The Value of Engaging Your Volunteers

by Carrie Gray

“The strength of the movement rests with the volunteers.” I have wrestled with this phrase many times over the course of my 20-year career and I do believe volunteers are critical to the success of an organization. What I have determined, however, is that even greater strength can be achieved if there is a strong partnership between staff and volunteers. A well-established partnership can help move an organization more effectively towards achieving its strategic goals, bring a renewed spirit to a “tired” program, offer a different perspective on systems and procedures and provide technical expertise that staff may not have or the organization cannot afford.
Developing the partnership takes time and energy. The benefits, however, are ten-fold to the effort. Let the following serve as a reminder to you in developing a stronger volunteer-staff partnership or in putting a volunteer engagement plan in place for your organization.

  • Be flexible – Staff and volunteers may not always agree on a way to accomplish a task, but if we remember there are generally many paths to get to the final destination, it may help us in being more flexible with how things are accomplished.
  • Invest in education – Orientation is essential in establishing a solid partnership and articulating the organization’s mission, values and culture. Ongoing training is also important in communicating expectations and changes within the organization.
  • Volunteers should not be used as “rubber stamps” – Provide meaningful and interesting work for volunteers. If volunteers feel they are “rubber stamping” for staff, they probably won’t be around for very long.
  • Recruit for a “Good Fit” – Placing a volunteer in the right job for his/her skill set and interest level is essential for job satisfaction, retention and achieving results.
  • Know when it is time to “move” a volunteer to a new position or provide them an out to take a break from the organization – People’s lives change, they get tired or become less interested. As the volunteer in charge or lead staff person, be responsible for the development and implementation of term limits and create an open environment for this normal transition.
  • Give credit where credit is due – Make sure to use “we” when more than one person worked on a project or recognize the volunteers’ time and effort over yours even if you feel you did the majority of the work. Remember the phrase above, “the strength of the movement rests with the volunteers.”
  • Receive constructive criticism with grace – Taking criticism from a colleague, family member or friend is hard enough, but from a volunteer! Many of us will have to step back and bandage our egos before being able to reflect on the criticism of volunteers, but generally, if a volunteer provides the feedback out of care and concern for the organization, it should be taken seriously.
  • Be realistic – Know your limits and the limits of the volunteer.
  • Embrace the concept “Challenging Up and Supporting Down” – Create an environment that is open for asking questions and challenging the way things might be done – But, once a decision has been made, insist that everyone involved supports it or gets out. No organization can afford public negativity.

And finally,

  • Enjoy the added value your organization will have because of the healthy relationship you have with volunteers.

The Bottom Line:When the volunteers, and their relationship to your organization and paid staff, are truly the lifeblood of the organization, maintaining that relationship should be a top priority. Going deeper, with something more than the occasional "ata boy" will show the volunteers how truly appreciated they are and keep them coming back for more.

Carrie Gray has spent 20 years in non-profit leadership, fundraising and grantmaking. Her most recent position was Director of Donor Engagement with the North Carolina Community Foundation. She can be reached via e-mail at

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