More than 60 million people spend an average of 52 hours each year volunteering their time with a nonprofit organization. Many organizations agree that volunteers are critical to overall health and play a role in their ability to become, and remain, sustainable. Volunteers serve many functions: They can help deliver client programs, create awareness about mission and impact, and keep staff costs reasonable. But having volunteers can be a lot of work!

Before evaluating an existing volunteer program or embarking on a new one, determine what motivates your volunteers, and work toward creating and supporting a program that best serves their needs while advancing your mission. I recommend using the “3 R’s for Happy Volunteers” as a framework for the internal conversations that will help structure your volunteer program.


Volunteers feel most productive when their time spent is connected to their interests and skill sets. Volunteers excel when they feel that they are leveraging their expertise to serve a greater purpose. To generate maximum volunteer productivity, interview prospective volunteers to understand their motivations, skill sets, and interests before assigning a task. 


Most volunteers are between 35-64 years old and are employed. Statistically, most who volunteer will also volunteer for more than one organization. In other words, our volunteers lead busy lives!

When structuring a volunteer program, consider the scope of the tasks being assigned. Our goal is to expand the capacity of our organizations using volunteer strength, but also to offer a set of tasks that can be accomplished and are not overwhelming to those giving freely of their time. As an example, some of the larger, longer-term tasks may require a team of volunteers working in concert with a staff member.


People volunteer so that they can feel good about their contributions to their community. When developing a volunteer program, think about high-touch, meaningful work that volunteers are proud to talk about with their networks, colleagues, and friends. But sometimes, the necessary work is more administrative in nature and “unsexy.”

In this case, see “Relevant”, above. Matching the right volunteer to the job at hand will serve the dual purpose of accomplishing administrative goals and making the volunteer feel valuable. As with donors, volunteers thrive on and respond to recognition and appreciation for their efforts.

Bottom line: Happy volunteers are very likely to become both financial supporters and advocates for your cause. Happy volunteers make our work more effective and ultimately, our mission delivery (and lives) easier.

Want to learn more about creating a volunteer program that meets the needs of both the volunteer and your organization? Then join me for Build a Successful Volunteer Program,” a Foundation Center webinar on February 9, 2016, from 2-3:00 p.m. ET. We will talk about the questions to ask before inviting volunteers into your organization, practical tips for choosing the right volunteer, and tactics to effectively recognize and retain valuable volunteers. We will focus on practical information that you can use right away to create more meaningful and lasting volunteer engagement.

Also explore these Foundation Center resources on this topic: