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Secrets to Sustainable Volunteer Programs


The real secret to building a successful volunteer program is in the preparation and planning. The steps above reflect a ratio of three parts planning to one part work to one part gratitude.

Good volunteer program design decreases administrative costs, engages members, increases program support, shares the workload, and improves support for coaches so they can devote more time to our players.

But volunteers are not free.

The latest calculations indicate that the average value of a volunteer hour in the United States in 2016 was $24.14, a 2.5 percent increase from 2015. Independent Sector also calculates the value of a volunteer hour for each state in the U.S. This figure can be used in annual reports, grant proposals and financial statements to support your organization’s work.

The cost of volunteers is not just reflected in monetary terms. In order to get the best results, volunteer programs need the investment of time in thoughtful planning and preparation.

The five steps to building a successful volunteer program are knowing what you need, inviting participation, preparation and training, doing the work and volunteer appreciation.

1. Know What You Need

The first step in building an efficient and sustainable volunteer program is understanding how your organization is put together. From that foundation, you can identify what specific volunteer jobs need to be filled.

It is important to develop a written job description for all your volunteer jobs, regardless of size or complexity. The four basic components of a job description are an outline of skills and abilities, tasks and time, communications and reporting, and supplies and equipment.

2. If You Don’t Ask, They Can’t Say 'YES!'

When you approach people to invite them to volunteer, be specific about the help you are requesting. Use the job description to both inform the potential volunteer and make yourself and your organization look good and well-organized. Describe both the benefit of the volunteer job to the organization and to the volunteer. Make the volunteer job both meaningful and manageable.

CAUTION: If a volunteer job requires more than an average of 10 hours a week, you are setting up a situation for volunteer burnout, turnover and potential loss of valuable institutional memory.

3. Preparation and Training

Ensure that your volunteers have the knowledge to do the job as well as the right supplies and equipment. Let your volunteers in on your organization’s institutional knowledge and “the way we do things here.” Make sure they have clear instructions about the job they will be doing, which may include written instructions with diagrams or pictures, oral explanations or a physical demonstration of how to accomplish a task. Also, let them know who they can contact if they have questions or need help.

In addition, inform your volunteers about who is providing supplies and equipment, including how they are acquired and delivered to the job site. Clearly communicate what happens to any leftover supplies after the job is completed.

4. Get Stuff Done!

After all the planning and preparation, it is time to do the work!

This step is all about supporting your volunteers doing their jobs. Know who is going to actively support and supervise the volunteers as the work progresses. Set the organizational priorities and have a back-up plan in the event something goes amiss, such as a no-show or a lack of supplies.

In addition, incorporate volunteer feedback and suggestions into the job. Your volunteers may identify different ways to get things done and have ideas about how to improve the work in the future. Listening to recommendations and incorporating new approaches will more deeply engage your volunteers and build their loyalty to the organization.

Volunteer engagement is often more important than job perfection.

5. Say 'THANK YOU!'

This can be the one of the most rewarding parts of your volunteer program. A key component to retaining volunteers is remembering to thank them for their time and contributions.

Consider expressing your gratitude in ways that align with how your volunteers see themselves and their talents.

  • Those who see themselves as technically skilled will appreciate being recognized for their expertise.

  • Others who are caregivers and peace makers will respond well to your gratitude for their looking out for everyone on the team.

  • A third group of volunteers are those who are well-connected with people in the community. These folks will appreciate being thanked for their knowledge of who to call to engage resources and how to get things done.

What kind of thank you makes you feel the most appreciated?


The real secret to building a successful volunteer program is in the preparation and planning. The steps above reflect a ratio of 3 parts planning to 1 part work to 1 part gratitude.

Consider how much time a coach spends preparing athletes and the team for competition. There are considerably more hours of designing and conducting training sessions than there are hours competing in actual games.

How much time does your organization spend preparing for success in your volunteer programs?

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