How to Design a Volunteer Program for Your Nonprofit

By Stan Hutton, Frances N. Phillips

Most startup nonprofit organizations depend on volunteers because money to pay staff is unavailable. But lack of resources isn’t the only thing that drives a nonprofit to operate with an all-volunteer staff. Some nonprofits make a deliberate decision to operate solely with volunteers to contain their costs and to achieve results with a collective effort among people who care deeply enough to contribute their time and energy.

Considering a volunteer coordinator

Although volunteers don’t expect to be paid every two weeks, that doesn’t mean they come without costs. Recruiting, training, managing, retaining, and thanking volunteers require effort from someone in the organization. You might consider assigning someone the job of volunteer coordinator, a person responsible for overseeing or performing the following duties:

  • Recruiting: Volunteers don’t grow on trees. Depending on how many volunteers you need and the turnover rate of current volunteers, recruiting may be a continuous process.
  • Training: Volunteers don’t come to work knowing everything they need to know. They can do any job for which they’re qualified, but don’t expect them to know the ropes until they’re told what to do and how to do it.
  • Scheduling: Volunteers need a schedule. Scheduling is even more important if your organization uses volunteers to staff an office or manage other tasks that require regular hours.
  • Appreciating: Volunteers need to know that their work is valuable to the organization. This item is the last on our list, but it may be the most important. You don’t have to pass out plaques, but heartfelt acknowledgment is encouraged. Saying thank you and acknowledging the impact made by volunteers on a regular basis is essential to retaining your volunteers.

If your organization depends heavily on or is staffed exclusively by volunteers, consider recruiting your volunteer coordinator from among board members or more-experienced volunteers. You can create committees to take responsibility for many jobs, but some detail-oriented tasks — such as scheduling or bill paying — are better managed by a single responsible person.

Determining your need for volunteers

Look around your nonprofit organization and decide how many volunteers you need and what functions they can perform. Consider creating (or helping your volunteer coordinator create) a schedule of tasks to be completed — planning what needs to be done and how many people it will take to do the work. This table lists the kinds of volunteer assignments you may jot down. By having such a list and prioritizing the tasks, you know what to do when an unexpected volunteer walks in the door.

Sample Volunteer Task List
Task Number of People Time
Data entry — donor list 1 person 3 hours per week
Social media posting and monitoring 2 people 5 hours per month
Answering the telephone 8 people 36 hours per week
Childcare 2 people 3 hours on Saturdays
Filing 1 person 2 hours per week

It’s possible to have too many volunteers. Almost nothing is worse than asking people to help and then finding you have nothing for them to do. You may want to have both your chart of immediate tasks and a few back-burner projects — such as sorting team uniforms by size or taking inventory in the supply cabinet — in case you end up with more people than you need on a given day.

In the beginning, you may have to experiment before you know exactly how many volunteers you need for a particular job. For example, you may eventually discover that a 2,000-piece mailing takes about five hours for four people to complete. You also may find that preparing the soil and planting 200 seedlings takes two volunteers a full day.

Writing volunteer job descriptions

Volunteers perform better if they know what they’re supposed to do. Preparing job descriptions for volunteer positions also helps you supervise better and know what skills you’re looking for in volunteers.

Volunteer job descriptions should be even more complete than paid-employee job descriptions. If you can break jobs into small tasks, all the better, because volunteers often share the same job. For example, a different person may answer the office telephone each day of the week. In that case, to bring consistency to the job, you should keep by the telephone a job description that includes a list of telephone procedures, staff extensions, frequently used telephone numbers, and other important information.

Check out the Nonprofit Kit page at Dummies.com for sample volunteer job descriptions.