Top 10 Things Executive Directors Need to Know About Volunteer Services

Guest post by Meridian Swift

This post was originally published on Volunteer Plain Talk.

What Executive Directors need to know about volunteer programs.I’ve always wanted to see a small pamphlet entitled “Volunteer Services for Dummies” or maybe “Volunteer Management, The Cliffs Notes.” Then I could sneak around and slip that bad boy under the door of the executive director while he was at a conference on “How to Get Donors to Donate More.” The pamphlet would have a way to insert whatever author’s name would impress him, like maybe that consultant who he’s recently hired to tell him that he needs to get more donations.

So, forget the pamphlet. Let’s just list the ten top things that I wish CEOs would understand about volunteer services.

10. Volunteers do not sit by their phones waiting for us to call.

Shocker! We don’t just “order up” volunteers when someone asks for eight volunteers who can work twelve-hour shifts, outside, tomorrow at 8am. Yeah, no one wishes it were that easy more than we volunteer managers. Asking volunteer Charles to prioritize volunteering with us over his other volunteering activities, his trip to Bermuda (that he’s saved years for), his managing of his elderly mother’s affairs, and his scheduled surgery might just be a tad unrealistic. It takes a wise volunteer manager to know how to balance volunteers’ experiences so that volunteering is not burdensome and they look forward to coming in to help.

9. Managing volunteers is not like managing staff.

Wow, bigger shocker! Unless managing two to ten times the number of very diverse people who only work maybe four hours a week without pay is the same thing. Instead of a paycheck to dangle, volunteer managers must use real leadership skills to inspire and coordinate volunteers. Think of it this way. Volunteers typically spend about 4 hours a week volunteering while you, the Executive Director and your staff spends upwards of 40 or 50 hours a week working for the organization. That’s at least ten times the amount of “plugged in time” you have over volunteers. Do you think that the volunteers spend the other 36 hours thinking about our organization? If not, volunteer managers must be able to “plug-in” volunteers every time they arrive on scene, motivate them to achieve that connection and keep them informed of changes and updates.

8. Volunteers are everyone’s responsibility.

What?!!! The CEO is thinking, “Then what do I pay YOU, the volunteer manager for?” Staff doesn’t necessarily see working with volunteers as part of their jobs, but any staff can make or break a volunteer’s experience. Look at it this way. What if you, the CEO cultivates a donor by spending your time and sweat to encourage and inform and then another staff member comes along and insults that potential donor? It’s no different with volunteers. We need you, our CEO to set the tone. So if deep down, you are thinking that volunteers are not really time donors but are just fluffy side dishes,  then please stop saying things like “we can’t operate without our volunteers.”

7. Volunteer managers are real managers.

“Hmmm,” the Executive Director might be thinking, “No way, not in the same way our manager of fundraising is!” Well, no matter what you call them, coordinators, specialists or team members, volunteer managers are as much a manager as anyone on your staff. The list of skills needed to lead and cultivate a team of volunteers (see #9 and #6 and #4 and #3 and #2 and #1 and oh heck, all of them) is quite extensive.

6. Volunteers want meaningful work.

“So,” the CEO may be thinking,  “but I often need some meaningless stuff done. Who will do it?” That’s true, but volunteers do not want to just do what the staff doesn’t want to do, they want real jobs that make a difference. And since we don’t pay them, maybe we should consider meaningful work as pay? But, a great volunteer manager with awesome skills can lead volunteers to occasionally do the grunt work if grunt work isn’t all that is offered.

5. Volunteers want sincere appreciation from more than just the volunteer department.

An Executive Director might be thinking, “Hey! I always say that we couldn’t operate without our volunteers, don’t I?” Yeah, you do. But guess what? Volunteers see through the once a year speech at a luncheon that is just lip service. Volunteers want you to make an appearance and say hello, send hand written thank you notes and include their accomplishments the next time you meet with the board of directors. And oh, they would like you to genuinely encourage staff to do these things too. Volunteers are either an integrated valued service or it’s all just talk.

4. Volunteers are not just little old ladies drinking tea.

“But,” a CEO could say, “they sure look like that description ha ha.” Did you know that volunteers are diverse in every way, including age, background, culture and experience and that it takes some major skills to manage a group of very diverse people? But even if some volunteers are older, did you know that they are former executives, professors, leadership experts and full of wisdom and great ideas? And they’re more than willing to share their wisdom for free.

