Four Ways to Fail Your Volunteers

Guest post by Eli Raber 

Don't fail your volunteers.Volunteers are the backbone behind many organizations., for example, is made possible by business advisers who volunteer their time, insight, and experience to strengthen small businesses that create jobs in underserved communities.

Because volunteers are so important, it’s essential that your engagement and appreciation efforts don’t fall through the cracks. Read on to discover four management missteps that are easy to make, yet with a proactive approach, even easier to avoid.

Fail #1: Not Framing the Big Picture

While you may live your organization’s mission day in and day out, volunteers may need some education on your “big picture.” Just like you, your volunteers could benefit from a holistic perspective.

Break down the value of their work; how do their personal contributions add to the whole, and in what ways are their efforts creating impact? Framing things in a larger scope can up the commitment factor for volunteers, making their efforts more meaningful.

Fail #2: Setting Blurry Expectations

Just because volunteers are eager, willing, and…well, voluntary, doesn’t mean they should be thrown into situations without clear expectations and support. Commit to giving your volunteers the tools they need to succeed.

From an information sheet to a formal starter kit—standardize an onboarding process that best suits your volunteers. Also, take the time to teach your staff how best to train your volunteers; volunteers who do not feel supported by program staff may have a bad experience and might not come back.

Fail #3: Narrow Entry Points for Engagement

Don’t discount the different ways volunteers can lend a hand. For example, the most common way for’s volunteers to contribute is by mentoring a small businesses. But that’s not a convenient option for everyone who believes in our mission, so we offer multiple entry points for engagement. Hosting an online webinar, volunteering to table an event, and submitting a blog post are different yet important ways our volunteers contribute.

Empower your volunteers to think outside the box when deciding how to help. Also, consider organizing a volunteer committee that can give a voice to the group, and thus, creates a seamless way for your organization to stay connected to its volunteer base.

Fail #4: When Appreciation Stays Stagnant

We all know that we can’t take our volunteers for granted, but thanking them through the same old channel is another fail. Your appreciation should be as fresh and vibrant as your volunteers’ energy.

From t-shirts to coffee cups, consider swag for your volunteers. A Volunteer of the Year Award is an exciting way to show thanks, or (on a smaller scale), make social media shoutouts to outstanding contributors. Remember, individual attention can be more powerful than public recognition. When volunteers send you an email or answer a survey, make an effort to respond. Exemplify that you’re listening and prove how important they are.

Our program, like so many others, would not exist without volunteers. What are some other “fails” to avoid? Join the conversation via the share buttons below!

About the Author: Eli Raber is the Associate Director of, helping to connect entrepreneurs who create jobs for underserved communities with the valuable resources they need to run and grow their businesses successfully.

11 thoughts on “Four Ways to Fail Your Volunteers

  1. Our organization gives awards every 6 months. There are specific awards, and you get stuff for going up awards etc.

    Except, it’s not really special to the volunteers. I mean, they do an awesome job and get awards all the time so it doesn’t really mean much to them.

    So this time around I am hand embroidering all of the awards. I’m paying for the materials out of my own pocket and doing all the work myself. My hope is that by putting a lot of extra effort into the award, it will make it mean more. Because I’m not just printing out a standard sheet, I’m making each award specifically for the person.

    • That’s admirable, and personally the way I think you should feel as a volunteer…it’s not about the materialistic appreciation which sometimes can turn into a “traditional defaults response” I just want to know what I’m doing is helping, that someones life or feelings truly effected …

  2. I would caution against Volunteer of the Year awards. research has shown that having a singular award among a group of people can actually cause more negative feelings among those who do not get the award. Also, think of all the recognition you could do with a comprehensive award system built on levels of achievement, or particular attributes/activities. Consider, (IF your volunteers are into awards-not all are) a more comprehensive awards system that awards for different achievements, activities, etc. That way, the awards are on specific measurable achievements previously identified that do not cause issues of subjectivity and more people can be recognized. Does this mean everyone gets an award? nope-but it allows for more people to be recognized for distinct skills rather than a catch all like volunteer of the year. (it also can increase volunteer involvement if they know what to work towards). Just a thought.

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  4. As a long time volunteer may I say: I HATE SWAG!!!

    I hate certificates (framed or in expensive folders) telling me that I and a zillion other people in the organization worked X number of hours. I know how many hours I worked, and I didn’t make the effort to get a certificate. Like most volunteers (aka retired people) I hate having to think of useful ways to dispose of yet another mug, water bottle, keychain, lunch box, canvas bag – especially since I work for a supposedly “green” organization.

    I hate that my financial contributions get wasted on it, I hate that a staff person’s time gets wasted procuring and distributing it.

    And I’m not the only one – every volunteer I talk to says the same thing. PUT MY MONEY TO GOOD USE.

    Here’s what makes a dedicated volunteer feel appreciated:

    – Say “Thanks.” Personally. For something I have personally done.

    – Ask for my opinion once in awhile. THAT makes me feel my contribution is valued.

    – At most, a t-shirt or name badge or something that identifies me as part of the organization while I’m working is nice. Everything else goes right to the local thrift store.

    Pretty simple, isn’t it?

    A volunteer works because they are committed to the mission of the organization. The work is its own reward.

    • I meant to add: Just as I can “opt out” of receiving a Thank You gift when I donate to public television, I wish I could “opt out” of volunteer swag. (googling for this is what led me to this blog!)

      If anybody knows of an organization doing this, or a polite way to suggest this to my volunteer manager, please let me know. Thanks.

      • I don’t know how to politely suggest this to your volunteer manager…but this volunteer manager heard you! Thank you for your comment and insight!

      • I agree. Though some may be looking for a “title” most are not as they give time from a caring heart for others. In our ministry there are so many that can only give at a certain time but that time they give they give it their all. Others due to disabilities or age can only give so much but again that giving is precious so how in the world would one choose one over another? It might work for some but we steer clear. I think having a more personal relationship means more than anything else. Even if you have hundreds volunteer and you can’t remember all their names just a smile, hello and a hug goes a LONG way. The sense of family/ friends is the reward. 😉

        • Mazarine Treyz penned a guest post for this blog on a very interesting topic – how there’s no one-size-fits all strategy for volunteer recognition. Why? Because of a concept called “The 5 Love Languages”, in which she explains that the gestures of appreciation that are important to one person might be meaningless to another, and vice versa. You can read it here: Would love to hear your thoughts.

          • Tessa, I like the “5 Languages of Love” concept, and your comment that perhaps there isn’t a one-size-fits-all recognition that is going to matter to all volunteers. And I see it not only as how we RECEIVE love, but how we SHOW love.

            Of course, in a large organization, trying to recognize each volunteer according to their “language” could be extremely time consuming. BUT on the bright side, I suspect that if you tested volunteers, you’d find the vast majority of them are “gifts of service” people. It’s no cliche: The work truly IS it’s own reward.

            I think a good recognition is to list the names of volunteers in a newsletter or annual report, just like the names of financial donors are listed. At our Volunteer Appreciation luncheon this year we were informed that the number of hours donated by volunteers was the equivalent of 14 full-time staff members. I also learned that the value of my personal donated time was equal to over $3500!

            As someone on a fixed income who could never afford to write a check like that, THAT news was the most gratifying recognition I’ve ever received. I’m still feeling pumped AND eager to put in more hours this year to increase my “donation.”

            And this year, I “accidentally” forgot to bring my swag home, so somebody else can figure out how to dispose of it. But that money equivalency thing was a step in the right direction so far as I was concerned.


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