Working With Volunteers

Factsheet - ISSN 1198-712X   -   Copyright Queen's Printer for Ontario
Agdex#: 057
Publication Date: 02/87
Order#: 87-012
Last Reviewed:
History: Reprinted February 1995, March 1997
Written by: Chuck Bokor - Rural Leadership Consultant/OMAFRA

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Problem Simplified
  3. When It's Time To Leave
  4. Summary


In your organization, are the same few people doing all the work?

What methods are used to orient and train newly elected/appointed volunteers?

How should an organization recruit volunteers that will help get the job done?

This Factsheet deals with the "lifeblood" of any volunteer organization — its people, and specifically, its volunteers!

Volunteers are the men and women who do the work of the organization - they may be directors on the board, they may look after the booth at the local fair. They include canvassers, executive and committee members. No matter what position or responsibility these people have accepted, each and every one of them has stepped forward from the general membership to give a little extra. The organization can benefit from the many skills, interests and talents that these volunteers bring with them. However, sometimes these same differences can spell disaster for the group.

The Problem Simplified

When a group of people organize themselves to work towards some common goal, it quickly becomes apparent that certain basic skills are required to carry on that work (be it education, lobby, marketing, or production oriented). In addition to knowing how to have effective meetings, write a press release, plan a program, etc., the organization must also know how to "fit" the individual needs of the volunteer into the overall programs of the organization. If the volunteer is satisfied and happy, the entire organization benefits. A true win/win situation!

There are 4 major components of an effective "people" program. Together they pave the way to success for both the organization and the individual. They are:

  1. Preparing for the volunteer
  2. Recruiting for success
  3. Orientation and Training
  4. Follow-up and Recognition

1. Preparing for the Volunteer

Forecasting the Future

In the early stages of your group's program planning process, existing volunteers (and any paid staff ) should discuss the answers to the questions:

  1. What are the tasks?
  2. Where and when do new (or veteran) volunteers "fit in" to the program?
  3. What talents are needed to carry out the program?
  4. Where, when and who do we recruit?
  5. Who recruits?
  6. Who trains the volunteers?
  7. Who supervises the volunteer work?
Job Description

What does a Volunteer need to know before he or she says "yes"?

The job description, a document that explains the characteristics of each role or position, will solve that mystery. It should be prepared in advance and include the following points:

  • Job Title
  • Purpose
  • Specific Tasks, Duties and Responsibilities
  • Qualifications (skills needed, experience, etc.)
  • Time commitments
  • Support (available resources)
  • Term of Office Rewards (What's in it for me?)

The development of a job description for every position or role that is to be filled ensures that all aspects of each position have been carefully considered and planned. It is very useful during the recruitment/interview process, both for the recruiter and the prospective volunteer. This document not only answers the many questions of the volunteer, but also serves as a standard guideline for recruiters. It can later be used as a checklist for the future training needs of the volunteer.

Committee Terms of Reference

Terms of Reference for committees are different than job descriptions of volunteers, but are equally valuable as organizational guidelines. They describe the function and responsibility of the committees in the organization, rather than the duties of a chairperson or member of a committee. The committee terms of reference, developed by the organization (or appointed body) should be reviewed periodically and revamped if necessary.

2. Recruiting for Success

What Motivates People?

It is wise to match the person to the position/role that he or she is motivated to do.

The fact that different people volunteer for different reasons may be obvious. Some people volunteer because of the power or status of the position. Others will join your group for the chance to socialize or to be with other people. And still others truly want to get ahead, to achieve worthwhile and sometimes unique results for themselves or others. All three reasons are valid motives for people to volunteer. The organization should make every effort to satisfy the individual's own needs when filling positions.


  • the "people" person (affiliation-motivated) might be good at social committee work, canvassing, or public relations.
  • the "prestige" person (power-motivated) might enjoy being master of ceremonies, media spokesman, or task force leader.
  • the "achievement" person might look forward to program planning, chairing a committee, working on a new activity, or being on the executive.

