Success with Skills-Based Volunteers

Guest post by Carla Lehn.

When successfully engaged, many volunteers naturally become supporters and advocates for the organizations they serve. To attract new people and transform them into a natural support system, traditional volunteer programs will need to retool.

Here are 7 strategies you can use — whether you’re just beginning or seeking to enhance current practices.

Seek Input

Don’t do this alone. Establish a volunteer engagement team that includes management and staff from all parts of the organization, including a couple of volunteers and someone from your board.

Together, work to develop a plan that addresses their own concerns and those they’re hearing from their colleagues. This increases ownership of volunteer engagement and will gain the trust of other staff. There are roles for everyone, so don’t be afraid to share the responsibility.

Demonstrate Possibilities

Help staff and volunteers see what successful volunteer engagement looks like by sharing success stories from your program or from other organizations.

Or, start small by creating a “pilot test” or two and share those successes. Seeing what’s working and what’s possible will make others want some too.

Create roles for volunteers that address goals in your strategic plan. Nothing will sell volunteer engagement to management more than the ability of volunteers to assist in effectively achieving organizational goals.

Establish Clear Written Roles for Volunteers

Carefully designed position descriptions will help identify the right volunteer for the job. Staff will also be comforted by a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. Engage staff who will work with volunteers in developing good job descriptions. This is also a great strategy for gaining staff buy-in.

Engage Skills-Based Volunteers

Go beyond traditional volunteer roles to engage people with skills they’re willing to share. Recruiting skills-based volunteers will help expand your operations, enhance programs or take your public relations efforts to a new level.

Plus, attracting people who haven’t had a relationship with your organization before will enlighten them about your organization’s mission while also engaging their skills and interests.

Lead by Example

Don’t just ask staff to work with volunteers; model it in your own work. What could a skilled volunteer or team of volunteers do to support what you do, while at the same time modeling successful skilled volunteer engagement?

For example, could you deploy an assistant volunteer coordinator to conduct data entry or a volunteer recruiter to help you post volunteer opportunities and respond to connections from VolunteerMatch? Could a graphic designer assist with presenting data and results in a meaningful and attractive way? How about a communications professional versed in social media?

Gain Staff Buy-In

For many staff, the concept of engaging highly skilled volunteers is new. It will take time, communication, training and some initial success to overcome the idea that volunteers are “more trouble than they’re worth.” Staff resistance can be lowered by using some preventive measures, such as creating a clear communications plan and involving paid staff in the process.

Measure and Share Results

It’s not enough to just report the annual number of volunteers and volunteer hours. Quantifying the impact of volunteers in dollars is an ideal next step, but don’t stop there.

Sustaining your volunteer engagement efforts will require sharing success in meaningful ways so that management and staff continue to be enthusiastic about supporting it.

Share impact by using brief anecdotal success stories, return on investment and/or full-blown outcome measurement strategies


Author Bio: Carla Lehn was a VISTA volunteer, then spent a decade at United Way. At the California State Library she focused on literacy and volunteer engagement. Her June 2018 book is: From Library Volunteer to Library Advocate: Tapping into the Power of Community Engagement.

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