Supporting Volunteers in Community-Based Programming


Local jurisdictions and non-profit organizations working in social and community services routinely use and benefit from volunteers’ work. From short-term (or even one-off) service projects sponsored by cities to ongoing service delivery, volunteers extend the organization’s efforts and allow for deeper outreach while keeping costs down.

Traditionally, volunteers may have provided “manual” labor—packaging, delivering, distributing, etc. In recent years, volunteers have been taking on more sophisticated roles—some using technical specialties they bring from careers.  

With an aging but healthy population, the potential pool of volunteers in the U.S. has grown. Also, more universities and colleges explicitly require some form of community service as part of degree completion or value it through transcript notations or other types of credentialing.

While these factors offer great resources to agencies that benefit from volunteers, many may not provide the support needed to maximize volunteers’ contributions, reduce unnecessary turnover, and establish themselves as a “go-to” organization that can recruit and keep the highest quality volunteers.

I offer here three principles and seven practices that can help get the most out of volunteers and create a culture that assures they benefit the organization’s goals. A quick Google search suggests that others have written about these issues, but hopefully, what I offer here is concise and actionable. 

Please feel free to add to or correct the items below.

Three Principles

1. Volunteers are employees – It is easy to separate volunteers from regular staff because they are not part of the “career” pool of workers, are not paid, and, typically, work only part-time. While their roles are different from paid staff, it is critical to view them as staff for human resource management purposes.

This principle means that volunteers need everything staff does—from clear position descriptions, to onboarding, evaluations, recognition, and professional development/training. The complexity of the volunteer work will alter the amount of time an organization needs to commit to any one of these things, but organizations should consider them.

Of most importance is absolute clarity of the role they play in the organization, to whom they report, and to whom they can go if they have questions or needs. Even fairly routine tasks can introduce issues for which volunteers will need support.

2. Volunteers are not employees – Despite the preceding, it also essential to hold the opposite reality that volunteers are not employees in many ways: in things like remuneration, for example, which signal the critical nature of staff to an organization. Employees have required work hours, are expected to communicate absences in a timely way, are sanctioned for inappropriate behavior in defined ways, and typically have recourse to legal and other systems if they feel the organization is treating them improperly.  

I do not want to suggest that organizations should not lay out clear expectations and provide similar protections to volunteers. Even though most employees these days are employed “at-will” like volunteers, the latter are typically not held to the same standards, and sanctions (beyond just asking them not to come back) are lacking.  

This reality has significant consequences: quality control of volunteer work may be more challenging; communication expectations may be more challenging to reinforce, and separation more sudden and unplanned.

3. Volunteers are the face of your organization – Whatever their status, volunteers are the face of your organization, just like paid staff. This is both an opportunity and a risk. It is an opportunity because committed volunteers are community ambassadors who can invite their friends and neighbors to participate in your organization’s efforts. That can lead to increased financial support, provide expanded paid staff and volunteer recruitment pools, and help spread goodwill about the work throughout the community.

The risk is that volunteers will not represent the organization well to clients or inappropriately speak on behalf of the organization to outside groups. For community-facing volunteers, the risks are most significant. Community members who receive services from the organization do not distinguish between the “official” staff of the organization and volunteers—the person in front of them is the organization. Organizational leaders need to pay attention to the representational risks associated with volunteerism.

With these basic principles in mind, I would suggest that there are seven practices necessary to enhance your volunteers’ work.


1. Clear articulation of why the organization needs volunteers and their roles

Every volunteer should understand how an organization can use their help and what the organization expects of all volunteers. Organizations should announce not just volunteer opportunities on their websites and printed materials; they should also define the distinctive role volunteers play and why they are essential. This information should communicate the organization’s high expectations for volunteers, creating a sense of seriousness about the role.

2. Clear job descriptions—including “representational” role

In addition to a general description of volunteer roles within the organization, every volunteer position type requires at least a brief position description laying out needed competencies, critical tasks, and job requirements (including physical ones). Job descriptions are a great place to lay out the “representational” role of the position and what this means for volunteer behavior.

3. Adequate onboarding of new volunteers

Onboarding includes an introduction to the work environment, I.T. issues (as relevant), work hours and expectations, organizational structure and volunteers’ place within it, and principles and practices of conflict resolution (among volunteers or between volunteers and staff).

4. Quality initial training with monitoring to catch ongoing or refresher training needs

The amount of initial training and frequency of refresher or re-training is a function of the complexity of the work, but laying out clear job steps, how-tos, things to avoid, and minimal requirements should be the norm. Given that volunteers rarely come to an organization in a block, this training may have both a virtual (asynchronous) component that goes through the basics; and an in-person part that acts to clarify issues and answer questions arising from the virtual training.

5. Stated communication protocols and pro-active and responsive communication from leadership

Communication protocols include what volunteers should do and commitments the organization makes to volunteers. Of most importance is laying out expectations of what volunteers are to do if they cannot, for whatever reason, fulfill their volunteer commitments. 

Also, staff should commit to regular (weekly or more frequently?) communication to all volunteers and ensure that all volunteer questions receive timely responses. There is no better way to keep volunteers connected to the organization’s ongoing successes and challenges than via regular updates.  

6. Volunteer assessments and planned recognitions

Volunteers should know that they will receive and can request feedback on their work. Assessment and feedback should be routine tasks of the staff who work with volunteers, and there should be regular times to celebrate and provide recognition to volunteers. These can be spontaneous or planned. Given that volunteers do not receive salaries, feedback, and recognition become THE KEY ways to remunerate them for their work. It is critical.

7. Ongoing recruitment plans

Because volunteers are not employees (see above), they can and do leave their posts in unpredictable ways. Many start with high expectations for themselves only to find that life intervenes, and the volunteer role (because it is not a job), has to end. Be ready for this—it can happen quickly and can be extremely frustrating, especially if some time-sensitive work goes undone because of their departure or failure to show up.

Use volunteers to recruit volunteers. Often people will volunteer in response to some great need that they have learned about. Initial responders may be the activists who “want to do something.” They are genuine in their desire to help, but if another “big need” comes along, they may be one of the first to leave to pursue it. However, because they are active and their enthusiasm is often contagious, “first responders” may be a great source of recruitment of others who may stick around longer. 

Volunteerism is a visible sign of the coherence of a community. There are vast untapped pools of highly talented and committed people who would benefit from volunteering, and organizations can extend their impact by finding and employing them.  

One final note, it is not unusual for volunteer “offer” to outstrip the need for volunteers. It is crucial to capture the interest and communicate to those waiting for an opportunity regularly. Those offering to volunteer need to understand where they are in the “queue” of potential volunteers. Maintaining contact with them can enable organizations to build goodwill and make sure that the pool remains strong if needs arise in a short time.

One thought on “Supporting Volunteers in Community-Based Programming

  1. Hear, hear! In my limited experience I have found all of the above to be true, particularly the need to define the task description with absolute clarity. I have found that “job creep” is all too common in a volunteer environment, contributing significantly to the prevalence of volunteers fading away or disappearing abruptly. If you want happy volunteers who will enthusiastically cheer the work, as in any job, they need to know when they are done!

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