Developing & Managing Volunteer Programs

Sections of this topic

    Nearly 78 million Americans volunteered their time for an organization in 2019—that’s about 30% of the population—according to AmeriCorps. Nonprofit organizations and other companies that rely on volunteers should be developing and managing volunteer programs that benefit the organization and volunteers. It all starts with a well-designed plan.

    Developing & Managing Volunteer Programs Statistics

    This Library topic is called “Developing & Managing Volunteer Programs” to emphasize that, for the organization and its volunteers to benefit the most from each other, volunteers should

    be managed as part of an overall, systematic program, somewhat similar to the systematic approach that should be used to managing employees. Certainly, there are differences between how employees and volunteers are managed, but the differences are probably much less than most people realize.

    The following links are to sections in this overall topic and the sections are organized in the order in which they might be needed in an organization that is starting a volunteer management

    program—the order of the links themselves suggest the systematic nature of a well-designed volunteer management program. Organizations that already have established programs can use this overall topic by going directly to the sections that are relevant to current priorities in their current program. The links below present a wide variety of perspectives and materials about volunteer management programs or systems.

    Sections of This Topic Include

    Planning Your Volunteer Program

    Operating Your Volunteer Program

    Additional Information

    Also consider

    Learn More in the Library’s Blogs Related to Volunteers and Volunteer Programs

    In addition to the articles on this current page, also see the following blogs that have posts related to Volunteers and Volunteer Programs. Scan down the blog’s page to see various posts. Also, see the section “Recent Blog Posts” in the sidebar of the blog or click on “next” near the bottom of a post in the blog. The blog also links to numerous free related resources.

    Planning Your Volunteer Program

    Designing & Operating Your Volunteer Management System

    Considerations in Establishing or Modifying Volunteer Management Systems

    Any organization that develops a volunteer program should first identify the difference between a volunteer and an employee and then create appropriate boundaries. A company should also take into consideration what a volunteer wants or needs out of their experience. According to a study by Sterling Volunteers, 83% of volunteers want to make a positive impact on their community, but volunteers can get even more from their time and effort. 

    Recruiting volunteers is also a crucial part of developing and managing a volunteer system. There are plenty of online resources that can help you find micro-volunteering individuals or long-term volunteers. In fact, 80% of volunteers plan to give their time again to an organization they believe in, according to an NCVO survey.

    Note that the extent to which an organization develops and implements a volunteer management system depends on the nature of the activities to be conducted by the volunteers. For example, an organization that uses many volunteers, some of whom directly serve people, will probably use a very comprehensive system. In contrast, an organization that occasionally uses volunteers to stuff envelopes might do a brief solicitation to recruit any volunteers that the organization can get and then do a very brief training, afterward leaving the volunteers alone to perform their task.

    Online Tutorial about Volunteer Management

    Role of Volunteer Managers

    The primary role of the volunteer manager is to establish and operate the volunteer management system. This leader is also responsible for mediating and advocating for volunteers when necessary. Susan Ellis was one of the strongest advocates for volunteer programs and, specifically, volunteer managers. Learn more about the role of volunteer managers in her content below.

    Staffing Analysis (Deciding Whether Volunteers Are Needed)

    Staffing analysis - deciding whether you need volunteers

    Also consider the topic for employees: Workforce planning (including succession planning)

    Developing & Managing Volunteer Programs legal risks and considerations

    There are a variety of types of legal and risk considerations when using volunteers in an organization, e.g., what insurance is needed, what rights volunteers have in the workplace, what employment laws also apply to volunteers, and how can you ensure that volunteers act ethically, etc. The reader will get a more clear understanding of legal and risk considerations by reading the topics in the following section about management policies and procedures.


    Developing & Managing Volunteer Programs Policies and Procedures for Volunteers

    Policies are general guidelines that personnel can reference in order to make decisions and get guidance on how to act in certain situations, e.g., a policy about dress codes. Procedures are specific step-by-step directions regarding the completion of a specific task, e.g., powering up a computer. Policies help ensure that volunteers are supervised and that they act according to a legal, ethical and organizationally-preferred manner in the workplace. 

    Policies are often in regard to, e.g., the definition of volunteer, rights and responsibilities, confidentiality, background checks, safety, record-keeping, conflict-of-interest, dress codes, orientation, training, supervision, evaluations, corrective actions, etc. 

    The astute reader will recognize that the policies in regard to volunteers are very similar in nature to the policies for employees.

    Volunteer Job/Task Descriptions

    You should be clear about what you expect from each of your volunteers. Volunteers deserve to know what you expect from them, as well. To recruit volunteers for a specific role or job, you will need a clear job description from which to develop the advertisements and to show them to any potential candidates. Therefore, each volunteer should have a job, or task, description. 

    How to create a volunteer job description

    The description should specify at least whom the volunteer reports to, any general duties and responsibilities, and any specific tasks to perform. Job descriptions might include additional information, e.g., level of expertise and education needed for the job, minimum requirements of expertise, etc.

