There is a recipe to follow when recruiting volunteers

recipeNot too long ago, I was sitting in an introductory orientation meeting with a group of volunteers. As the consultant, I was ticking through all of the things our little group was about to undertake. And then it happened. One of the volunteers raised their hand and said, “I didn’t realize this was what I was being asked to do. I’m really busy and I don’t think I can do those things.
Truthfully, I was shocked.
I’ve never had a volunteer openly admit this in the middle of a meeting. Normally, these individuals keep quiet and simply disengage.
Of course, this is dangerous to the goals of whatever project you’re working on. Because if many people are quietly disengaging as they conclude “This isn’t what I signed up for,” then the team you built won’t likely accomplish what you need and won’t succeed.
So, what is the answer?
Simply, we need to stop “soft selling” people and playing down what we need them to do.
expectationsAs I suggest in the headline for this post, there is a recipe for how to recruit a volunteer appropriately and it is as follows:

  • call the prospect and ask for a face-to-face meeting (no telephone recruitment)
  • talk about the volunteer opportunity in broad terms, how it advances the organization’s mission and how it helps clients
  • share specifics about what you are asking them to do (e.g. specific tasks, process involved in accomplishing those tasks, time involved, number of meetings required, etc)
  • provide them with a timeline (e.g. when will this commitment start, when will this commitment end, etc)
  • provide them with a written volunteer job description
  • do NOT undercut your ask by saying things like “whatever you can do will be OK
  • do not press them for an immediate answer . . . if they need time, encourage them to take the written job description home and think about it for a few days, but make sure to set a time to follow-up with them

This recipe for volunteer recruitment is all about one thing . . .


Of course, setting expectations is done at other times and not just during the first recruitment meeting. And there are other strategies involved than a simple job description and clear discussion. The following are a few additional ways to go about it:

  • use your first meeting to provide an orientation and affirm with everyone what they signed up for
  • training opportunities can reinforce expectations
  • goal setting and planning exercises with the group also will help reinforce expectations
  • report meetings and accountability calls can provide opportunities to ask: “How is it going? Is this what you thought it would be? Can we help?

Whenever I talk with non-profit professionals and volunteers about “setting expectations,” they seem to get squeamish. Here is some of what I hear:

  • These people aren’t employees. We aren’t paying them.
  • Setting expectations feels pushy and presumptuous.
  • They might say NO if they really knew what they were signing up for.

As non-profit professionals and volunteers, we need to teach ourselves to push past these irrational objections.
I encourage you to think of it this way . . .
Why would you put people you know, love and respect in a difficult position?
I oftentimes think back to a time when this happened to me whenever I’m tempted to “soft sell” someone on a volunteer opportunity. Here is what happened in a nutshell:

  • I was asked to join a committee
  • I realized at the first meeting that I said YES to something that I didn’t immediately understand and definitely didn’t have time to do
  • I bit my tongue and said nothing because the person who recruited me was a friend and I didn’t want to let them down (and I felt like I owed them)
  • I agreed to do things that I knew I couldn’t realistically do
  • I got some of it done, but not all of it
  • In the end, I had to admit that I couldn’t accomplish everything I said I would
  • I felt like a failure
  • I blamed myself, but I also resented my friend for not being honest with me from the beginning. We are still friends, but since this experience I now find ways to politely say NO to everything they ask me to get involved in

Review the last few bullets, and again ask yourself this simple question: “Why would you put people you know, love and respect in a difficult position?
How does your non-profit organization set expectations with prospective volunteers? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

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