Volunteers: The Heart of Community Organizations

Factsheet - ISSN 1198-712X   -   Copyright Queen's Printer for Ontario
Agdex#: 057
Publication Date: 11/96
Order#: 96-017
Last Reviewed: 04/97
History: Replaces 92-039 - "Volunteers: The Heart of Community Organizations"
Written by:

Jane Muegge - Rural Community Advisor/OMAFRA; Nancy Ross - Rural Community Advisor/OMAFRA

Table of Contents

  1. Volunteers - An Important Resource
  2. Benefits Volunteers Bring to the Organization
  3. Why Do People Volunteer?
  4. What is Motivation?
  5. Four Methods of Motivating People
  6. Motivating Environments
  7. Motivating a Motivator
  8. "Rights" of a Volunteer
  9. "Responsibilities" of a Volunteer
  10. Recognition - Who Needs It?
  11. References

Volunteers - An Important Resource

Volunteers are the most important resource community organizations have. The ability of people to work willingly together for the betterment of their community and themselves is a valuable resource.

The image of the volunteer has changed over time. Gone is the stereotype of the middle-aged housewife with time on her hands. Now volunteers come from all walks of life: they may be a teenager learning to manage responsibility by caring for wounded wildlife, an executive sharing management skills with a community group or a retiree enjoying a new friendship as a volunteer reader at the community library.

Ideally, volunteers find the donation of their time and energy a meaningful experience for themselves as well as for the organization. A true win/win situation.

Benefits Volunteers Bring to the Organization

  • credibility – volunteers have fewer vested interests, making them a valuable public relations asset
  • objectivity – especially in the delivery of services
  • refreshed energy
  • specialized skills and knowledge
  • public opinion on important issues
  • new ideas to enrich the existing program
  • flexibility to focus intently on a particular task or issue
  • constructive criticism and feedback
  • fresh perspectives – "new blood" can keep an organization alive
  • ability to lessen the overall workload
  • capacity to expand services
  • immediate access to the community

Why Do People Volunteer?

  • to help others and contribute to the community
  • to use skills in a new setting
  • to find new friends and new relationships
  • to develop a sense of accomplishment and self-worth
  • to learn new skills
  • to meet requirements of a course or program
  • to challenge themselves
  • to work for a cause
  • to gain recognition for their abilities
  • to help improve the quality of community life

What is Motivation?

There is no great trick to motivation… It's simply finding out what people like to do — and can do well — and then letting them do it.

Motivation is like:

  • a watch – it takes a few minutes to wind but then it can run by itself for days
  • a shot of adrenaline – it picks you up when your energy is low and gets you over the hurdles
  • a flower – it blossoms with care and dies with overworking
  • a ball – it needs help to keep it bouncing

People are motivated when they understand and value the payoffs.

Four Methods of Motivating People

  1. Provide a reason for people to participate in your organization.
  2. Provide recognition.
  3. Provide goals that are clearly defined and communicated.
  4. Conduct stimulating meetings.

Motivation is a very individual and internal concept. It's a person's drive to satisfy one of their needs. It's very much a two-way street. When volunteers and the organization are highly motivated, the organization accomplishes:

  • goals
  • short-term plans
  • teamwork
  • payoffs for the organization

In return the volunteer receives:

  • recognition
  • interesting jobs
  • responsibility
  • achievements

You can't force people to do something that they're not interested in.

Motivating Environments

A volunteer needs:

  • to know what to do
  • to know how to do it
  • to be able to do it
  • to agree to the task

Work given to a volunteer must be work that the volunteer wants to do.

Help volunteers discover their uniqueness...

... then help them move from one comfort level to another comfort level. Help them through the discomfort level.

You want to keep morale and motivation in high gear at all times. Some ways to do this:

  1. Try to be available.
  2. Let volunteers know they can contact you.
  3. Involve staff and volunteers in your meetings.
  4. Never belittle your staff or volunteers.
  5. When you do need to reprimand, time it carefully:
    • reprimand as soon after the problem as possible
    • choose a neutral location
    • be specific in telling people what they did wrong
    • shake hands, touch them and tell them how much you value them
    • build back their self-confidence and self-esteem by praising their good qualities
    • realize when the reprimand is over
  6. Don't play favorites.
  7. Be sensitive to people.
  8. Give honest and sincere praise.
  9. Listen to others' viewpoints and ideas.
  10. Delegate but don't dump.
  11. Continually keep your staff, volunteers and yourself growing.

