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How Understanding Your Volunteers Can Lead to Better Engagement

The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that 2013 had the lowest volunteer rate since the study was first conducted in 2002.  

With the 1.1% drop in volunteerism from last year, some may wonder if people are less motivated to give back. Others will conclude that the issue is not with the volunteers, but with how they’re being engaged.

Most volunteers say they volunteer simply because they were asked. Volunteer managers should not be afraid to ask for help, and to be specific about what they need from their volunteers.

First, you should understand your volunteers’ motivation.  Are they volunteering because of an affiliation?  Maybe someone in their family has been diagnosed with cancer, or maybe they care deeply about the environment or homelessness.  Or maybe they want to share or develop a particular skill.  An accountant may want to use their financial skills to help someone with taxes or a dentist may donate time to a free medical clinic.  Knowing what your volunteers’ motivations are will better help you to assign them opportunities that peak their interest.


Second, be sure to ask your volunteers about their availability and what time commitment they are willing to make.  For the most part, they are going to fall into two categories.  Some people are only interested in short-term or periodic commitments.  These people are best used for a one-day type activity; e.g. a position of responsibility for a one-time event such as registration desk or managing an auction.  Others want to make a long-term commitment by donating time to an ongoing project, such as tutoring youth or being a board member.

Once you have a general feel for volunteers’ interests, you need to make an investment in them.  Just like a new employee needs training, your volunteers need to have a clear understanding of your mission and vision.  These people will be the face and voice of your organization when they are interacting with their community, whether as a volunteer or a citizen.  Most importantly, you need to invest in understanding who they are and developing a relationship with them.  If you don’t take time to learn about their lives outside of volunteering, you could lose the perfect opportunity to engage them in some new activity that you may not otherwise have known would be appealing.


In the next post, we’ll look at how to thank and reward volunteers for their service.  And be sure to list your volunteer opportunities at!