Guest Post: Are we selling ourselves short?

It’s harder than ever to recruit long term volunteers. Does that mean we need to lower our standards?  Guest blogger Laura Rundell wants more conversation around the question. Please weigh in!

At many of the meetings I go to, in the blogs I read, and when I talk with my colleagues, I find that many of us struggle with recruiting enough volunteers to meet our agencies’ needs. The trend seems to be that fewer people are making a long term commitment to volunteering. It is harder for agencies that rely on volunteers to find the folks who are able to make an ongoing commitment. Many agencies report that volunteers are looking for short term, casual ways of volunteering.

Tobi Johnson’s excellent survey of volunteer managers shows that most of us anticipate that the need for volunteers will increase, yet there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding increase in the number of people looking to make an extensive commitment.

If we don’t adapt to these changing trends, are we shooting ourselves in the foot? If we aren’t able to offer the sort of volunteer roles that people seem to be seeking, are we missing the opportunity to engage them in our agency?

If we do try to change programmatic requirements to make it easier for people to volunteer in a casual way, are we selling ourselves (and our programs) short?

At LifeBridge Community Services we serve at-risk youth, the elderly and clients in our behavioral health programs. The requirements to work with these groups often include a health form, criminal background clearance, and Department of Children and Families clearance. We aren’t able to change these standards and completing the vetting can take up to four weeks.

We also have some opportunities that work for casual and group volunteers. We operate a Community Closet that accepts gently used clothing and household items. Our clients may shop for items they need free of charge. This is one of our only programs that can work with casual volunteers who help sort our many donations.

We have tried to address our recruiting challenge in a few ways:

First, we created an online orientation to make the requirements of our volunteer program as clear as possible. We ask applicants to view the orientation prior to running clearances. After they have viewed the orientation, we ask them to sign a commitment letter that says they agree to  follow our policies, sign up regularly for shifts, and let us know if they can’t come for some reason. While this is a new effort for us, it has helped reduce the number of applicants who go through the entire process and don’t end up volunteering.

We have also tried to partner with other agencies like Goodwill to bring groups to sort donations in the Community Closet. They come with a job coach to help volunteers who may need a little extra assistance to succeed in their role. These groups have provided a great source of ongoing help. An agency Memorandum of Understanding helps manage the risk to both agencies in the partnership.

We have also partnered with local universities to be a host site for work study students and interns. Because the students are fulfilling key roles for a class or graduation requirement or a work study requirement, they have more incentive to complete the vetting requirements and usually provide high quality service for six months to a year or more. This is also a new effort for us, but our first year of offering internships and work study has provided much needed program support that we would not otherwise receive for key roles.

My questions for readers are:

  • Have you noticed a change in the number of volunteers who are able and willing to make an ongoing commitment?
  • Have you noticed a change in the number of volunteers looking for one-time or short term ways of contributing?
  • How has your agency adapted to these changes?
  • How can we adapt to changing trends without selling our programs, staff and clients short?

I would like to hear from you about your recruiting challenges how you have met them. Let’s keep the conversation going. The larger discussion may help us all with some difficult decisions.


Laura Pic (2)Laura Rundell, CVA received her BA in Political Science from Earlham College. She spent five years working in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives before leaving to pursue her Masters degree from Northeastern University. She completed her certification in volunteer administration in 2013. Lauraran the volunteer program at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, PA which received a citation from the Mayor in honor of the volunteers’ contributions to the community.

In 2013, Laura relocated to Connecticut where she works as Volunteer Coordinator for LifeBridge Community Services in Bridgeport, CT.


  • Great post Laura, thanks for sharing your challenges.

    In my opinion, I think we miss opportunities and make our work harder if we view volunteer commitment in a binary way: people either want to make a short-term or a long-term commitment. To do so causes us difficulties if we want longer-term volunteers because, as you rightly say, fewer people are making such committments.

    Instead, it is helpful to see a volunteer’s commitment on a sliding scale. More people may be volunteering short-term but that doesn’t mean they won’t make a longer commitment, rather they don’t want to make it on day one. The challenge for us is to take the initially short amount of time they can give and seek to build affinity with our cause and our organisation. Hopefully, they will start to deepen their engagement with us and, over time, commit to longer periods of service.

    Viewing the issue in this way doesn’t mean we sell ourselves short. Instead, we work with the flow of how people want to give rather than pushing against it. This can be challenging but can also open new doors: for partnership and collaboration with other agencies; to develop different ways to serve in our organisations; to collaborate with other colleagues (e.g. fundraising / development) to build a truly integrated lifetime journey for our supporters; and, ultimately, to deliver our agency’s mission.

    • Rob makes an excellent point. Sometimes volunteers just need a place to start. Often the most dedicated volunteers begin with a very short term stint in mind, but gradually they find a niche that fits because the organization cultivated their involvement. By offering each volunteer paths to achieve both our goals and theirs, we can open opportunities to become more involved. Everyone is a potential long term volunteer but not everyone will begin with that in mind.

