Thought Leadership

5 Steps to Setting Up a Successful Volunteer Program

Volunteers come to you with expertise, resources, networks and their time, and it is up to you to provide them with the opportunity to invest all of this in your organization.

The merits of a volunteer program is a much debated topic at most nonprofit organizations – how do we recruit volunteers, is it worth our effort, do we have the capacity, can we afford it, is there a return on our investment, are they reliable – and the list goes on. These are all fair concerns especially when you are short staffed, working with tight budgets and managing high demand for your services. However, there is no doubt that volunteers can be an asset to your organization. They bring in expertise, networks and resources you do not have or may not have access to. And, like every other resource, the program needs your commitment to make it work.

Your volunteer program should be a program unto itself within your organization. It requires management, project planning, a structured training program, mentoring, commitment and accountability. Initially, this may seem daunting, but follow these 5 simple steps and you’ll be on your way to developing a robust and effective volunteer program for your organization.

Step 1: Assess

  1. Review your gaps. Brainstorm with your team on what projects, tasks, and programs need attention.
  2. Review your list and identify the expertise, skills and time commitment needed to fulfill each of them.

Step 2: Plan
Formalize a plan of engagement with your volunteers.

  1. Who will manage your volunteer program (this person can be a staff member, intern, donor or volunteer).
  2. Draft a volunteer application – information you gather should include a resume, education, expertise and skills, other nonprofit organizations they are committed to, availability, area of interest, and importantly, why they want to volunteer with your organization. You should also state your expectations of a volunteer including time commitment and code of conduct.
  3. Formalize an application selection process.
  4. Develop a well structured volunteer training. The training is an opportunity to introduce your organization- its mission/vision, philosophy, best practices, services, expectations and organizational culture.  What are the skills and knowledge you want them to have? These folks are your future ambassadors and as such, the more insight and connection they have (to your organization, philosophy, services) the more meaningful and successful their engagement will be. 

Step 3: Recruit & Train

  • Allocate enough time to advertise, create awareness and interest within your networks and communities. Be creative! Utilize volunteer skills matching sites to attract volunteers to your organization.
  • Use your website, newsletter, social media, donors, stakeholders, and contacts to publicize.
  • Don’t forget to reach out to your corporate partners because many of them offer matching programs for volunteer hours.


  1. Introduce your organization, its philosophy and your organizational culture.
  2. Educate them on your mission – including your approach to service delivery, your clients and other stakeholders, how you create impact, your partners and allies as well as strengths and challenges.
  3. Share your expectations of them (including time commitment, code of conduct, best practices to follow, and confidentiality).
  4. Present the universe of volunteer opportunities they can engage in.
  5. Articulate their opportunities for growth.
  6. Understand their competencies and networks.
  7. Sign a letter of engagement with each volunteer who has successfully completed the training to acknowledge your mutual commitment to each other.

Step 4: Engage

  • Take time to properly match volunteers’ expertise and interest with projects and opportunities.
  • Build a culture of accountability and implement a process for continuous evaluation – make sure volunteers are engaged, feel they are creating impact and are fulfilling their promise to you.
  • Mentor your volunteers throughout their engagement.
  • Encourage volunteers to meet and bond outside their work with the organization.

Step 5: Recognition and Stewardship

  • Check in with volunteers to ensure they feel they are creating impact.
  • Maintain open lines of communication and seek their feedback.
  • Host a volunteer recognition event at least once a year. Thank your volunteers for their contribution and help them feel invested in your mission.
  • Encourage your volunteers to introduce the organization to their networks. Provide opportunities for them to do this.
  • Cultivate your stellar performers to engage further – as board members, board committee members, at a gala or special events committees, Young Professional Board, campaigns and fundraising events.
  • Don’t forget to thank your volunteers for their time, expertise and commitment.

There is no doubt a well structured volunteer program can benefit your organization. And volunteer engagement is only as successful as the time and commitment your organization invests. Volunteers come to you with expertise, resources, networks and time and it is up to you to provide them with the opportunity to invest all of this in your organization. They are your future stakeholders, ambassadors, donors, and potential staff and board members. Therefore, approach both them and the volunteer program with this larger lens.  

Remember, volunteers want to engage with you because they believe in your vision and mission. Use that to your advantage!

Santushi Kuruppu, April 2021