If you have a big dream for your nonprofit, you know you need people to help you achieve it.

You can’t do it alone. It’s too big.

I bet you’d love to have an army of people helping you get stuff done.

Maybe you’ve tried using volunteers, but you just can’t seem to get them to do what you need done without causing problems or extra work for you.


Maybe you’ve even said:

  • I can’t find anyone who wants to volunteer.
  • Volunteers are more trouble than they’re worth.
  • My Board doesn’t do anything to help.

Regardless of who you need to motivate (event volunteers, program volunteers, or even your Board), there are definitely ways to do it right so you get what you want and ways to mess it up so that everyone disappoints you.

In a perfect world, nonprofit volunteers would all be cheerful people who are excited to help you, need little supervision, and quickly understand the work they need to do. In a worst-case situation, they can be time-sucking, needy trolls who require constant supervision, and once they leave, you have to redo the work they did because it’s substandard.

Is there a happy medium where people can thrive and be very helpful without your constant supervision?

I believe there is.

I’ve experienced it myself. I’ve managed an army of volunteers and had them thank me for the opportunity to serve.

I’ve had long-term volunteers who became like staff and added a ton of value to the organization.

How does it happen? What does it take for you to become a Pied Piper who can round up a hoard of good volunteers and lead them into success?

It starts with YOU.


You are the leader to your nonprofit volunteer

Truth: you can’t reach your organization’s goals by yourself. You need other people to help.

I’ve run across a number of nonprofit leaders who are control freaks and want to try to do everything themselves. And guess what? They’re stressed out and working all the time trying to get it all done. It’s not pretty.

If you have a big vision for your nonprofit and how you want to change lives, you MUST surround yourself with good people who can help move you forward.
So, the real question is who do you need around you? And how do you get them to do what needs to be done?

And maybe the most important question – how do you need to show up to get the best out of your volunteers?


Work like Tom Sawyer

My favorite way to get the best from volunteers is to take a Tom Sawyer approach: Make work seem like fun and people will want to do it.

They may not want to pay you to do it like Tom’s friends, but if they have a good time, they’re likely to come back again and again.  (If this makes no sense to you, you may want to go read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.)

How YOU see the work that needs to be done has a big impact on how they will see it. We all take our cues from others. See the fun in the job and your volunteers will see it too.

Bottom line: If you think it’s a crappy job, so will everyone else. They’ll follow your lead.

And how you set up the scene for your new volunteers has a big impact on their experience.


5 Steps to a Successful Nonprofit Volunteer

So, what can you do to get people to do what you want them to do?
Here are 5 steps you should take to help people be successful in the role you’ve put them in.

1. Have clear expectations. I’d recommend having a detailed job description for the position you are filling. Include things like skills they need, when you need them, and start/stop dates if that’s appropriate. People like to know what they’re getting into, so the more you can help them understand about the role, the more likely they will be happy and do what you need them to do.2. Recruit the right person. Don’t try to put a round peg in a square hole – it doesn’t work. Start with your job description and recruit someone who will be a good fit. Don’t just plug in the first warm body you find – take the time to get the right person. The right person will be happy in their role, do a good job, want to come back, and say nice things about your nonprofit in the community. That’s something we all want! As you’re recruiting volunteers, don’t forget about retirees who still want to be active or college students who would love some practical experience. Both can contribute mightily to your cause. 

3. Train them. Once you have the right person for the job, teach them what they need to know to do it well. Be prepared to spend some time on this one – don’t just hastily go over the job once and expect them to get it all. Spend as much time as you need to really set them up for success. If it’s a complex job, you may need to work with them several times to make sure they get it. The more complicated the role the volunteer will fill, the more training they may need.

4. Support them. Once the volunteer is trained and working, check in with them to make sure things are going well. Give them feedback about how they’re doing. They may have ideas on ways to make the job better or more efficient, and if you don’t build in time to talk with them, you may never hear those ideas.

5. Celebrate wins. When things go well and the volunteer is doing a great job, celebrate it. When a project is completed, celebrate that, too. Thank your volunteers and let them know how much you appreciate them. Don’t skimp on this part – it’s important. When people feel needed and appreciated, they’ll give their best work and they’ll become more committed to you and your organization.

Those pesky problem people

Not everyone is in the right role, right now. Some people are in the wrong spot. Others need to leave and come back later (or maybe not at all!). You know who I’m talking about.

When you have people who are causing problems or suck the air out of your day, stop for a moment and see if you can find the disconnect. Are they in the wrong spot? Is there training or support they need? What’s the source of the problems?  Often, a little investigation can be very illuminating and help you fix it. After all, it may be more effective to “fix” a problem than to find a whole new volunteer.

If you do need to let a volunteer go, use my “Bless and Release” method. Thank them for their service and all the help they’ve provided, then release them back out into the world. You might say something like “We’re restructuring our volunteer roles and your spot is being combined with another one, so we need to talk about where else we can use you or if you’re ready for a break.”

Common problems

When you have good people in volunteer roles, amazing things can happen. When you have problems, it can be a nightmare.

Here are some common problems you can easily avoid.

  • Not being clear about what you want/need. Clarity leads to results. The more clear you can be about what you need someone to do, the more likely you’ll be to get what you want. For example, don’t ask someone to “help with fundraising.” What does that really mean? Instead, ask them to help you recruit 3 new $25 donors in the next 2 weeks. This is much more specific, right? Would YOU know what to do if someone asked you to do that?
  • Be realistic about commitments. Ask for something that people can realistically give. Don’t ask someone to do something pretty far outside of their comfort zone. For example, if you ask your whole Board to “find a sponsor for our upcoming event” and each one thinks they don’t know anyone who would want to be a sponsor, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
  • Define the end. Most people like to know when they’ll be done with something. If they’re signing up for a once-a-week spot, discuss the number of weeks they can commit to. If they’re coming to help with an event, let them know when their shift will end. I volunteered once for a gala and was asked to be the cashier since I knew how to process credit cards. They left me there with the cash box for about 2 hours AFTER the event ended! I couldn’t walk away – there was about $100,000 worth of cash, checks, and credit card slips in there. I finally had to chase someone down and tell them I couldn’t stay any longer – it was almost midnight. Not cool. Don’t do this to people – they won’t want to come back.

When you surround yourself with good volunteers who are glad to help you, you’ll get more done. When they are doing the things that you don’t need to be doing, you’ll be more effective.

Getting this right will take a little time, but trust me, when you get it right, you’ll not only have extra hands, but more supporters who want to see your nonprofit succeed.



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