Turning No into Yes: Tips on Volunteer Management

Originally published in WMCCAI Quorum Magazine*, May 2012 issue

I don’t have time.

Really can’t give you the attention you’ll need.

I’m not sure; I’ll think about it and get back to you.

I just don’t think I’d be good at it.

Can we turn these into “yes, I will”? Yes, we can. And, frankly, our associations depend on our ability to turn nos and noncommittals into yeses. Getting to “yes” requires that we embrace a new thinking about volunteerism and a new approach to our volunteer programs.

According U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Volunteering in America 2011 report, volunteering in the U.S. rose by 0.5% in 2011 over the previous year. So yes, Americans are volunteering. That’s good news. Why then do we struggle in our organizations? While people are volunteering, their preferences and motivations have changed. The organizations that draw volunteers have tweaked their opportunities and their messaging to reflect this change. When we shift our thinking and our actions, we too can attract volunteers.

Thinking differently

Consider five trends in volunteering that have a direct impact on our recruitment and retention of members.

  1. Volunteers are motivated by outcomes, not service hours. As people struggle with too many demands, they are pickier about giving time to activities which have a measurable impact. The act of governing–aka being on a board–is less appealing because it is seen as sitting in meetings while helping dish out a meal, clean a garden, build a playground, implement a safety program, or plan a community fundraiser is seen as moving the needle.
  2. While disposable time has shrunk, the commitment to volunteering has not. The decision to volunteer is weighed in terms of the demand on this shrinking resource. Nonprofits are reporting an increase is volunteer requests for short-term, limited volunteering. As they increase offerings of this type, they increase volunteering.
  3. Volunteers value flexibility. This includes flexibility in how they connect, when they connect and the ability to disconnect if family and work obligations shift.
  4. Volunteers say yes to friends. More now than ever, individuals trust their own networks–individuals not organizations–over all else in buying, participating and giving.
  5. Yes, all generations volunteer. In fact, the BLS reports that Gen Xers have increased their time–they just have different work styles and communication preferences that impact our volunteering.


Acting differently

By tweaking a few of the traditional volunteering strategies, we can turn these trends into opportunities.

  1. Define volunteer opportunities in terms of outcomes: what tangible impact will the volunteer role produce. While it may seem otherwise, “maintain property value” is an example of an intangible impact. “Creating a safe walking passage for my kids to use now” has an immediate tangible impact.
  2. Build and promote an ad-hoc volunteer program. To create ad-hoc roles, consider breaking larger jobs into smaller tasks and restructuring committees. Update your website and communications to focus on these opportunities. Use messaging like “you can make a difference in your neighborhood in xx hours.” A bonus to this strategy is that a meaningful ad-hoc volunteering experience leads to more regular volunteering, which leads to more intensive volunteering. Today’s ad-hoc volunteers are tomorrow’s board members.
  3. Be flexible. Harness technology to streamline communications and tasks. Be thoughtful about scheduling meetings.  Create a year-round volunteer program so that individuals can find opportunities throughout the year to contribute.
  4. Consider a volunteer-get-a-volunteer campaign to encourage volunteers to personally ask others. Make it easy for volunteers to ask friends by assuring they have all the details about opportunities and a convenient place to refer interested friends for more information such as an on-line volunteer portal. Add “share this” buttons to your website and add volunteer opportunities to your on-line calendar with a share button.
  5. Embrace all generations in the volunteer workforce! This requires us to work differently and be open to new communication channels. A good resource with tips for volunteer managers is VolunteerPower.com (see reference in resource list).


The top barrier to volunteering, according to American Society of Association Executives’ Decision To Volunteer study, is not being asked personally. The number one reason for getting involved is they were asked personally. The message then, volunteer managers, is to ask personally.

Note: There is a growing enthusiasm, on the part of individuals and organizations, for ad-hoc or micro volunteering. It addresses the time factor and the need of organizations to grow their support base. Here’s a quick look at the three broad categories of ad-hoc volunteers:

  • Temporary volunteers who pitch in on a one-time, short activity lasting a few hours or up to a day (clean a park, post flyers, host an informational meeting);
  • Occasional volunteers who help with a short-term project and generally can be counted on help again (help organize an annual community event);
  • Interim volunteers who serve on short-term projects, generally less than six months, such as a task force to study an issue.


*Quorum Magazine is a monthly publication of the Washington Metropolitan Chapter Community Associations Institute.