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10 Reasons People Volunteer

Updated on July 22, 2008

And how to make this work for you!


I am the president of a small not for profit community foundation in Western Washington. By small non-profit, I mean SMALL, and 100% volunteer. By president, I mean grantwriter, go-fer, event planner, volunteer recruiter, fundraiser, business liaison, marketer and the list goes on. I don't pretend no know all there is to know about non-profit management, but I would love to share what I do know, and welcome your comments and feedback.

One of our greatest challenges, and I daresay, a challenge to anyone who works for, or runs a non-profit, is how to recruit and retain volunteers. This is a topic that would require a book to address completely. I do plan to dedicate more than one hub on the subject, but to get started, let's talk about ten common reasons that people volunteer, and how you can get this to work for you, as an employee or board member of a non-profit organization.

1. Volunteers want to have fun. Don't be shy! Sell your organization as a caring group of fun loving individuals. List the perks of being involved with your non-profit. Make it clear that it's not all "crack the whip." A group can have fun implementing the most somber of missions. If you have a signature fundraising event, mention it. Build cache in the fact that everyone that's anyone wants to be involved in the 15th Annual Ladies Tea to Benefit the Homeless, for example. And have your friendliest, most upbeat, most "people-person" person be in charge of the volunteers for your organization.

2. Volunteers want to give back. Some people, when they reach a certain point or stature in life, look for opportunities to give back. List your organization on volunteer sign up websites to increase your visibility. Many localities have sites dedicated to volunteerism. United Way often lists board and volunteer opportunities, as do many municipalities. Another segment of this "give back" population is folks looking to do community service. Groups like Junior Rotary, Boy and Girl Scouts, and some public and private high schools have service hour requirements. Talk to these groups about how you can work together.

3. Volunteers love to try new things. Be flexible with volunteers and listen to what they tell you. Perhaps you have a school teacher who wants to give public speaking a try. Have him do your next United Way presentation. A restaurateur that wants to branch out into event planning? Put her in charge of your next annual meeting. Let people spread their wings. This is particularly effective in smaller non-profits that often have the flexibility, or lack of budget, to allow people to learn as they go.

4. Volunteers want to build up their resume. Hey, nobody said volunteering had to be 100% altruistic. Don't expect that of your volunteers. Advertise for volunteers with local community colleges and universities. For example, if you need a new logo, talk to a graphic arts instructor. Many students will do projects pro-bono or for less than market rate for a chance to beef up their portfolio.

5. Volunteers want to make a positive difference. Make sure your mission is on everything you put out into the marketplace. Use testimonials from volunteers as well as board members and constituents. Allow your audience to be able to place themselves in a volunteer's position through an effective story about the good that has been done. And sell the need. For example, my organization administers a school readiness program aimed at parents. There are oodles of studies out there about the school readiness gap and how it affects kids throughout their school careers. We condense those mountains of research into 3-5 bullet points about why this is important and what happens if this need is not addressed. Then we have a program teacher talk about her students (the parents) and how they are amazed at the simple things they can do at home to help their kids.

6. Volunteers want to learn about different cultures. Sell your cultural diversity, if you have it, and most of you have it. Volunteers, generally speaking, are people who are interested in the world as a whole. Talk about your ethnic uniqueness. Discuss the culture of the group you are charged in helping. This is not only effective with groups that are ethnically based, such as some religious organizations or refugee assistance groups, but school foundations, food banks, homeless shelters and others can use this approach. An example could be "the culture of homelessness." What is an average day like for a homeless child in your city?

7. Volunteers have knowledge and experiences to share. This is the opposite side of number four, above. People established in their careers, or at retirement age, often are at the point, that they want to give back. Need a new treasurer? Talk to your local banks, for example. Try distributing flyers at your local senior center. Touch base with alumni associations, chambers of commerce, and Rotary Clubs. All are great places to troll for well trained, professional volunteers and a great avenue for recruiting board members.

8. Volunteers want to meet new people. People want to connect with others that share the same interest. Don't be afraid to publish your board member list. Our own list includes people in city government, the school district, the parks department, and business leaders. People also look at volunteerism as a chance to network. Some may use it as an opportunity to impress the boss, such as, "Last night, when Mayor Smith and I were bagging rice at the food bank..." Again, volunteerism doesn't have to be all about what's in it for the organization.

9. Volunteers need to feel needed. Show how your organization is making a difference. This is good marketing, a whole other subject, and attracts volunteers. We are all busy, busy, busy! Show how a volunteer's few hours a month change lives in your area. Use concrete examples, and use more than one. Some marketing gurus talk about doomsday as well, saying that people remember the bad news more than the good. What happens if your organization has no volunteers? How will that change life in your community? I don't like dwelling on the bad, and feel slightly nagged when an organization takes this tack, but I am not a marketing expert. Make your own decisions on that. Just be aware that some folks find it effective. Another thing to do is look how other non-profits in your area are attracting volunteers, and try to be a little different.

10. Volunteers volunteer because they can! Vary your volunteer opportunities to allow flexibility and attract the largest pool of possible volunteers. Have opportunities listed on your website, along with "job" descriptions. A great idea is to sort them by skill set or time required. Be upfront about this! Nothing is more annoying for a new volunteer than to be a quarter of the way through a two hour project, two hours in. Think of what groups may exist in your area and tailor some opportunities to meet their needs. For example, a book drive can be organized by a Girl Scout troop working on a Silver or Gold Award. A food bank can use high school seniors working on community service graduation requirements to carry food for clients.



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