Any "type" of person could do a very good job at any volunteer position, but both the organization and the volunteer would benefit from a perfect match.

Why Recruit?

Your organization should have a planned, deliberate program for recruiting volunteers. If you want to get a constant supply of new ideas, keep the organization alive with new people, spread out the workload and ensure that vacancies are filled, then recruitment plans should be made now for the coming year.

Methods Of Recruitment

Personal contact is the ideal method of getting people to help. A visit from a neighbour or friend is both more motivating and gratifying than an advertisement in a newspaper. However, using a variety of recruitment techniques such as radio, newsletter and newspaper ads or appeals will ensure that a wide range of prospects has been made aware of the need for volunteers. Whatever the method you use, or place you go to find volunteers, remember - 80% of those people not volunteering list the primary reason as being they were not asked!

Eight Rules for Good Recruitment
  1. Recruit with a specific role in mind, rather than asking for "anybody to do anything".
  2. Go to people whose interests match your organization's needs.
  3. Actively seek out the skills your organization needs.
  4. Be honest — don't cover up or downplay the task as unimportant, the "anybody can do it" syndrome. (Why should I want to do it if anybody else could?)
  5. Recruit year round — plant the seeds early, "May you be approached this November when our elections are being held?"
  6. Use many different recruitment techniques.
  7. Treat the job as an opportunity, not as a task that the person ought to be concerned about (guilt).
  8. In addition to using your organization's own membership list, be sure to consider the entire community. Go to places where people congregate. Approach other organizations

3. Orientation and Training

After you've recruited the volunteer, he/she needs to know more about the organization. An initial orientation, which provides a basic knowledge of the organization's structure, policies, procedures, activities done in the past three months, etc. is most necessary to a new recruit.

Beyond this orientation, further training in skills such as effective chairmanship, writing press releases, public speaking, developing resolutions, etc. needs to be considered.

Both the orientation and training of volunteers are necessary to build and then maintain confidence and ability. Neither procedure needs to be lengthy or too involved. A policy and procedures handbook could be distributed at an initial orientation workshop, or at the first meeting of the organization where an introductory session is planned. Further training can be done one-on-one as part of the agenda during regular meetings or as an outside event. Provision of additional training and upgrading of skills is seen to be a genuine show of support to the volunteer, and serves to motivate and build commitment to the organization.

4. Follow-up and Recognition

A simple smile and a warm "thank-you" may serve to spur a volunteer on to undertake another task. But what happens when a volunteer works hard and gets results, but nobody notices? Soon the volunteer will begin to question whether he/she makes a difference. There are as many ways of recognizing the work of the volunteer as there are people in the organization. Creative suggestions range from a "volunteer of the month" profile in the newspaper to a plaque or pin awarded at the annual banquet. Asking the person for advice and guidance is a more subtle and perhaps for some a more motivating vote of appreciation. Your methods are your own, but be sure to include them in your organization's routine.

When It's Time To Leave

The signs of volunteer dissatisfaction are not always evident. The group should be alert to indicators such as a volunteer's poor behaviour at meetings (if he/she attends), or his/her habit of not fulfilling obligations.

In cases where there is some concern about a volunteer and his/her effects on the organization, there is no easy answer. Treat the volunteer fairly. Ask the person if he/she needs help. Suggest that perhaps there is something that the volunteer would rather do. Surprisingly, in fact, the volunteer may actually be looking for an out - a welcome relief from the burden of the position. In any event, the problem should be dealt with before more volunteers are lost and the organization crumbles!


Remember that an organization is made up of people - that the people who volunteer have varying interests, motivations and talents. The objectives of the organization can only be met if a certain amount of time is spent dealing with the individual needs of each of those volunteers. A good volunteer program will satisfy the needs of the people. The goals of the organization and success won't be far behind!

For more information:
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