Converting good intentions in to greater impact

Principles in Action, Principle 2: Moving Volunteers to an Organization’s Center

Principles in Action, Principle 2: Moving Volunteers to an Organization’s Center

By Brian Agnew, spring and summer 2014 Bank of America Service Leadership Fellow with Reimagining Service

Reimagining Service recently surveyed over 300 individuals who have signed on in support of the four key Principles to find out how these principles have come to life in their organizations.

Let’s start off by revisiting Principle 2: Make volunteering a core strategic function, not an add-on. Volunteers fundamentally increase our ability to achieve our objectives and advance the social mission of our organizations. Engaging volunteers effectively can help an organization serve more people in the community as well as change the core economics of an organization, which can allow it to scale more quickly in a cost effective way.

Some of the burning questions we, at Reimagining Service, wanted to know more about:  what types of changes were evident when volunteers became a more central source of capacity for an organization? We also wanted to know how an organization and its leaders shifted their mindset to make that change, the challenges they faced, and the results they’ve seen since.

The “Core Function” in Practice

The San Francisco-based nonprofit First Graduate offers services and support for individuals working to become the first college graduate in their family.  Previously, workshop managers were responsible for recruiting and training volunteers as well as planning and executing workshops, and they felt it was burdensome to coordinate volunteers.  In making volunteering a core function the organization became a service enterprise and prioritized financial resources to hire a motivated volunteer manager in order to institute a program that provides eager, informed volunteers.  Effectively, volunteers went from being an additional task to being a human resource that contributed to strategic growth for the organization.

Another example of implementing this practice is at the public sector level. During the peak of the recession, local and state California public libraries saw that their patrons were increasingly in need of assistance for job searching skills and internet access, but budgets were so tight that the staff was already stretched thin.  At the state level, the California State Library, in partnership with VolunteerMatch, offered training on the Get Involved: Powered By Your Library Initiative, to local library branches that utilize skilled volunteers. The response was overwhelmingly positive from both libraries and volunteers.  Volunteers complement the work of paid staff, supplying flexibility and expertise that supports the organizational mission without replacing employees.

The third example illustrates how volunteers can boost effectiveness for organizations. Atlas Corps is a nonprofit that recruits nonprofit professionals from all over the world for service fellowship opportunities in the US and Colombia.  The process of vetting and interviewing candidates became drastically more streamlined when they began using volunteers across the globe for that function.  Volunteers bring perspectives, expertise, and availability that the staff could not offer.  Other volunteers serve as local ambassadors to welcome and befriend fellows as they adapt to life in a new place.  Atlas Corps found that volunteers could play key roles in meeting its organizational needs.

Retaining Volunteers

Retaining skilled volunteers and keeping them engaged can be a challenge.  The way most organizations address this issue is by investing in volunteer engagement through trainings for volunteers and staff, funding for volunteer director positions, and buy-in from leadership.  These invaluable methods will be discussed further in a later blog on Principle 4, but should be noted here as well.

The Literacy Network is an adult literacy nonprofit in Madison, Wisconsin, and its volunteers sign on for several months at a time.  In addition to the organization’s volunteer coordinator, the Literacy Network emphasizes developing detailed descriptions of volunteer positions, listing relevant skills and aptitudes, and providing training to staff who oversee volunteers.  As a result, the organization’s volunteer retention increased by 60% in four years, and over two thirds of volunteers extended their service beyond their initial commitments.


When leveraged as a resource, volunteers add impact and can “significantly change the core economics of an organization, which can allow it to scale more quickly in a cost effective way.”

  • First Graduate has incorporated volunteers into their entire 10-year program pipeline, increasing not only program effectiveness but also community buy-in and their donor base.
  • California Libraries have seen a 48% increase in individual volunteering, and staff have begun to look more closely at leveraging professional skillsets of volunteers.
  • Atlas Corps finds that their fellows are more engaged with the support of volunteers.
  • A Call To Serve (ACTS) Ministries of Iowa is a nonprofit that connects volunteers with service opportunities, and their work is managed and run entirely by volunteers.  Of the almost 500 volunteers in their database, about 100 of them volunteer on a weekly basis.

Now, we want to hear from you: what changes have you implemented to make volunteer engagement a core strategic function in your organization? What works? What is challenging? Share your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.