3. Volunteer managers are not lap dogs.

“Hey,” the Executive Director would protest, “I never said that!” But are the volunteer managers treated that way by staff? Is there an “order up” culture in which volunteer managers are expected to just get volunteers without having any meaningful input into volunteer requests? Volunteer managers have their fingers on the pulse of the organization and are privy to every aspect of the mission via volunteer involvement. Maybe, just maybe, your humble volunteer manager is really a great motivator and leader and not just an order taker. Check them out for some really awesome ideas and managerial skill-sets.

2. Volunteers are aware and talk.

“Sure, so what, that’s great,” a CEO might agree. But, when a volunteer hears negative speak from staff, or sees something less than perfect, guess what? They talk, to each other, to friends, relatives, and the cashier at the Quick-Mart. Volunteer managers keep volunteers motivated and inspired and mediate constantly to make sure the volunteer’s concerns are resolved and their experience is positive. In this world aching for transparency, volunteers are the town criers who can proclaim the worth of an organization or do damage to its reputation.

1. Volunteers don’t stay forever.

“Heresy! They should if the volunteer manager is doing her job,” an Executive Director could counter argue. No, actually volunteers don’t. Does staff stay until they die? No, and neither do volunteers. We should recruit, train and cultivate our volunteers just as we do staff, but not expect them to continue until they’re carted off in an ambulance. And, just like staff, sometimes we don’t want them to stay, so that’s why the professional skill-set of the volunteer manager is so crucial. A volunteer manager’s professional resolution to a challenging situation is an organization’s best chance to avoid negative publicity.

So, there you have it. I’ll bet you volunteer managers have some really great ideas on other truisms that belong on this list. You have my permission to print out this list, slip it under your leader’s door. Somehow add to it that it was authored by the “Center for Outstanding Management and Maintenance of Organizations and NGO’s” via the report from the “Study on Excellence in Non-profit Structure and Ecosystems” or COMMON SENSE for short.


4 Ways to Improve Volunteer Retention

Guest post by Torri Myler

Keep the volunteers you have using these four tips.Volunteers are essential. They give your nonprofit the power to make a difference.

However, the unfortunate reality of employing many volunteers is that, with time, some of their fire will burn out. The nature of ongoing volunteer projects is that people will come and go.

The loss of volunteers is unfortunate not only because of the gaps it leaves behind, but because someone with experience and familiarity of the work is gone, leaving you to replace then with a new volunteer who will then have to work his or her way up to that same status. Retaining your talented volunteers is far gentler on time and resources than bringing in new ones. And it doesn’t have to be a challenge to improve your retention rates. Here are four ways to ensure you have the best volunteer retention rates possible.

1. Place Them Correctly

These individuals are volunteering for your organization because they feel that your cause or purpose fits in with their life and their values. Volunteer work is much more personal than paid work and requires a higher level of passion.

Figure out what your volunteers do in their everyday lives. Some of them may be teachers, or artists, or amateur chefs. Tying their duties to their hobbies or areas of skill will not only engage them to their best potential, but it will engage another level of their passion. Assigning individuals to tasks that aren’t very relevant to their skillset can frustrate them, and frustrated people will prefer to spend their time elsewhere. Giving everyone their perfectly suited role will create a greater sense of community among your volunteers, causing them to maintain interest in your cause, but also a closeness with each other.

2. Show Them Their Results

Volunteering is not an entirely selfless act, and it shouldn’t be. For the time your volunteers put in, they deserve to feel a sense of accomplishment and success as a result of their efforts. If you take the time to give them a better understanding about how they’re impacting a project, they won’t feel disheartened, or like they’ve wasted their time. You’ll foster a sense of empowerment and show your volunteers how they matter, and what they’re capable of achieving.

3. Give Them Options

When it comes to volunteering, not everyone will be equal to one standard task. When fundraising, for instance, some volunteers may be candid enough to ask directly for donations, while others will feel uncomfortable doing so. If possible, provide different tasks and jobs for your volunteering projects. And if a certain volunteer position is not a great fit for someone, don’t be afraid to tell them so.

4. Keep in Touch

Keep in touch with your volunteers.Projects and campaigns will come and go. Your volunteers have their lives to manage and their jobs to tend do, and at times they may not be as mindful to monitor what you have going on.

