California Libraries Provide a Great Example of Volunteer Engagement

California Library Literacy Services
Photo provided by California Library Literacy Services, a statewide program of the California State Library

Over the past few years, California Public Libraries have become a an inspiration to nonprofit volunteer managers with the success of their volunteer programs. Their adult literacy program, for example, is supported by 12,000 volunteers and serves close to 22,000 learners. It is one of the few free services available to adults who want to improve their reading and writing skills.

Programs like this one are so successful because the volunteer coordinators, needing highly-qualified volunteers, redesigned their volunteer engagement to meet the community’s demands.

Partnership with VolunteerMatch
Since 2008, VolunteerMatch has partnered with California Libraries as part of the Preferred Partnership Program for national nonprofits, offering free upgraded accounts for over 1,000 branches. Working together, we’ve set up a hub site, where all CA Library volunteer opportunities are searchable by zip code.

VolunteerMatch staff have conducted symposiums, training, online webinars and customer support, assisting in everything from tracking the number of volunteer referrals, crafting effective postings, to regular check-ins with volunteer coordinators.

Carla Lehn, the State Library’s Program Coordinator, says the training sessions have been the most helpful. VolunteerMatch provides an average of 500 referrals per month for their libraries, and staff have learned to expect more from their volunteers. They’ve discovered Volunteers in critical roles, who are involved in decision making and can see their impact on the library’s mission and goals, are much more likely to make a meaningful, long-term commitment.

A fresh perspective
In an effort to breathe new life into volunteer programs, a series of focus groups was conducted, all with the same result: Volunteers, especially Baby Boomers, want opportunities that put their career experience and training to use. While there will always be a need for volunteers that want to shelve books and repair bindings, studies show that Boomers, even before they retire, are an eager yet untapped skilled volunteer force.

California libraries that have employed volunteer coordinators have found that they were able to create new programs and significantly boost volunteer hours. With the Preferred Partnership Program, California Libraries had help tracking volunteer hours, increasing the exposure of volunteer postings, and using custom questions to qualify applicants.

Carla said that the language in a posting for a volunteer position is critical. An opportunity titled “Adult Literacy Tutor” didn’t attract nearly as many references as one called “Teach an Adult to Read – Change a Life!”

Carla has used VolunteerMatch to recruit graphic and web designers to extend the literacy program outreach to Facebook, at a time when it would have been impossible to hire contract employees given the budget crisis. “You know how they always say ‘You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out?’ Well one of the local library’s volunteer program managers for computer tutors is actually a rocket scientist!”

Get Involved
The Get Involved Website is a rich source of best practice tools to support libraries interested in increasing their volunteer engagement success. The website has become a tight-knit online community where volunteer coordinators can share their success stories, and post materials that can be adapted by others. They also have a Get Involved YouTube Channel, including testimonials and recorded training sessions.

Aside from empowering people through its services, California Libraries has inspired them to become truly engaged members of the community. Two recent college graduates volunteered at a library in Kern County to get some real-world experience, and some volunteers started off as students being served in the adult literacy program. On top of their own busy schedules, they have absorbed their experience as beneficiaries of volunteer programs and gone on to be volunteers themselves.

Apart from statistics about the number of referrals or volunteer hours, California libraries have been able to build thoughtful volunteer programs that promote a culture of helping others, and that is a true accomplishment.

Carla’s tips for attracting the right volunteer for the job

  • Think about the changing face of volunteers—Boomers, along with Gen-X and Millennials, want to do more than put books on shelves. They want to create something that wasn’t there before, or at least be able to use their skills to see an impact on the mission and goals of the organization. If you don’t take that into account, you’re going to miss the boat.
  • Write a compelling posting—Volunteers are looking for referrals that pop! One of the most popular listings on VolunteerMatch was called “Change the World in your Pajamas.” People are busy, but they still want to take on a role that has a lot of impact. (For more tips on writing great postings, check out this free webinar.)
  • Check your spelling!—Postings that receive the fewest hits contain typos that immediately turn people away.
  • Find a great photo—Don’t use a generic shot of a building; postings that contain a photo that shows the type of activity a volunteer will be involved in attract three times as many referrals.

Jesse Fineman is an intern at VolunteerMatch. You can reach him at