How to get and keep great volunteers

By Clair Urbain

From service groups to churches to city- or statewide events, planners face the daunting task of recruiting volunteers to efficiently and safely pull off front-and-center events and behind the scenes activities.

Tony Omernik, director of the United Way RSVP of Marathon County, Wis., shares his recipe for volunteer recruitment, and even more important, retention. RSVP is a volunteer program that invites persons 55 and older to respond to critical community needs through volunteer service. “I call it the three Rs of volunteerism: recruitment, retention and recognition.”


Omernik says the first step in establishing an effective volunteer network is establishing the right attitude about volunteers. “Think about volunteers as major donors to your organization. We’ve estimated the value of a typical volunteer to the United Way organization to be $18.50 per hour. But they are much more than volunteers, they are ambassadors, even ‘marketeers.’ Treat volunteers like unpaid staff members. Volunteers, in effect, are giving the time of their lives to your organization,” Omernik says.

Volunteers want to be recognized for their commitment and efforts. “Motivational messages need to convey that they are important to a group’s success and that your group needs them,” says Omernik.

Successful volunteer recruiters first identify their needs. “It depends on the job. Do you need targeted recruitment, mass recruitment or both? Recruiting is all about getting the right person with the right skills at the right time into the right job and creating the right fit for the organization and the volunteer,” says Omernick.


Omernik willingly shares his recipe for success to recruit volunteers. “First, identify and address potential volunteers’ possible resistance to volunteering with your organization. Second, the needs of the organization and needs of the volunteer must be met simultaneously. Third, the recruitment invitation must contain at least these elements: statement of need, how the volunteer can help and the benefits to the volunteer,” says Omernik.

Looking for volunteers may require looking in places not previously explored. “The best way to recruit volunteers is to ask people to help,” he says. He suggests looking at RSVP 55-plus volunteer programs; volunteer centers; person-to-person or word of mouth recruiting; mass and social media outlets; and speaking to targeted groups. “Running a press release or relying only on publicity is not recruiting. It takes a multi-level effort. Research suggests someone needs to see or hear your message on average eight to 10 times to be effective,” he says.

Omernik says retiring professionals – Baby Boomers – want to make a difference. “They aren’t afraid of commitment, but they want flexibility. They also want to work for a wellmanaged group or event. They also like to do meaningful work that is commensurate with their talents and skills,” he says.


Getting volunteers is one thing; keeping them is another, Omernik says. “The retention process starts with the screening and interview process. Get to know the potential volunteer and their interests, skills, passion and motivation and how that matches with the volunteering opportunity. If it is not a good fit, retention will be difficult at best. Retention is much more cost effective than recruitment.”

Omernik shares that a UPS Foundation study found that two out of five volunteers stopped volunteering for an organization at some point because of one or more poor volunteering practices. “Poor volunteer management practices result in more lost volunteers than people losing interest because of changing personal or family needs,” he says.

Further, in the UPS Foundation report, Managing Volunteers: A Report from United Parcel Service, that surveyed volunteers, found:

  • 26 percent opted out because the organization was not well managed;
  • 23 percent felt the organization did not make good use of the volunteer;
  • 18 percent felt the organization did not make good use of the volunteer’s talent;
  • 16 percent reported the volunteer job was not defined; and
  • 9 percent stopped volunteering because they were not thanked.

The best way to retain volunteers is to start volunteers off with a good orientation and training program. “Get them involved in your organization. Communicate with them, offering and taking feedback and appreciation informally and in more formal semi-annual or annual reviews. Help them identify areas they would like to learn more about and advance in the organization.”

Volunteers have certain expectations. They want their time and talent commitment to make a difference and that is only possible with effective people-management techniques.

Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch, authors of “Volunteer Management, Utilizing all the Resources of the Community,” reports that the first six months of a volunteer’s experience is critical to their longer-term retention. Their research points out that getting volunteers involved with work as soon as possible gets them connected to the organization. “Avoid under-utilizing new volunteers,” Omernik adds.

“They report that volunteers are most likely to reevaluate their involvement as they get closer to anniversary dates, finish a big project, or approach an annual evaluation period,” says Omernik.

Organization management greatly affects retention, especially of baby-boomer volunteers. “They want a manager who values them and their work and they want to use systems and equipment or tools that helps them do the job. Boomers also appreciate opportunities for professional development and they like being recognized and rewarded for their efforts.”


Volunteers are not offering their time and talent for the money, so there must be another motivator for their involvement. Recognizing volunteers in many ways often fulfills that motivational need.

Recognition can come in many shapes and forms. “They can be formal events that honor years of service, awards or gifts of appreciation for service. Informally and on an ongoing basis, something as simple as a birthday card or small gift or personalized phone call, or recognition on an anniversary of volunteering can make the difference. Formal and informal thanks can be publicized in a photo or article in the group newsletter, local newspaper, or posted on the company or group’s website.

“Another form of recognition is offering the volunteer additional training, greater involvement or even advancement within the organization,” he says.