Nonprofits, this is your ultimate guide to managing skilled volunteers - Generocity Philly


Jun. 14, 2018 12:45 pm

Nonprofits, this is your ultimate guide to managing skilled volunteers

Columnist Lansie Sylvia asks eight pros for their best tips and shares back their wealth of experience. For one: Communicate the “why” of volunteers' tasks in addition to the “how” to keep them engaged.

Keep Philadelphia Beautiful volunteers.

(Photo via

How to Give” is a monthly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.

After last month’s column on the need for skilled volunteers over publicity stunts, we received lots of questions about how to best use and manage those volunteers, so I’m happy to put together this Part Two for you.

(Quick summary: A questionable social experiment from a local adman inspired me to ask development professionals working at homelessness nonprofits about the best way for skilled volunteers to help their cause.)

In my humble opinion, volunteer management is one of the great unsung talents within the nonprofit world. Think about how difficult it is to manage people in your everyday life, and especially at your workplace, and then add in the fact that that volunteers aren’t motivated by money? How do we get them to do anything?!

A savvy volunteer coordinator knows that it’s equal parts proper planning, communication and emotional intelligence. You have to be responsive to the needs and interests of the volunteer while being clear about your expectations. You want to hold them accountable while still demonstrating lots of appreciation.

And of course, you need to keep track of all of it so that you can clearly demonstrate the value of these volunteers and then include it in your annual review because if you’re managing a volunteer corps, you should get paid!

(Emphasis mine, everyone please pay nonprofit professionals more, the end.)

Before we start on how to do it right, some overarching tips:

  • You should expect to spend at least one to four hours a week managing skilled volunteers, and that number goes up exponentially with every volunteer you “hire.”
  • This time should be accounted for and communicated up to your leadership because consistency is key, and it can’t get shoved to the side for other work every week (… but once in a while is fine!)
  • Build volunteer appreciation into your annual budget, and work closely with the development team to steward skilled volunteers before, during and after their engagement.

(One of my favorite appreciation tokens is a gift card to a local coffee shop with a note that says, “Thanks a latte!” but that’s because I’m a great big lame.)

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Be specific with your ask.

Having clear expectations for what you need from a skilled volunteer is the first step toward a productive relationship. A project can be as big as an overhaul of your donor database, or as small as a one-hour phone call to provide some consultative assistance.

“Having a volunteer who has training or skills in a particular area who can step in to do a project start to finish, provide a step-by-step guide for the staff person who will execute the plan, or even just answer questions makes a huge difference,” said Valerie Johnson, director of advancement for the Council for Relationships (and fellow Generocity columnist extraordinaire).

If you’re looking for skills that run the gamut, make that clear at the get-go.

“As the staff person,” she said, “I may not have expertise in a specific area, I definitely don’t have time to learn, and it would take me days or weeks to accomplish what that volunteer can do in a few hours.”

If you’re looking for skills that run the gamut, make that clear at the get-go. Not everyone loves wearing a lot of different hats at once, but for people looking for that type of experience, knowing that they’ll need to remain flexible can be part of what attracts them to your organization.

“We have volunteers support our front of house staff, move furniture, interact with audiences, and fill in the gaps when we can’t be three places at once,” said Neil Bardhan, First Person Arts Festival’s volunteer coordinator. “Good volunteers are the lifeblood of our productions.”

Plus, what you consider to be an everyday task can help volunteers build up valuable skill sets that can lead to greater responsibilities at your organization, and within the volunteer’s own workplace as well.

“Volunteers manage approximately 60 percent of the front desk duties at our clinic,” explains Erin Schmitt, board president and staff acupuncturist at Village Acupuncture Project. (That type of volunteer work can definitely be put on a résumé and emphasized on LinkedIn!) “They are responsible for checking in patients, answering the phone, and helping explain how our clinic works. They are a huge part of how we are able to keep our sliding-scale fee as low as it is.”

Let the right one in.

When selecting skilled volunteers, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Starting off with a skilled volunteer that is both qualified for your project as well as a good match in personality and working style will yield huge dividends down the line.

“We love to get to know each of our volunteers on an individual basis and learn where they would like to be and where they will best fit in our program,” said Emily Hopkins, Project HOME’s hospitality coordinator who works with volunteers at the Hub of Hope at Suburban Station.

Starting with a clear, detailed and honest volunteer description can be critical.

Depending on how specialized your project is, starting with a clear, detailed and honest volunteer description can be critical. Treat it with as much care as you would a description for a paid position. I personally believe that skilled volunteers should only be brought in for discreet projects and then “rehired” for additional projects once they’ve been successful.

That means for each project, you can write a different position description. Interview for the position, get references and conduct a background check (payable by the volunteer) to ensure that the person is qualified, trustworthy and able to take responsibility when accessing any sensitive documents at your site.

“To find the right volunteers, we consciously sit down with anyone interested in the opportunity to explain the [project], the commitment, and offer to have them shadow a workshop before deciding if this is the right opportunity for them,” explained Michelle Feldman, executive director for Keep Philadelphia Beautiful. “We are also upfront about getting child background clearances.”

No time for interviewing? This is a great activity for board members, especially those who work in the fields of management, HR, operations or finance.

Communicate your “why” in addition to “how.”

“You can always rely on volunteers for two things: to show up with the best intentions and to always veer off course,” quipped Christine Moriarty, manager of volunteer programming at Broad Street Ministry.

“What I focus on at Broad Street Ministry is communicating not only the what but the why,” she said. “Sharing the trials, errors and successes that led to your organization’s methodology satisfies the volunteer’s altruistic appetite, knowing that the services have been constructed with genuine concern and intention. This gives meaning and focus to their tasks, and keeps them from coloring outside of the lines.”

Connection between staff and volunteers provides everyone a chance to improve their service and encourage one another.

Asking skilled volunteers for feedback can help keep them engaged and give a constructive outlet for any frustrations or roadblocks they’re encountering.

“We send each volunteer a survey directly after their in-classroom workshop, and provide time at our trainings and scheduling sessions for feedback and idea generation,” said Feldman. “We also work to provide updates to our volunteer educators as their feedback is incorporated in to the program.”

Keeping skilled volunteers deeply rooted to the “why” of your organization’s mission can be as simple as inviting them to join you for regular updates.

“From workforce development skills to marketing and event planning, one of the things we find most important is that the volunteer have a deeply rooted understanding of our mission and the population we serve,” explained Rebecca Little, development and marketing director for Back on My Feet Philadelphia.

“We do this by encouraging our skilled volunteers to hop on monthly conference calls with our program team in which [our team] not only reviews curriculum but also shares important mission-focused information and allows a space for skilled volunteers to ask questions about the program so they can best serve and learn from the individuals that utilize our program.”

This type of connection between staff and volunteers provides everyone a chance to improve their service and encourage one another.

“It is vital that we engage our OAE-trained volunteers in ongoing professional development, and with opportunities to network, learn from each other, develop new skills and stay motivated,” emphasized Catalina Gonzalez, volunteer programs manager for the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Adult Education (OAE).

See what I mean about volunteer coordinators being amazing? There are so many ways to involve skilled volunteers at your organization, but don’t underestimate the lift — it can be a lot of work! Start small and incorporate feedback, and soon you’ll be saving money, engaging new supporters and bringing all of your organizational dreams into reality!


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