Published: 23 March 2011

Getting volunteers to join, contribute well and want to stay

Kim Nightingale wonders how we get good volunteers to join, contribute well and want to stay

We tend to seek individuals who will put in discretionary effort to what they feel is a "worthwhile cause" or respected organisation. In today’s environment, getting the most out of those volunteers depends on your ability to deliver effective communications that help attract, skill-up and reward.

From the moment volunteers join an organisation they are looking to fulfil personal needs driven by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. The intrinsic drive is highest when volunteers first join an organisation: they are motivated and passionate about helping the cause.  The extrinsic factors are those you can offer and they will heavily influence volunteers' on-going experience with you.

The volunteer work cycle

When they first join they are dependent on organisational communication in order to settle in, understand the social norms and culture of the organisation, and complete their work. This is a time when volunteers are highly interactive, social and keen to contribute to organisational objectives. They will seek out those who share their enthusiasm and expect managers to help them succeed.

As volunteers settle in and adapt, they attach more importance to their relationships with team members. At this stage leaders play a major role in directing and developing the volunteer, helping them acquire relevant skills and assisting them in day-to-day problems.

Over time, volunteers begin to compare what they receive from being part of an organisation to the amount of effort they contribute. Rewards and recognition need to be relevant and appropriate to the volunteers’ contributions.

Once you have looked at the volunteer work cycle and started to make adjustments to meet the volunteers’ intrinsic needs, you can also turn your attention to how the organisation communicates.

Four areas of communication focus

1. The role of leaders. 

Volunteers prefer leaders who talk to them face-to-face and display positive non-verbal behaviours such as looking at them, facing them while they speak and smiling at them. Although a simple technique, this type of communication encourages reciprocity in volunteers and addresses personal needs of inclusion.

2. The use of channels.

Although personal, face-to-face communication is most effective with volunteers, the limited resources available in the third sector means this is not always a consistent option. In these instances, more online or mass media communication channels may be used to produce regular, consistent messages and connect with volunteers.

3. The importance of content.

In the end, whatever channel you choose is not as important as the content of the message you are sending. 

4. Considering other audiences.

Engagement is equally important to all audiences and the content of your messages needs to be tailored to meet each of their needs and interests. Information should be concise, consistent and relevant to the role each audience plays in the organisation. Regardless of the audience, the content should support the organisational goals.


Kim Nightingale, consultant, Able and How

Providing change management and communications support to multi-national organisations. Working with and engaging senior leaders, employees, programme leads and other key stakeholders to plan, develop, deliver and monitor the implementation of change communications.