  • Great points Meridian and Rob. I also find it important to allow volunteers to come and fo where possible. They may say they want short-term because that is all they can commit to at the moment. But perhaps in 6 months, or a year or two, they have more time to give. If you’ve helped them make the connection with your organisation or cause, and you allow flexibility, they will hopefully come back whenever they can.

    We have one volunteer who moved overseas 2 years ago. She still maintains contact, I send her articles and readings to keep her in the loop, and we have found her some virtual volunteer roles to undertake in the meantime. We look forward to her return!!

  • Great topic for discussion and great ideas posted so far. My 35+ years in the field has led me to a very basic and simple finding. Due to the increased dependence on volunteers ( due to decreased funding in many cases) many non profits have come to think in ‘long term’ because they need this human resource to complete their mission/provide services. BUT the very nature of ‘volunteerism’ is that it is NOT work..which happens to be long term. Volunteering is a choice, give freely of one’s time and skills etc., it’s fun and beneficial all round. Perception of the non profits which have had the luxury of many long term volunteers is still the same but now /over the last 10-15 years volunteers have so many new choices, causes etc., from which to chose. I think we need to focus less on the time given and more on the impact made. We have forgotten the base definition of volunteering and are wanting it to resemble more elements of paid work. It is not and we need to go back and accept this definition of what volunteer means. Managers of Volunteers need to honor volunteers for any length of time and skills given and be thankful. When we are human resource based, we have to adjust our way of thinking and modify our programs/services to adjust to the changing resources we need to complete the work. And that means adjusting how volunteers are engaged in organizations.

  • Laura: (thx for the hat tip re: our report — always nice to know it’s being used!)

    I agree with my colleagues above and would humbly add the following…

    In an ideal world, volunteers would connect with their true “altruistic calling” and commit long-term to their causes of choice. And, this certainly happens, I’ve run programs where volunteers have been on board longer than paid staff, much longer (and have developed more institutional knowledge to boot!). I also have family members and see volunteers every day on my own volunteer work who have made volunteering a “second career” in their retirement. So, deep commitment happens, and I suspect it will continue as long as some people have sufficient time and a giving self-orientation.

    But, commitment is a process, not a destination. As a working person, my volunteer time waxes and wanes base on my travel schedule and workload. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to my volunteer coordinator for her patience as I completed my certification exam late, took ’til the ultimate hour to complete my required hours for my certification (I’m a master gardener), and may at first glance appear “flaky” when I don’t get assignments done on time. Her approach has built up so much goodwill in me (through the power of social reciprocity) that when my schedule frees up, I’ll be more ready than ever to help out and even take on leadership roles.

    Every time I have the chance to volunteer (installing landscaping at Habitat for Humanity homes with my fellow gardeners, for example), I get a nice shot of dopamine to my brain. If it’s right, we get that warm, fuzzy feeling when we give — science shows, at some point we’ll want more of it. But, for this to work, we’ve got to feel good, not guilty for not “giving enough.”

    That said, it doesn’t solve the practical problem for the leader of volunteers, does it? You still have major ongoing volunteer workforce needs. Some take more than an episodic commitment to actually learn and master. So, what can you do? A few things to ask…

    1) At this moment in history, there is a groundswell of people who want to volunteer, at least here in the states — VolunteerMatch has seen a phenomenal surge in traffic since the inauguration — — and community organizing groups are popping up everywhere. So, the first questions — Does our recruitment messaging make a compelling case for more than passing support? Why is it important for longer term commitments? How do these impact your mission differently than one-off gigs? What is the change volunteers will make, specifically? What progress has already been made toward goals (people like to back a winning team)?

    2) Perhaps tweaking our offers might help, as well. Is there a way we can structure “commitment sprints” for volunteers that cover our workforce needs throughout the year but don’t require someone to sign their life away. I worked at an organization where we asked volunteers to commit to a placement for 6 months — near the end of that placement, they were given the option to stay put, rotate to another job, or resign. Most people stayed, — they knew the deal up front and didn’t feel trapped into service. Many volunteers enjoyed the opportunity to “travel” throughout the org, getting to know the various services we provided. Some liked to stay put because they had bonded with the paid staff and youth we served. The other benefit was that the volunteer coordinator only had to focus on recruitment twice a year and could spend the remainder of her busy schedule supporting and acknowledging volunteers and building new partnerships.

    3) When we struggle, it’s also always a fantastic time to revisit our strategy and programming. Are we simply “filling shifts”? Or, do we have a purposeful cultivation and leadership development ladder in place that meets volunteers’ individual preferences and needs while deepening engagement? If you look at our fundraising cousins, the most successful have a plan not only for donor retention but for increasing contributions over time — they also respect donor’s needs to set their won limits. What if volunteering gave supporters the opportunity to do the best, most productive work of their lives? Why not a five-star, Michelin experience? Would they stay then?

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