Your two cents: what you know may help the next volunteer manager hire

A leader of volunteers needs to excel in three areas. Would you agree?

Readers, I need your input.

I’m creating a new webinar – but it’s not for volunteer managers. It’s for our nonprofit leaders – the Executive Directors, CEOs, and other senior decision-makers who bring us into their organizations.

My goal is to help nonprofit leaders spot the talent most likely to build a high-impact, capacity-building volunteer program. It’s about what nonprofits need to look for the right person for job.

And that goal begs the question:

What ARE the competencies that make for a super-capable volunteer manager?

Certainly, prior volunteer management experience is great – and the CVA credential is ideal. But my guess is that many, many of us come to our roles without these assets. The ones who stick around (and are reading this post) are the ones who discovered that volunteer engagement was a great match for their skills and values.

I posed the essential skills question to my Facebook group a while back. They identified some very particular competencies for a volunteer manager to possess, such as:

  • Organizational skills
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Flexibility, and… (does this go without saying?)
  • A great sense of humor

These suggestions were very helpful, and they allowed me to zero in on three competencies that I consider priorities for someone who leads a volunteer program.

  • Super-strong interpersonal skills

…because we know that volunteer management is about cultivating relationships. Volunteers remain loyal to organizations that take the time to know them. A capable volunteer manager knows how to forge those relationships, how to set limits without ruffling feathers, and how to hold the occasional difficult conversation.

  • A talent for creating and maintaining systems…

…because managing people is all about maintaining order. An effective volunteer manager is a champ at creating systems to sustain her program at every phase of the volunteer engagement cycle.

And then there is the time-consuming process of data tracking, including volunteer scheduling, training dates, background check results, and volunteer satisfaction surveys. It’s the attention to data that allows a volunteer manager to fine tune her practices and ramp up volunteer retention.

  • Ability to advocate…

…because volunteer managers are the content experts for their organizations – and it takes some powerful influencing skills to educate co-workers about the value of properly engaging volunteers. Without the buy-in of co-workers, a volunteer program is limited in the impact it can make for an organization.

But what about you, readers? Have I identified the most important skills and abilities – or is there something important that’s been overlooked?

Or, to put the question another way:

If you were hiring a leader of volunteers, what skill sets would YOU look for?

And – perhaps even more important:

What would you want a nonprofit leader to know about running a volunteer program?

This post happens to coincide with the National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership a remarkable gathering of volunteer management leaders, trainers, and overall influencers, with the purpose expanding the visibility and credibility of our profession.

A key conference goal is to take advantage of this collective expertise and develop new, concrete strategies for advancing volunteerism in our communities. We will all be called upon to do our part and continue the momentum for change we are bound to experience at the conference.

For me, that change includes equipping our nonprofit leaders with the information that they need to support a thriving volunteer program.

Let’s crowdsource some of that education. Please leave your comments, below!

Are you attending the National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership? If you are, join me for one of my sessions or just stop by to say hi!  Check out the session descriptions here.  – Elisa


  • Thanks so much – I can’t wait to hear what everyone else has to say on this!

    So here are a few things I would want organizations hiring a volunteer coordinator to know:

    1) I have found that the organizations in which I have felt the most effective as a volunteer coordinator were also the ones that made a concerted effort to make paid staff feel valued and appreciated. Put simply if you don’t value the contributions of your paid staff, it is harder to value the contributions of your unpaid staff. If an organization has a lot of staff turnover , it may also find it hard to retain good volunteers.

    If there is a lot of “infighting” or negative feeling between staff, volunteers sense this and may not stay. I have had many volunteers say to me that they love to volunteer at LifeBridge because the leadership treats staff with respect and staff treat each other with respect. Even a great volunteer coordinator will struggle to overcome a bad atmosphere at an organization.

    2) Volunteer engagement is a profession with ethics and standards and should require a high level of credentialing and training. The role of volunteer coordinator/manager should be considered a leadership role in the organization.

    Here are some of the skills that I think are most important for volunteer coordinators/managers to have:

    1) Communicator – We have to communicate to volunteers what the expectations of our agency are and what they in turn should expect from us. We also need to communicate to staff what is required to effectively manage and engage volunteers.

    if you are an effective volunteer coordinator, the staff you work with may not be aware of all that volunteers do at your agency because “things just get done”. Advocating on behalf of the volunteers and ensuring that the agency is aware of all they contribute is essential.

    Likewise, you often need to advocate on behalf of your organization to the volunteers. You may have to explain why an unpopular policy is necessary or why certain procedures must be followed.

    3) Moderator – Many times we are called upon to listen to both sides of a dispute and if possible find a mutually agreed upon solution.

    4) Enforcer – Sometimes you may have to stand firm if it involves ensuring that safety protocols are being followed or agency standards are being enforced.

    5) Organizer – I am not sure that there is any job is which being organized isn’t important, but the ability to track potentially hundreds of applicants, volunteers, tasks and assignments without dropping the ball is key.

    6) Last but not least – Believer!!!!
    If you aren’t passionate about the impact volunteers can have at your organization, it just won’t work. Volunteers will sense it, staff will sense it and the program won’t be effective.

    These are my “two cents” for what they may be worth.

    • Laura, thanks for such a thoughtful response to the question. I especially appreciate your observation about organizations that value their paid staff, as organizations that value their staff look to hire the best fits for the positions. And I love some of your additions to the roles and responsibilities list, such as Moderator, Enforcer, and above all Believer!

    • Dear Elisa, thank you for this article. Dear Laura, your comment is great.

      I want to add my ‘two cents’ to this discussion and share a couple of thoughts to the point about considerate treatment of both volunteers and paid staff.