Using a self-serve model is ineffective, because volunteering will likely sit further back in people’s minds. How do you fix this? Keeping a mailing list and regularly updating social media is an excellent way to stay in the lives of your volunteers, who will receive reminders and updates on a regular basis about how to pursue continued involvement.

About the author: Torri Myler is a team member at, a UK bank branches opening and closing times repository. She has a strong volunteering background herself and believes that volunteers make the world a better place.

When Volunteers Fall Off the Radar

Guest post by Elisa Kosarin, Twenty Hats

This post was originally published on Twenty Hats.

How do you manage volunteers who have dropped off the radar screen? Twenty Hats turns to a pro for the answers.

When Volunteers Fall Off the RadarWhat do you do when a volunteer drops the ball – either fails to fulfill their responsibilities or just plain falls off the radar?

It’s a scenario that causes plenty of heartburn for supervisors who are then placed in the uncomfortable position of holding a difficult conversation. And for some volunteer supervisors, the dread around addressing this unfortunate issue makes it hard to even begin a potentially difficult conversation.

It IS possible to frame those conversations in a way that keeps your volunteers engaged. Just ask MaryAnn Wohlford.

Meet a Supervision Pro

MaryAnn is a supervisor at my former workplace, Fairfax CASA. Hands down, she is the most experienced volunteer supervisor I have ever known. That’s partly because MaryAnn worked in human resources for 20 years and child advocate programs volunteers for another 13 – and partly because she has an intuitive sense of what works to bring the best out of people.

MaryAnn’s volunteers rarely if ever fall off the radar screen. Instead, they fulfill their extensive commitment to advocating for an abused or neglected child, earning the respect of judges, attorneys, and social workers for their dedication to the children they serve.

The Bottom Line

I asked MaryAnn for her pointers when dealing with an absent volunteer. Her approach is based on the rapport she builds with each volunteer.

“The bottom line is that the relationship between the volunteer and the supervisor needs to be collaborative. When there is frequent communication, a volunteer feels supported and valued.”

That means regular check-ins – first to identify what the volunteer needs to do next and then to follow up.

“Some volunteers drop the ball because they think no one is looking — or they think what they are supposed to do is unimportant because no one is asking about it.”

The Accountability Factor

MaryAnn holds volunteers accountable even when their schedules get busy.  Knowing that her volunteers are clear about what is expected of them and have made a commitment, she might start the conversation by saying, “That’s a concern. How can we arrange things so that you can still fulfill your obligation?” or “Is there any way I can help?”

Sometimes volunteers find themselves in situations that cause discomfort or they don’t know how to handle. In those instances, she frames the conversation collaboratively, letting them know that difficult situations can be worked out. “Most important, I always follow up in these instances to make sure the problem is resolved – and I give them kudos for taking care of the issue.”

Recognizing Burnout

When burnout is the root of the problem, the approach is somewhat different. “I sense that you are feeling frustrated. Tell me what’s going on.” She listens, validates their concerns, and then reminds the volunteer of his role and his accomplishments.

Regardless of the situation, the key is not to let the volunteer off the hook, but instead problem-solve collaboratively to keep the work going.

As MaryAnn says, “Volunteers need to feel that they are not alone. They need to know that you have the same interest in the work that they have, and that you are working together to get the job done.”

Tweet this post! If you agree with my POV, feel free to send this message:

When a volunteer falls off the radar, problem-solve collaboratively & maintain accountability @THNonprofit

Starting Out as a Volunteer Manager: Advice from a Beginner

BeginningGuest post by Emma Bennett

Starting out as a Volunteer Manager can be a tough task – especially if it’s your first time in the role. I spent years and years volunteering and management seemed like an appropriate new challenge.

I was lucky enough to have previous management experience from work, but volunteers cannot be managed like employees. They have different motivations, needs, wants and concerns. I’m still in my first year of volunteer management and I love it, but it has come with its fair share of challenges.

However, the best thing about it is cultivating great volunteers; watching their confidence grow, building on their goals and being their source of support.

I’ve picked up a few things over the past few months that have helped me transition smoothly from a volunteer to a volunteer coordinator. They are pretty simple, but they lay a firm foundation to get you going with your volunteer program.

  1. Learn everyone’s name

This is so simple and so obvious, but it’s the most important thing. Find out the name of every volunteer, trustee or friend. If you struggle with names, write them down or ask volunteers to wear name badges. Do whatever you can to get know everyone as quickly as possible.

