Recruitment Challenges Ideas and Suggestions

Donna Lockhart, November 04, 2009
(as it appeared on Charity Village)

One of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits that I hear about is "recruitment" of volunteers. We all know that the competition for volunteers has increased, as has demand since there are more organizations needing help. We also know that about 5% of volunteers are doing 67% of the volunteer work out there. What many may not understand is that volunteers have changed. This change itself has an impact when you are trying to recruit based on current positions. Recruitment is a complex issue and I am going to provide some ideas to get you thinking.

Here are the questions I get: "How and where do we recruit the volunteers we need to do the work required?" and "We don’t have enough volunteers and can’t seem to find them."

Three ideas
An underlying issue that most organizations do not understand today is that volunteers have changed. Not only are they different from what we have come to expect, they are demanding a different volunteer role. They are not prepared to do much of the "work" that organizations have available.

Number one
If you are having a hard time recruiting for a particular position, start by looking at the work you are asking someone to do. Many youth, Gen Y, Gen X, and definitely baby boomers are not prepared to do many of the traditional jobs that are offered - the mundane, stuffing envelopes, or grunt work that many organizations have offered for years. The volunteers who have done this work faithfully in the past (called veteran volunteers) are a dying breed. You owe it to yourself to learn about what is happening with volunteerism in Canada. Here are a couple of resources to help you.

  • Listen to the discussion by Paul Reed of Statistics Canada and Linda Graff about volunteering in Canada.
  • Volunteer Canada recently launched the web site, which looks at how to better engage this age group.

Number two
Take a hard look at your total volunteer program and roles of volunteers. This requires an open mind, assessment, and often some strategic planning. Look at all the roles of volunteers and examine which ones are the hardest to fill based on information that you now know from step one above. How can you do the work differently or more creatively? Can you package it differently? Is it critical to the mission of the organization? Should some roles be dropped? Are there new opportunities to engage youth (who are seeking skills, fun and job experience) or baby boomers who may want to use the skills they have in a limited time frame?

Number three
Having clear volunteer position/opportunity descriptions is still important. Even if you are creating a new opportunity based on a discussion with a boomer about what they might like to do, begin to frame out the work. Get them involved in developing the guide or outline of what the work is, when it will be completed, how it fits with the mission of the organization, where the work will be done, and what support they may need.

I know that many managers of volunteers get upset when asked to look at volunteer positions differently. This is partly because we have been "position or task-focused" in volunteer recruitment. For so many years we advertised tasks or work to be done and recruited those who would do it. What we are currently seeing around this challenge with recruitment is that many people are no longer willing to do the work we post. We are witnessing a new approach called "person-centred." This means that people will come to us with skills and experience who are looking for more exciting opportunities to devote some leisure/volunteer time to. They want fulfillment in their work and they want to do flexible, challenging, and often more creative work than we have offered in the past. We may not even have work that currently fits this need...this is the challenge, to be more responsive to the individual needs of potential volunteers.
We all know that meals delivered to the elderly still need to happen or the campaign letters still need to get stuffed and mailed. We need to be entrepreneurs in our thinking about how the work in organizations will get done. If getting drivers is becoming more challenging to organizations such as a community care organization, cancer society, or meals on wheels program, perhaps it is time to secure funding or a donated van (would this help GM raise its profile and community reputation?) or a shared van or partnership with others to deliver meals? So, instead of trying to recruit drivers, you now recruit volunteers with the fund development or project management skills or the community influence skills to get the resources necessary to deliver the meals.

Some additional resources

  • The Seven Deadly Sins of Recruiting Volunteers and Networking: How to build strategic alliances to find volunteers
  • Susan Ellis' website, Energize Inc. Here you'll find lots of topics and articles. Books can be purchased online, such as Keeping Volunteers: A Guide to Retention by Rick Lynch and Steve McCurley.
  • CharityVillage Research Library
  • The Urban Institute: Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers, Mark Hager and Jeffrey Brudney, June 2004. (PDF)

Donna Lockhart is a trainer and consultant with The RETHINK Group. Her focus is on "developing volunteer capacity." Donna designed the CharityVillage Building a Great Volunteer Program campus course. She facilitates a wide range of workshops and training sessions in volunteer engagement. For more information visit:

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