Managing Volunteers – Why People Volunteer

Volunteers!  Take an employee and put them in a volunteer situation and you have a whole different persona to deal with.  This article is designed to look at what makes volunteers tick, what motivates them, and how you can create an environment that allows your volunteers and your organization to shine.

In this posting we will address the organization with “Volunteer Labor”.   In other words, the leaders of the organization are looking for the help of volunteers.  Without this volunteer labor, the organization will not function.

Part One – Volunteer Help – Ongoing Labor that makes an Organization Function

Helping HandThere are many organizations or events that count on the contribution of time and talent of volunteers in order to function.  They are unpaid labor.  They put in their time at the thrift store, the church, the 5-K Run, the charity fundraising dinner.  These are typically non-profit organizations who count on a community of volunteers to keep them running and serving their cause.

Our volunteers are so important, yet I remember talking to the Volunteer Coordinator at my church.   She told me that every time people saw her approaching them, they looked down at the ground and scooted away in the opposite direction.  They assumed that she was going to ask them to do something. To volunteer!

People are not opposed to volunteering and helping out.  Some are even seeking out volunteer opportunities.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, as the volunteer coordinator, people sought you out to ask what could be done, instead of avoiding you?  How do you get to be the ‘go to’ person, instead of a pariah?  Here are a few things to look at and consider for your organization.

Why People Volunteer

What’s in it for volunteers?  Why do they want to give freely of their time?  If we know this, then we can look at our organization and structure it so that we provide the environment, structure and rewards that volunteers are looking for (whether they know it or not).

  1. Volunteers want to see that through their actions, they have contributed to the purpose, mission, or goals of the organization.  It can be as simple as directing people on where to park at an event or as complex as running the sound system for a charity dinner.   If at the end of their shift they can realize that without them, things would have been confusing, chaotic, not brought in as much money or that they helped even one person, then they feel good about their contribution and are willing to do it again another day.
  2. Volunteers want to have their time well utilized.  Creating a framework and structure for your event or on-going work allows volunteers to know where they fit in, where they are supposed to be and when, and what they are being asked to do.  They hate getting up at 5:00 on a Saturday morning, to arrive on time at 7:00 only to find out that no one knows where they will be working, what they will be doing, or when they will get started.  Most don’t appreciate hanging out with coffee and donuts until someone “in the know” gets a moment to handle the volunteers.
  3. Volunteers want to feel that their contribution is necessary.  Showing up at an event and seeing that there are more than enough volunteers to accomplish the job does not make them happy.  If they had known that they weren’t really ‘needed’, they could have slept in or gone golfing.  Trying to get them to volunteer for something else at another time will be very difficult.
  4. Volunteers like to be thanked.  Yes, it is pretty simple.  Say Thank You.  Not just once, but multiple times while they are working.  For one time events, make sure to send out a Thank You card or letter afterwards.  The more personal, the better.  Knowing that someone appreciates their time and contribution goes a long way to having them volunteer again.  If it is an on-going schedule of volunteer opportunities, make sure to send periodic, personalized Thank You notes.  This ensures them that you do not take them for granted and realize that without them the organization could not function.  The group ‘form letter’ thanking the volunteers seems like a good idea, but I have found it to mean very little to the recipient.  They are just bunched in with everyone else and the true appreciation is not felt.  Annual appreciation luncheons or dinners are also great if you make sure that each volunteer is addressed personally at some point during the event.  Make sure that the person thanking them knows a little about how they contribute and can at least say one thing about how that helps the organization.

The first step in running a successful volunteer organization is to know why people volunteer.  Can you look at some of your volunteer experiences and see why you either felt fulfilled or like you would never volunteer there again?

In the next blog posting, we will discuss the role of the Volunteer Coordinator and how they can establish an enviroment that has the volunteers wanting to come back over and over again.


4 replies
  1. Laura Palker
    Laura Palker says:

    I have been on both sides of the volunteerism and certainly I have been guilty of shooting from the hip when it comes to volunteer job descriptions and defining specific roles and responsibilities.

    Things run much better when adult volunteers have the tools in place to do a job, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. It make working together a lot more fun!

    Beth, thank you very much for taking on the task of writing this much needed information, it certainly will help me be a better leader and a better volunteer.

    • Beth Schecher
      Beth Schecher says:

      Thank you Laura. It has been my pleasure to think more about volunteerism and how we can make it a better experience for everyone.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] own brand of ‘volunteer issues’.   In previous postings we talked about organizations with Volunteer Labor.  Here we will discuss volunteer Board Members, what makes them tick, and how to create an […]

  2. […] previous posting was about Why People Volunteer.  In this post we will address the role of the Volunteer […]

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