff. You also need to understand what motivates them. Let’s get one thing straight: Volunteers don’t volunteer just to get that happy, fuzzy feeling inside. Everyone volunteers for their own reasons. So firstly, determine the motivation of your volunteers. VolunteerHub offers more in their post here, but these were the common reasons for volunteering that they found:

  • Individuals have a personal tie to a nonprofits mission, goals, and values.
  • Individuals are looking for opportunities to meet and network with new people.
  • Individuals have a moral compass to do good.
  • Individuals are in search of skill-building opportunities.
  • Individuals want to practice leadership capacities.
  • Individuals are looking for ways to build their personal resume.
  • Individuals were asked to participate in a volunteer opportunity.

All of this means, when it comes to motivation, that you’re going to have a diverse group of volunteers. I can see how the thought of communicating effectively with all of them may seem intense. So, let’s take a moment to look into forming a communication strategy.

2.  Setting Up a Communication Strategy

As we discovered, you’re going to have a broad spectrum of volunteers with varying needs. The first thing to consider in your communication strategy is that volunteers aren’t all the same. Therefore, you must take the time to get to know your volunteers. Get in touch initially, and have ongoing conversations. Find out what motivates your volunteers, and what they need from the volunteer experience.

Next, “segment” your volunteers. I use “segment” after reading  Nancy E. Schwartz’s article she wrote for her blog, Getting Attention, where she took a look into communications at the nonprofit New York Cares:

New York Cares segmented its audiences and developed communications plans for each. ‘We focused in on volunteers, segmenting them by commitment level, and developed a new framework for our engagement with them over the course of their involvement: the Volunteer Engagement Scale (VES),’ says [Colleen] Farrell.

The VES enables New York Cares to pinpoint the best way to motivate volunteer movement from episodic to more engaged participation. This targeted, personalized approach is now the cornerstone of all volunteer communications.”

So, now you can take your “segmented” volunteers and plan communication activities for each of them. This way you can focus on what’s important to each of them in the long run. Then, you can roll out more frequent, targeted communications to build engagement and inspire volunteers to act. Remember that your audience’s perspective, wants, needs, and interests change over time.

Additionally, Schwartz shared that New York Cares developed its plan so it specifies how to communicate to “recruit volunteers and cultivate them from their first experiences to long-term engagement.” Only the volunteers who have proven that they have a significant commitment to an organization are engaged with the more in depth messaging and responsibilities.

Finally, establish an active volunteer feedback loop. It’s the only way to know what’s relevant, what’s working, what’s not, and how to communicate better. Make sure to track responses to emails, changes in messaging, or channels to supplement the feedback loop. Your findings will highlight what is effective so you can do more of it.

For example, here’s some feedback commonly found from volunteers:

  • Online communications are pivotal these days! It enables volunteer managers/administrators to manage and deliver targeted communications at a moderate cost.
  • Messaging focuses on volunteer impact and outcomes (vs. outputs, such as number of meals served, volunteer hours etc.).
  • Increase the use of storytelling, imagery and more emotional language to engage more volunteers!

3.  Communicate!

Once you have your strategy set, it’s time to communicate. However, before you can implement your plan and follow through with communicating to your volunteers, we have one more thing to cover. Volunteers are real people with busy lives. Most of your communication is likely to be “on-the-go.”

I recently read John Killoran’s article on communicating on the go, which shares a few quick tips that I think you could find useful. Starting with the fact that these days, wherever your volunteers are and whatever they’re doing, they are likely going to have their mobile phones with them. To use this fact to your advantage, consider the following:

  • The next time you’re hosting a live event, whether it’s a fundraising event or a volunteer day of service, make sure you find the time to mention your mobile efforts. You can let your volunteers know all about your: Text-to-give campaign to raise awareness and donations, email them the newsletter that loads well on mobile devices, and send them a link to your mobile-responsive website with all the latest volunteer opportunities.
  • Use your organization’s social media. There are countless social media sites that your nonprofit could be taking advantage of (if you’re not already). To connect with your volunteers where they are, you’ll want to consider: Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Facebook, and more! Whichever sight(s) you choose to connect with your volunteers, make sure you keep your message clear and consistent.
  • Try giving your volunteers a mobile thank you! Believe it or not, one of the best ways to engage with your volunteers is to thank them. It seems basic, but it’s the simple things that tend to make the most difference.  While your organization should still send handwritten notes, you can also consider: sending out a short “thank you” text message, highlighting specific volunteers on social media, shooting them a personal “thank you” email, featuring volunteers that you’re thankful for on your organization’s website.

Put it all together…

So, now you’ve set up your volunteer communication strategy, and communicated with all of your volunteers, even on the go. These steps take time to implement. Just remember that you don’t have to be perfect. It’s likely that volunteers will be happy to see any improvement in how your organization communicates and manages. As you move forward, be sure to be honest, ethical, fair, and communicate!


That’s what Kelly Ronan and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

6 Ways to Engage Nonprofit Volunteers #InfographicYou can also find more infographics at Visualistan

5 Responses to “Avoid the 7 Deadly Sins When Working with Volunteers”

  1. Good stuff. Very concerned about declining volunteerism. Good volunteers are precious as gold!


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