The Three Pillars of Effective Volunteer Engagement

There is much written about volunteer management and more recently, volunteer engagement. This language shift from ‘management’ to ‘engagement’ has been hopeful, as there is recognition now that volunteers don’t want to feel managed, and that beginning from that place is the first step in turning off a volunteer. Traditional volunteer management literature has always felt very HR, treating volunteers the same as paid employees, and borrowing best practices for training/orientation, retention, evaluation etc. However, volunteers are not paid employees – they are not PAID! This distinction sounds simple, but quite frankly, as a ‘Volunteer Manager’ (for lack of a better word) for over 10 years, I have had to reiterate this message again and again: ‘volunteers are not paid’. Every time a volunteer walks in the door, they are doing this from their own generosity of giving their time, they are doing this ‘voluntarily’, and they are not paid a penny. Are we, as paid employees, treating our volunteers with the respect that they deserve?

I believe that there are three critical pillars for effective volunteer engagement. Like the three legs on a stool, if one leg breaks, then the stool falls down. The three pillars are: 1. Organizational Commitment and Capacity, 2. Attractive and Diverse Roles, and 3. Culture of Belonging.

  1. Organizational Commitment and Capacity
  • Collaborative and strong partnerships between staff and volunteer team
  • Top-down commitment to fostering effective volunteer involvement
  • Consistent best practice framework to support Chapter staff in their partnership with volunteers, while allowing for flexibility
  • Ensuring adequate resources are in place for volunteers to do their job effectively
  • Centralize front-end volunteer management process so Chapters can focus on volunteer engagement
  • Volunteer roles established at all levels of the organization, and confirmed in official org chart

 This is the behind-the-scenes work, that needs to be organizationally, for volunteer engagement to be effective. It MUST be top-down, with clear direction and policies endorsed by the CEO/ED and executive team. Without this endorsement, it is next to impossible to create a volunteer-friendly environment.

  1. Attractive and Diverse Roles 
  • Diverse roles mean community members can find a suitable match
  • Design roles based on trends (episodic / group volunteering)
  • Pilot ‘out-of-the-box’ roles (ex. Virtual, episodic and micro volunteering, and role-sharing)
  • Flexibility for volunteers to change roles
  • Leadership roles, succession planning, and targetted recruitment for leadership volunteers

People want to donate their time strategically, and either use the talents/skills that they possess, or else, volunteer so that they can stretch and develop new talents/skills. There are FAR TOO many ‘joe-jobs’ for volunteers and not enough creative, and higher skill level roles for volunteers. We need to stop giving  fun the fun and creative work to paid employees, and leave the work that no one wants to do to volunteers. I believe this is the biggest factor for people who get turned off of volunteering.

  1. Culture of Belonging
  • Volunteers feel that they are valued and they belong
  • Communication strategy using social media tools, photos, videos, so volunteers can engage with staff (especially senior staff) and engage with each other
  • Recognition is meaningful – Professional Development opportunities, certificates for portfolio, role promotion, asking for feedback
  • Community building atmosphere – the environment should be welcoming and fun

Bottom line: many volunteers feel like outsiders in the organizations where they volunteer. Volunteers want to feel that they belong, that they are heard, that they are recognized for the amazing work they do, and their commitment to the cause. For inspiration, learn about Santropol Roulant (in Montreal) which as a ‘living organization’ embodies this commitment to volunteers and culture of belonging better than any other organization that I know of –

I leave you with my favourite volunteer quote, for inspiration:

“We do not create volunteer motivation. We discover it and then link it creatively to organizational need.” (Linda Graff: Best of all: The quick reference guide to effective volunteer involvement, 2005, p. 65)


Nov 5th is International Volunteer Managers Day – Reflecting on Leaving the Profession

It’s a day with mixed feelings for me today – a little happy, a little sad, a lot reflective. Nov 5th is marked as International Volunteer Managers Day, to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of Managers of Volunteers, who work tirelessly to support and engage volunteers – see I love the line “volunteering does not succeed in a vacuum”, recognizing that Volunteer Managers play a critical role in providing ‘behind-the-scenes’ support to volunteers. Often, this support translates to internal advocacy, and Volunteer Managers speaking on behalf of volunteers to advocate for changes so that organizations are more accessible/welcoming and inclusive of volunteers. This is often the small but critical details that make or break the volunteer relationship – do volunteers have a space to work and a place to hang their coat? Do we have a budget to throw a Holiday party for volunteers instead of just for staff (or better yet, can we invite the volunteers to the staff holiday party?) Do are office volunteers have the information and access to codes needed to do meaningful work? Are volunteers involved in planning and decision making, or even consulted for feedback, when they have years more experience than paid staff?