Motivating a Motivator

A manager of volunteers is one who establishes and maintains a creative climate. Within this climate, volunteers choose to work co-operatively toward the accomplishment of goals and objectives which are compatible with personal and organizational values.

The failure to perceive what people really want and need is the biggest motivational problem.

Be sure to use supervision or the buddy system regularly to be a source of support, assurance and redirection for yourself.

Because you, the manager of volunteers, truly care about others, you have a responsibility to care for yourself so that you will have energy, strength and resources to be there when they need you.

"Rights" of a volunteer

The Right:

  • to be treated as a co-worker, not just free help
  • to a suitable assignment with consideration for personal preference, temperament, education and skills
  • to a well-planned program of training and supervision
  • to a continuing education on the job and the follow-up to initial training… training for a greater responsibility
  • to sound guidance and direction
  • to promotion and a variety of experience through advancement to assignments with more responsibility
  • to be heard, to have a part in planning, to feel free to make suggestions, and to have respect shown for an honest opinion
  • to recognition in the form of promotion and rewards, and through day-to-day experience of appreciation

"Responsibilities" of a Volunteer

The Responsibility:

  • to be sincere in the offer of service and believe in the value (worth) of the job to be done
  • to be loyal to the organization and the staff with whom they work
  • to maintain the dignity and integrity of the organization with the public
  • to understand the job he or she undertakes
  • to carry out duties promptly and reliably to the best of their ability
  • to be willing to learn and participate in orientation and training programs, and to continue to learn on the job
  • to accept the guidance and decisions of the co-ordinators of volunteers
  • to maintain a smooth-working relationship with others and stay within the bounds of the volunteer placement description
  • to contribute to supervision by self-evaluation and willingness to ask

The rights of the volunteer may be seen as the responsibility of the organization and the responsibility of the volunteer as the rights of the organization.

The organization is responsible for making sure that volunteers are treated well. In return, the organization benefits by getting extra effort and good quality work from the volunteer.

Understanding why a person wants to volunteer will help determine the best job placement.

Recognition – Who Needs It?

Volunteers are very special people whose donation of time and effort warrants special consideration. They should always be encouraged to grow, learn and seek fulfillment as they help an organization, even if it means accepting the reality that not everyone is perfect for every job.

Formal recognition – is important to the volunteer. Other people need to be told of their goodness (i.e., at banquets, in press releases, etc.).

Informal recognition – is even more important. It takes place on a one-to-one basis and is done through personal meetings, telephone calls, letters, etc.

Recognition can be likened to an iceberg. The formal recognition is visible by all above the waterline. The informal is the large mass below the water. It's a much greater area to respond to.

Recognition and encouragement are essential to stimulating and maintaining active involvement. You need to be:

Spontaneous – express the appreciation/recognition on the spot. If you wait until later in the day or year, you've lost most of its motivating force.

Sincere – phoniness is worse that saying nothing.

Specific – speaking in generalities doesn't let people know if you really are sure what they've done.

Thankful – a handshake, pat on the back

Use Non-Verbal Communication – Your expression on your face, all your body language should smile and applaud.

Creative – use a variety of approaches to find ways to recognize volunteers.

Able to Laugh – be human!

There are thousands of ways to recognize people for their efforts… a smile, a thank-you for…, newsletter/press releases, reimbursement of expenses when possible, name tags, letters of appreciation, banquets, special occasion cards, calendars, baby-sitting services, a picnic...

Brainstorm Ideas – List Their Hobbies and Interests

  • What do they read?
  • How do they dress?
  • Do they like to cook?
  • What have they mentioned in conversation?
  • What time are they available?
  • Do they like sports?

These areas will reveal new forms of recognition that are creative, appropriate and user-friendly.


Motivating Volunteers. Moore, Larry, F. Vancouver Volunteer Centre, 1985.

Skills for Working Together. Pennsylvania State University, University College of Agriculture Co-operative Extension Services.

Volunteer/Staff/Client Relationships. Ontario Association of Volunteer Bureaus/Centres, Toronto, Ontario.

Volunteers: How to Find Them, How to Keep Them. 2nd ed., Vancouver Volunteer Centre, 1990.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca