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I’ve always wanted to see a shareable pamphlet entitled “Volunteer Management, The Cliffs Notes.” It would list all the things we want organizations and senior management to know about volunteers and volunteer management. Here’s 10 of them:

10. Volunteers do not sit by their phones waiting for us to call. We don’t just “order up” when staff asks for eight volunteers who can work twelve-hour shifts, outside, tomorrow at 8 am. No one wishes it were that easy more than we, volunteer managers. Take volunteer Charles for example. Asking him to volunteer at the last minute when he has a job, other volunteering activities, managing his elderly mother’s affairs, and a family is unrealistic. He can’t drop everything to help us. It takes a wise volunteer manager to know how to sustain volunteers’ involvement so that volunteers are not overwhelmed and look forward to coming in to help.

9. Managing volunteers is not like managing staff.  Volunteer managers engage two to ten times the number of paid staff. Instead of a paycheck to dangle, volunteer managers must inspire volunteers. Volunteers typically spend 4 hours a week volunteering while staff spends upwards of 40 or 50 hours a week working for the organization. That’s at least ten times the amount of “plugged in time” staff has over volunteers. Therefore, volunteer managers must be able to “plug-in” volunteers every time they arrive on scene, motivate them to keep that connection and keep them informed of changes and updates.

8. Volunteers are everyone’s responsibility.  Staff doesn’t necessarily see working with volunteers as part of their jobs, but any staff can make or break a volunteer’s experience. Let’s make a comparison. What if the CEO cultivates a donor and then another staff member comes along and insults or ignores or abuses that donor? There would be heck to pay. We need our administrations to set the same tone for the treatment of volunteers.

7. Volunteer managers are real managers.  No matter what titles are given, coordinators, specialists or team members, volunteer managers are as much a manager as anyone on staff. Volunteer engagement skills are a not a “jack of all trades, master of none” haphazard bunch of chaos skills, but rather a carefully constructed combination of the ability to inspire, listening with empathy, the ability to match talents with opportunities, and so much more.

6. Volunteers want meaningful work. But organizations often need meaningless stuff done. Who will do it? Volunteers do not want to only do things the staff doesn’t want to do, they want experiences that make a difference. And since we don’t pay them, we should consider meaningful work as pay. But, a great volunteer manager with awesome engagement skills can lead volunteers to occasionally do tedious work if tedious work isn’t all that is offered.

5. Volunteers want sincere appreciation from more than just the volunteer department. Volunteers see through the once a year speech at a luncheon that is just lip service. Volunteers want CEO’s and staff to acknowledge their contributions. They want to be included in reports, grant applications, websites, and media coverage as contributing members of the team.

4. Volunteers are not just elderly ladies drinking tea.  Volunteers are diverse in every way, including age, background, culture and experience and it requires major skills to manage a group of diverse people. But even if some volunteers are older, they are former executives, professors, leadership experts and full of wisdom and great ideas. And they’re more than willing to share their wisdom for free.

3. Volunteer managers are not lap dogs.  Are volunteer managers treated that way by staff? Is there an “order up” culture in which volunteer managers are expected to get volunteers without having any meaningful input into volunteer requests? Volunteer managers have their fingers on the pulse of the organization and are privy to every aspect of the mission via volunteer involvement. A volunteer manager has ideas and solutions that will move the organization forward.

2. Volunteers are aware and talk. When a volunteer hears negative speak from staff, or sees something less than perfect, they talk, to each other, to friends, relatives, and the cashier at the Quick-Mart. Volunteer managers keep volunteers motivated and inspired and mediate constantly to make sure the volunteer’s concerns are resolved and their experience is positive. In this world aching for transparency, volunteers are the town criers who can proclaim the worth of an organization or do damage to its reputation.

1. Volunteers don’t stay forever. No, they don’t. Does staff stay until they die? Neither do volunteers. We should recruit, train and cultivate our volunteers just as we do staff, but not expect them to continue until they’re carted off in an ambulance. And, just like staff, sometimes we don’t want volunteers to stay, so that’s why the volunteer manager’s professional skill-set is crucial. A volunteer manager’s professional resolution to a challenging situation is an organization’s best chance to avoid legal woes and negative publicity.

So, there you have it. Ten things organizations should know about volunteer management.

And yes, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.


This is an update from 2015: The Top 10 Things Executive Directors Need to Know About Volunteer Services.