This post in Energize by Susan Ellis is the best I’ve read about this day and reflects my concerns about this profession –!.

    My sadness and reflection comes from my own personal journey, as someone who was a Volunteer Manager for 10 years and was completely passionate about the profession, to having now said goodbye to this career path (although I hope to continue to think and write about volunteer engagement and related themes for years to come). I have personally been volunteering and have worked with volunteers for most of my life, being inspired as a child by my Grandparents (I’ll save that story for another blog post). I landed my first formal Volunteer Manager job about 10 years ago, and jumped into the profession with both feet. I took all of the steps to becoming an expert in my field, joined the executive of my local Volunteer Manager Professional Association, wrote and published an article on volunteer management and community development, presented several workshops at volunteer conferences, and became certified as a CVA (Certified Volunteer Administrator), etc. etc. My career goal was to be a leader in volunteer management. I was 100% committed to this goal.

Here’s the catch: there are very few true leadership roles in Volunteer Management, at least in Toronto, Canada. I worked as a Volunteer Manager in two organizations, with my responsibilities being overall volunteer management – recruitment, retention, recognition, etc. While I thoroughly enjoyed both positions, after 8 years doing this work, I wanted to contribute at a leadership level, with a wider scope and a focus more on the strategic and less on the front-line day-to-day. I job searched for 2.5 years, and came up empty. I had interviews and came close to one job (down to myself and the successful candidate), but was not successful. And the interesting thing I learned through this whole process, was this: Leadership roles in Volunteer Management are not being filled by people who have experience in volunteer management! This is crazy but true, and sad. These positions are being filled by people from the corporate sector or if from non-profit, then expertise in fundraising. What other profession hires a “Senior Manager/Director of *blank*” with no experience in the subject matter? While Volunteer Managers are advocating to recognize the significant work of Volunteer Managers, non-profit leaders are unfortunately not buying it. A perfect (but sad) example is Volunteer Canada, who has just announced their new CEO, with no experience in volunteer management – Why is that? Because unfortunately, Volunteer Management experience is not seen as strategic, high level, leadership work. 

   I have shifted career paths and I’m happy with where I am – I am still passionate about volunteerism and volunteer engagement and my work allows me to integrate this passion with overall community development and program management skills. I very much value the amazing experience I had as a Volunteer Manager, and there are days where I miss some aspects of that work (and I especially miss working directly with amazing and inspiring volunteers). I don’t have a fixed career goal anymore, as that feels limiting, and I want to be open to where my path takes me. I wish that Volunteer Managers and volunteer engagement generally was more respected within the non-profit sector, as volunteerism is so immensely important. I will continue to speak out about this where I can and when I can, to keep the dialogue going. And last but not least, I will continue to actively volunteer and try to do my small part in making the world a better place.  



Ditching the word “Retention”? Hell no!

I recently read a provocative blogpost by a respected leader in the Volunteerism field – Rob Jackson from UK. His blogpost – “It’s Time to Ditch the Word ‘Retention'” made me sit up and think – What? Ditch the word retention? I disagree on a lot of what he writes and here is my (friendly) rebuttal: 

-In my experience, the retention part of the volunteer management cycle is the most important and yet seems to get the least amount of interest and focus. Volunteer management discussions and conferences have been dominated by the topic of recruitment and screening (how about we ditch the word screening? That I would BE 100% behind!), instead of the topic of retention. The topic of retention needs to be grappled with (hence, Rob’s article is a great start!), to ask and answer questions about impact, retention rates etc. 

-While I 100% with Rob that the most important factor to analyze when assessing the worth of your volunteer program is the impact that your volunteers make, and there is not necessarily a direct correlation between impact and retention. However, a strong retention rate means that you aren’t using up as much resources (time and money) on training new. A strong retention rate also can mean that volunteers are more invested in the organization and more knowledgable about the mission, which means that the quality of their work will be better. Not only are volunteers volunteering, but more more importantly, volunteers are ambassadors for the organization. Their knowledge and passion for the mission, as well as the fact that they are long-standing volunteers, is inspiring to others who hear about their involvement. This inspires others to get involved – to volunteer or donate to the cause. 