      I am a Museum Internship Coordinator* in Moscow and my position is in the Department of Human Recourses Development. My Department always aims to maintain a corporate culture where staff is appreciated. I want to attain this objective with volunteers and interns and my supervisor do it with all employees. I guess it is a truly beneficial idea to place a Volunteers/Interns Coordinator/Manager to such Department.

      *There is not a great difference between museum interns and volunteers in Russia.

  • Personally, my own experience as a volunteer has helped me considerably as a volunteer manager. As a volunteer I truly did not understand the impact that I made on the organization I served. When I became an employee of that same organization and saw the impact of volunteers, I had a whole new appreciation and understanding of my own service. I am now able to share that understanding both ways, with staff and volunteers, as I continue to work at building relationships with both communities.

    My recommendation would be that an organization seek someone with volunteer experience of their own when looking for a volunteer management candidate.

    • Thanks, Lynn! That’s a great point: experience as a volunteer is an important asset – and a complement to our skills and abilities as leaders of volunteers.

  • Hi Elisa

    Great post! I also think leadership skills are an important competency for managers and leaders of volunteers. By leadership skills I mean the ability to facilitate volunteers to do their best work.

    Each of the competencies you have mentioned also align well with leadership. Effective leaders of volunteers have a high level of awareness to recognize when there is a need to improve systems, or coach volunteers through problems, or demonstrate to the Board the impact volunteers are making.

    • Agreed, Christine! It’s almost implicit isn’t it? Hiring a strong volunteer manager means hiring a leader.

  • My experience before coming to leading volunteers all had some type of management perspective, and that was very helpful for me to understand where many of our volunteers were coming from. If you live in the non-profit world forever, you may lose sight of those other realms. Having worked in the for profit, government and self employment sectors helped me create systems and advocacy points for the volunteers, the mission and the agency.

    Boiling that down to one ‘skill’ is harder but perhaps ability to function or experience in understanding multiple work environments. Volunteer programs earn success in many different ways, and being able to bring that perspective can be very helpful.

  • I became a supervisor in January and was tasked with hiring my replacement, Volunteer Coordinator. I ended up having 10 in-person interviews and must have looked at 60+ applications. I was willing to keep looking if I didn’t find the right person out of the 10 I chose to meet. I was looking for someone that could “speak my language” in terms of volunteer management. I wanted someone with some kind of experience (either paid or unpaid) in working with the community, an interest in higher education, work experience in the field and that was truly interested in working for my organization. The applicant I chose initially emailed me directly (which I liked) about her interest and had a question for me. I could tell she read the job description carefully and it caused me to give attention to her resume. She did not have a CVA but was pursuing higher education and had worked for several notable nonprofits in my area. I got very lucky and my 10th interview was the one for me. I wish the best of luck to everyone making these tough hiring decisions. A volunteer manager (to me) is not an administrative assistant, an HR generalist or an accountant, it is a profession all its own and requires the right person.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Corina! What a great example of the hiring process for a capable volunteer manager. It sounds like our new volunteer coordinator is an excellent fit.

  • Elisa thank you so much for writing the outline of Volunteerism and the management role there of.
    I enjoyed reading the Basic platform for being a Volunteer Manager, and the input of others. Although I don’t necessarily agree that a Volunteer Manager has to have credentials to manage volunteers. Sometimes, and in some circumstances Volunteer Managers are created by the support team of past Volunteer Managers who were helped up by generations before them – a sort of learning experience ladder, as I have been witness to such a format / style of managing through a Non-Profit Organization which has flourished since the 1920’s.
    I do agree that Managers, regardless of the field in which they work in, should have an understanding, if not drive to know the people who are working with them (verses for them). This backs up the two other skills that are very important for a smooth flowing system, these are Communication, and Listening. Above all else, these are the skills I believe will help make great managers in any field, and I have a had the pleasure of working both in the for and not for profit industries with those types of managers.

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation, Jennifer! When a new volunteer manager can step into a role with solid practices shaped by predececessors, it’s a win for all.

  • I worked on a project last year where we ended up developing a toolset for leaders who wanted to engage volunteers. We wanted to tell them the 6 things they MUST know before they start engaging volunteers:
    1) Why you involve volunteers. The number of volunteers isn’t relevant. It’s relevant why you believe involving volunteers will make a difference. You need to fully understand how volunteers will help reach your goals before trying to engage them.
    2) Involving volunteers is always part of the strategy. Involving volunteers is not a left hand job. It should always be part of the bigger strategy, whether that is running a care home, sending young people on 3 months expedition or organising tea parties for old people. Involving volunteers (and why see #1) should be on the agenda on all meetings – not just when there are problems.
    And, of course, are there resources set aside in the bigger strategy for management of the volunteers?
    3) Work according to facts. Don’t just think that volunteers come to your organisation because you’re the biggest – you should know. Ask why they chose you in the first place, and why they are still there. Don’t THINK you know – make sure you actually know all the facts and make decisions based on that.
    4) In the same line: KNOW you make a difference. Many organisations say they alleviate loneliness, make young people more confident etc, but they never actually checked if it’s true. Do.
    5) What resources do you need? How many volunteers do you need, what type of volunteers, what skills do they need etc.
    6) Evaluation. Always always evaluate to look back, but don’t forget to look forward to see what’s new and start adjusting before it’s too late.

    We compiled this in a manager tool set free of charge – and in Danish

    • Thanks, Marie this is such a great list! I especially like #2, that involving volunteers is always part of a larger strategy. That kind of strategic positioning creates value for our programs.

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