    Also consider the topic for employees: Specifying Jobs and Roles (analysis, description, and competencies)

    Also consider the topic for employees: Job Descriptions

    Operating Your Volunteer Program

    Volunteer Recruitment

    Recruitment usually involves identifying the most likely sources of suitable candidates for volunteer positions, how to approach those sources, and then approaching each source. Sources might include, eg, advertisements in the newspaper, word-of-mouth of employees, recommendations from clients, online (or virtual) sources, professional placement advisors (“headhunters”), volunteer fairs (events in which many organizations that need volunteers attend to recruit volunteers), etc. 

    Candidates who are interested in certain positions often complete an application form, including providing a resume.

    Different ways to recruit employees

    General Guidelines


    Online Recruitment

    Screening Volunteers

    Each potential candidate for a volunteer position is usually screened. The extent of screening for each position depends on the nature of the tasks to be performed by the volunteer, e.g.,

    whether the volunteer will be working directly with people in a health facility, etc. Screening often involves carefully examining each application, conducting background checks (e.g., to verify

    information in the resume, identify any legal problems, etc.), and interviewing the most suitable candidates.

    How to screen volunteers

    General Guidelines

    Also consider the topic for employees: Screening Applicants

    Application forms

    Background Checks


    Also consider the topic for employees: Interviews

    Selecting (“Hiring”) Volunteers

    After candidates have been screened, ideally there is one candidate that seems to be the most suitable for each unfilled volunteer position. Each suitable candidate should be formally (or officially) approached with an offer letter that describes the terms that the organization is offering and the activities that the organization wants the volunteer to conduct. The offer might include any benefits, e.g., free training, use of facilities for private use, etc.

    What to do when selecting volunteers

    Also consider the topic for employees: Selecting (Hiring) New Employees

    Orienting & Training Volunteers

    Best ways to train volunteers

    If the nature of the volunteer’s work is very basic and routine, then a volunteer might require only a very basic and general introduction to the organization and the task they are to complete. In contrast, if the nature of the volunteer’s work is rather complex, e.g., supervising patients in a particular setting in a health facility, then the volunteer will likely require a complex orientation to the organization and also training about, e.g., policies and procedures, how to respond to particular situations, when to ask for help, how to use certain facilities, etc.

    If it’s a simple orientation, consider creating a volunteer training program online. Volunteers can complete the orientation in their own time at home, and then they’ll be prepared to get to work with your organization when they show up for their first day. 

    Also consider the topic for employees: Employee Orientation Programs

    Also consider the topic for employees: Training Basics for Supervisors and Learners

    Supervising Volunteers (Retaining, Feedback and Motivation, Evaluating, Rewarding, and Firing Volunteers)

    Supervision includes a variety of activities, e.g., establishing goals with the volunteer, observing the volunteer’s activities to achieve the goals, and providing guidance so the volunteer achieves

    the goals effectively and efficiently (i.e., has strong “performance”), evaluate the volunteer’s performance, reward strong performance, address any performance issues, and fire the volunteer, if necessary. Some supervisors are also closely involved in staffing analysis, development of job descriptions, recruiting, selecting, orienting, and training, as well. 

    How to supervise volunteers in your program

    The activities to establish goals and provide guidance are usually considered to be the activities

    of delegation. If the goals are specifically assigned to the volunteer, with little or no involvement from the volunteer, and the supervisor closely watches the volunteer (rather than generally guides them) and provides specific directions, then those activities might more aptly be described as work directing, rather than delegating.

    Supervision and Delegation

    Also consider the topic for employees: Delegating

    Also, consider the topic for employees: Establishing Performance Goals

    Retaining Volunteers

    Also, consider the topic for employees: Retaining Employees

    Giving Feedback and Motivating

    Also consider the topic for employees: Observation and Feedback

    Also consider the topic for employees: Coaching

    Also consider the topic for employees: Morale (Boosting)

    Also consider the topic for employees: Motivating

    12 Great Ways to Thanks Volunteers


    Also consider the topic for employees: Evaluating Performance


    Also consider the topic for employees: Rewarding Performance

    Addressing Performance Issues

    Also consider the topic for employees: Performance Plans

    Also consider the topic for employees: Recognizing Performance Problems (“Performance Gaps”)

    Also consider the topic for employees: Performance Improvement / Development Plans


    How to fire a volunteer

    Also consider the topic for employees: Firing Employees

    Volunteer and Staff Relations

    Sometimes employees and volunteers can perceive themselves to be so different from each other that they spend little time together, don’t communicate with each other, and eventually experience conflict between each other.

    Assessing Volunteer Management Programs

    To ensure that the volunteer management system remains high-quality, including that the organization and its volunteers are benefiting a great deal from their relationship, it’s necessary to regularly assess the quality of each activity (eg, developing job descriptions, recruiting, training, supervising, etc.) to conclude if the activity is being conducted effectively and efficiently. Results of this overall evaluation should be used to adjust activities. Thus, the cycle of the volunteer management system starts over again.

    Follow These Volunteer Management Practices Employing all, or even a few, of these strategies can help you run a successful volunteer program and retain volunteers:

    Virtual Volunteering

    Virtual volunteering is when the volunteer provides their donated services entirely over the internet or from a home computer. Information about virtual volunteering can be about the entire range of activities in a volunteer management system.

    General Resources

    For the Category of Human Resources:

    To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources. Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.

    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

    Adapted from the Field Guide to Leadership and Supervision in Business

    and Field Guide to Leadership and Supervision for Nonprofit Staff.