-I don’t think retention necessarily comes just from a well-managed volunteer program. Beyond that (because the first step is a well-managed volunteer program), my experience has been that the biggest factor/strategy for volunteer retention has been: 1.  having a diversity of volunteer opportunities, so people can stay involved in volunteering even when their life changes. For example, someone may not be able to continue in their 2 hour a week in the middle of the weekday role because they now have a job and can’t make this kind of commitment. However, they still want to be involved, but need opportunities that make this possible. Episodic volunteer opportunities are WONDERFUL ways to keep people volunteering and retained when they can’t make a long-standing time commitment. 2. Connected to this, COMMUNICATION with volunteers and past volunteers, so they know of the opportunities to get involved and they can stay in touch with the organization. My strategy has been to do a monthly “Friends of…” e-newsletter that goes out to everyone, present, past and future volunteers, donors, anyone who comes to events etc. People can read the newsletter and decide when to jump in and when to not (but still be in-the-loop in terms of whats happening).

    What I am trying to say is: for me, retention is not about volunteers doing the same role for years and years.  For me, retention is about making the organizational culture flexible and inspiring so that volunteers want to be involved throughout their life. Their involvement will look different depending on their circumstances, but they are still connected and involved in some way. They could be an ambassador, a donor, an episodic volunteer, an active volunteer, a supporter, a member, an advocate – the possibilities are endless if we are creative and open about what involvement looks like. 

 So no – please lets not ditch the word retention. Instead, lets infuse the word with new meaning and new inspiration that fits with todays volunteer landscape. 

Shout out to St. Chris – Happy 100th Birthday!

St. Christopher House is a neighborhood centre located in the downtown west-end of Toronto, and I worked there as the Volunteer Coordinator for 4 years, from 2004-2008. I learned SO MUCH from my time working there, at an organization that truly works from core community development principles. 

St. Chris celebrated recently celebrated its 100th birthday, as it began on June 12, 1912. St. Chris was started by Sir James Wood, from the settlement house movement, and its roots are located in Kensington Market. Take a look at the 100th Birthday video –!

So many people have been involved with St. Chris over the past 100 years, and I feel very privileged that I spent four years working there. I learned so much, and I want to share just a few of my learnings here:

1. A community centre can and should blur the lines between ‘client’, ‘member’, ‘volunteer’ etc. There is no problem with ‘clients’ volunteering within the center, and this model actually significantly shifts the power dynamics that are seen in traditional social service agencies. For example, the Meeting Place (a drop-in for homeless community members)  ‘clients’ are called ‘members’ and take ownership in the space, of providing workshops to each other (sharing strengths), cooking food for each other etc. 

2. Serious social policy work can and should be done within a social service context – it makes for ‘on-the-ground’ discussion and authentic community engagement. When I was there, we were working on two social policy projects – MISWAA (see and Neighborhood Change/Gentrification ( Working on these projects within a large neighborhood centre meant that many diverse community members got engaged and involved with the issues and leaders were supported from within this context. 

3. Inclusive volunteer management is easier in theory than in practice. It is much easier to run a traditional volunteer management program where you recruit, screen and select the best, most educated easy-to-handle volunteers, who want to give back to their community. I was 100% committed to ensuring that ALL community members who lived in our catchment area, was given the opportunity to volunteer. I felt so strongly that we couldn’t call ourselves a community development organization and then turn community members away from getting involved. However, this is easier said that done. I had to convince all the program staff in the organization that it was their job, along with their regular job of running their program, to support volunteers who might face challenges. I feel very proud of the work that I did in this area (and I know this model is still continuing to this day) but it wasn’t easy. 

East Scarborough Storefront – The Little Community that Could

I just finished reading East Scarborough Storefront’s book – The Little Community That Could –, and it was very inspiring! I must admit, I only knew a little bit about this organization before I read the book, even though its in my backyard and it embodies the community development ideals that I care so much about. I knew that it was a hub model, where many agencies provide services under the same roof so that individuals can access many diverse service in a ‘one-stop shop’. I knew that the storefront was the first hub model, and now that is being replicated all across Toronto because it is effective and cost-efficient service delivery. I knew that the Storefront was a project of Tides Canada, meaning that it isn’t a legal charity on its own and therefore is released from the burdens of many administrative/legal/operational duties that come from being a registered charity.

    What I didn’t know, and what inspired me the most, is the depth of its commitment to community collaboration and development, seen through its decision-making model, HR policies, community engagement strategies, and work in partnership with residents. East Scarborough Storefront exists to foster collaboration leading to collective impact! Collaboration is critical to solving complex social problems, and so the role of ‘relationship-building’ is needed to keep this process moving.