  1. Make one-on-one time

Taking on a new responsibility can be difficult and time consuming, but making some time for each of your volunteers is a great way to get going. You’ll find out about their needs and motivations, how they like to communicate, what they’re hoping to get out of volunteering and their goals. Ask them what they would like to see from you, and use this information to make yourself a better manager.

  1. Who knows what?

Let’s get to the grittier stuff. Is there an evacuation plan in case of a fire? Does anyone have any disabilities, food allergies or mental health considerations that you need to know about?

These types of questions are extremely important for compliance. The sooner you know all the important safety stuff, the sooner you can get on to the fun bits.

  1. Get organized

Working on computer.Create a mailing list with all the emails of your volunteers. If your organization does not have volunteer management software, you can use spreadsheets to collate any telephone numbers, emergency contacts, etc. Find a method for logging attendance. A volunteer database is your most important source of data.

  1. Know your policies

Every organization should have a governing document that details the policies in place to safeguard its members. It’s important to learn what the policies are for recruitment, whistle blowing, child protection, expenses and absence. If you don’t have these policies in place, think about introducing them.

Emma Bennett, Volunteer CoordinatorEmma Bennett is a Volunteer Coordinator for a Leeds Supplementary School, Trustee and Charity Blogger. Emma is extremely passionate about volunteering, young people and mental health and has worked extensively on a wide variety of Third Sector projects. She writes and works in digital for High Speed Training, who provide online safeguarding and equality & diversity courses. @emm_benn

4 Ways to Build an Ineffective, Disengaged Nonprofit Board

Your board of directors. They are responsible for the governance of your organization. They are also volunteers.

It’s an unfortunate truth that many nonprofit organizations struggle to effectively attract and engage board members. And for good reason – it’s not an easy task!

But before you start asking, “Why are there no good board members out there?!” take a look internally. Are you making these all-too-common mistakes with your board?

Disengaged Board Member

1. Be Vague About the Commitment Level

I once knew someone named Don. Don’s good friend was starting a nonprofit whose mission was to bring more culture and art into their small community. Don’s friend said, “Don’t worry – it won’t be much work. I just need bodies.” Don didn’t have much of an interest in the topic, but he wanted to be a good friend. So, despite being busy raising his two daughters and working full time, Don said yes.

You can probably guess how this ends: It actually was a lot of work, and Don didn’t have the time or the interest. He left the board a year later with both his and his friend’s time wasted.

For some organizations, the only requirement for being on the board is writing a big check once a year. But is this the norm? No. Most nonprofits are small, volunteer-run groups who benefit by having active and engaged board members. If you think, “I just need to get someone in the door, and then I’ll get them interested,” then think again.

2. Don’t Ask for Monetary or Fundraising Support

“She already does so much for us. We can’t ask her for money, too.”

I heard this once at a nonprofit I was working with. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s time to revisit your outlook on your supporters. In fact, people who donate time to your organization are much more likely to donate money, too, when compared with those who do not volunteer for you. Why? Because when you’re as invested in an organization’s success as you should be when you’re a board member, you’ll likely do what’s in your means to help the organization succeed – including a monetary donation. And often, the only barrier between a donation and no donation is the courage to ask for one.

3. Keep All the Responsibility to Yourself

It’s no secret: People want to feel useful. Spending hours at a board meeting and not feeling like you’re personally accomplishing anything is a sure-fire recipe for disengagement. I know I would rather spend 3 hours working on a project that matters than 1 hour simply nodding my head and participating in a few votes.

It’s okay to give up the reigns to your board members here and there. You might be surprised at how a disengaged board member does a 180 when given a little responsibility using the unique skills they bring to the table.

4. Choose Board Members Who Don’t Reflect the Community You Serve

Diversity is always the ideal – not just on a board, but in virtually any setting. A variety of opinions coming from a range of worldviews is key to progress. But when you’re striving for diversity, ask yourself one critical question: “Does anyone on our board actually share experiences, values, and interests with the community we’re serving?”

Imagine how much more effective a hunger-fighting organization could be if someone on the board actually experienced what it’s like to go hungry? You’ll get insights you simply can’t get through research.

One way to increase diversity on your board is to reach outside of your networks. Post your board openings on with the cause tag “Board Development.” Remember to be as descriptive as possible about the commitment level and the type of board member you’re seeking.

Do you have advice to share on creating an effective and engaged board of directors? Share them in the comments below, or tweet to us @VolunteerMatch.

Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360