   I especially LOVE the volunteer model. Most traditional volunteer coordination is done to support the organization. East Scarborough Storefront does volunteer recruitment/retention/coordination to support the COMMUNITY! One of the ‘services’ they provide is a pool of quality volunteers who can help out at any community events or activities that a resident is organizing. Therefore, if you are a resident needing some volunteers to support your activity, you don’t need to start from scratch in terms of recruiting, screening, training, retaining volunteers. This makes it much easier for a community resident to take the first steps in starting a project, knowing this support exists.

   Anyways, I can’t say enough great things about this book. Read it!

Universal Declaration of Volunteering

I remember reading the Universal Declaration of Volunteering back in 2004 (almost 10 years ago!) when I started by first volunteer coordinator job at a large social service agency. I was so excited to be engaging and working with volunteers in this role, and yet everything I read in the ‘volunteer management’ field was so operational and boring (I wrote a paper on this topic way back then that was published in the Nonprofit Quarterly – I remember reading the Universal Declaration of Volunteering and it felt like my mission statement – I wanted to put it on a big poster on my wall in my office, memorize it, bring it to all the volunteer management meetings that I went to and quote from it, etc, etc.

I just re-read it and I feel exactly the same. And I feel frustrated that the practice of volunteer management continues to be so far from the ideals in this declaration. This declaration really points out the power of volunteering as a community development strategy, as fostering connection across difference, fostering opportunities for community leadership and development, learning new skills etc.

I am still asking the same questions 10 years later. What would non-profit organizations look like and what would volunteering look like, if we took these points seriously? If organization leaders took seriously their responsibility to foster volunteerism as a social inclusion and a citizen engagement practice, rather than just a way to fill gaps and keep services going in the short-term? 

I continue to see that the majority of discussion in volunteer management forums, blogs, conferences etc is very operational in nature – short-term focussed, questions about operational strategies of recruitment and tracking and having fun parties to thank volunteers. I’m not saying that these questions aren’t important, and as someone who has been a volunteer manager, these questions are very important in a day-to-day context. BUT, I feel (and have felt for 10 years now) that the dialogue needs to move to the bigger picture, and context of non-profit leadership. Perhaps the issue is that volunteer managers/coordinators are usually positioned at the operational level in an organization, and then whoever the executive leader who is responsible for the volunteer area knows very little (or cares little or both) about volunteers. Volunteer managers are usually in either HR or in fundraising, and both executives feel that volunteers aren’t the highest priority (HR – paid staff are highest priority and Fundraising – donors/making money is highest priority). So maybe it is a structural issue, why the dialogue is not at this deeper level.

I don’t want to end this post on a downer note. I think I need to seriously memorize this Universal Declaration and spend some time dissecting the points – I feel like each point is SO important in its own right. As Ghandi said – “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.”, so if I hope that even in my little blog here, I can make some kind of change on this dialogue.

Volunteers – as agents of innovation…

I just read the book “The Power of Why” by Amanda Lang, which was a very accessible read about innovation. I have been interested in the topic of innovation for awhile now, especially as it relates to the non-profit sector. Of course, in this book, all of the examples of innovation was within the for-profit sector, where companies are investing time and resources into improving their business to make more money. The examples are fascinating and it is an excellent read.
Lang investigates the question: what are the factors that make someone innovative? One of the key factors, that Lang points out to in her book and I have read in other books, is having an ‘outsiders perspective’. The advantage of the ‘outsider’ is that they see with ‘fresh eyes’, and they are not afraid to ask new questions or try out new ideas. The ‘outsider’ is more likely to be a risk-taker and therefore an innovator, because they aren’t personally invested in keeping the status quo. They aren’t afraid of change.
When I think about this in the non-profit context, volunteers are the perfect ‘outsiders’ and potential innovators. They are often more outsiders to an organization than the paid staff, and they aren’t as invested in keeping the status quo. Volunteers come to volunteering from different backgrounds and experiences, and volunteering is usually a small (but critical) part of their life, integrated with their other elements of life. The fact that volunteers aren’t on payroll is critical and an opportunity for innovation – they are not afraid of change in the way that paid staff may be. Paid staff rely on their jobs for their livelihood, and therefore, there is good reason to be afraid of change.
My questions that I am grappling with are: what role can volunteers play in non-profit organizations, as agents of innovation? What practices do non-profit organizations need to adopt in order to allow for innovation to happen? What examples of innovation exist in the non-profit sector (I’m especially interested in Toronto, Canada, because I understand the structural context that non-profits are in here) and what are the conditions that made this innovation possible?
I would love to find and document an example (or even examples) of a volunteer who was critical in innovative change within the non-profit sector. Innovation doesn’t need to be a major overhaul, but often the most innovative change is a small but critical change, that makes a major impact.