How to Start a Successful Nonprofit Volunteer Program in 7 Steps

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September 20, 2022

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September 26, 2022

Do you need help working on projects or certain tasks at your nonprofit organization? If so, a nonprofit volunteer program could be exactly what you need to help you achieve your goals and your mission.

Volunteers can be invaluable resources for your organization and play an integral role in providing services to your community. Every nonprofit leader knows they need to tap into the power of volunteers, but the process of starting a volunteer program can be daunting. We’ll share 7 easy tips to help you get started on your way!

7 Free Nonprofit Volunteer Application Templates

What is a Nonprofit Volunteer Program?


A nonprofit volunteer program is a systematic way of identifying needs within your organization and then recruiting and training people to fill those needs.

Having a strong volunteer program is a great way to get consistent help at your nonprofit without needing to rely on paid staff time to complete certain projects or tasks.

Running a successful nonprofit volunteer program can look very similar to running a successful HR department. You want to recruit volunteers with the skills needed to accomplish the projects and tasks you have identified. You also want to make sure they are properly trained. And just like with employees, you always want to make sure your volunteers know they are valued.

Why Do You Need a Nonprofit Volunteer Program?

Community Service

According to NP Source, 63 million Americans will perform volunteer work at some point throughout the year. On average, they will spend 52 hours a year volunteering.

Volunteers can provide an immense amount of benefit to your organization by ensuring you have a diverse group of people ready to help your organization carry out its important work.

At nonprofit organizations, your resources are generally limited, and sometimes it is not feasible to have paid staff complete every aspect of your mission.

Volunteers can offer specialized services (such as legal or financial work), complete program tasks (stocking shelves at a food bank), or even just assist with small administrative tasks (such as helping to send out a mailing).

It's no secret that nonprofit organizations are often trying to create large impacts in their communities while also being underfunded. Volunteers can be a great way to create change and make an impact while being fiscally responsible. This is especially true in small and new nonprofits.

For new nonprofit organizations that might be limited in staff, the use of volunteers can help you start to make an impact right away. Having a successful volunteer program can give you a much-needed boost in manpower and help take the stress off of your employees.

Your Board of Directors are also volunteers and it is important to think of them as such. They bring a vast array of skills and abilities to the table that will help your organization succeed.

Engaged and enthusiastic volunteers also make the best advocates for your organization. They can help recruit others to join in on their efforts or even provide financial support. According to the New York Society of Association Executives, donors who also volunteer give over 10% more money than their counterparts.

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How to Start a Nonprofit Volunteer Program in 7 Steps


You’ve decided you need to employ the skills and abilities of volunteers, but you aren’t sure where to start. Here are 7 easy steps to follow when establishing a nonprofit volunteer program:

1. Identify Your Organization’s Needs

Identifying your needs is the basis for starting any successful volunteer program. Begin by asking yourself:

  • What tasks could your organization use help with?
  • What are some areas you could use expert advice in?
  • What could your employees use assistance with?

As you identify what these areas and tasks are, you should create “job descriptions” similar to what you would see if you were hiring for an employed position.

Some important information to include in these descriptions are any age requirements, specific skills needed, the time commitment required, and any other special requirements such as having a driver’s license or being able to lift a specified number of pounds.

Creating these clear descriptions will help your volunteers understand exactly what their role is and help eliminate confusion moving forward.

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2. Create a System for Managing Volunteers

Having a system to manage your volunteers is key to your program’s success.

First, identify who will manage your volunteer program. This person should be responsible for creating those “job descriptions” we talked about earlier, supervising your volunteers, and making sure the positions get filled.

A volunteer software database can be an incredibly helpful tool in this process. These databases make storing information related to your volunteer program easy and help keep things organized in one place.

Volunteer databases can help you keep track of who your volunteers are, their contact information, what projects they are interested in working on, their skill sets, and more. These databases can also be useful tools for scheduling your volunteers and tracking how many volunteer hours each person has.

You should also create a comprehensive volunteer application. It's okay to say no to a potential volunteer. You want to make sure the people you are bringing in will help advance your organization and meet your mission. Treat these applications like you would a job application!

Before volunteers start coming into your organization, you should also create a volunteer handbook.

This handbook should be filled with all the information the volunteers need to be successful at your organization. Some good information to include would be the name and contact information of the person supervising them, expectations of conduct, any confidentiality policies you may have, or other legal information and disclaimers.

The best volunteer nonprofit programs all start with a lot of behind-the-scenes work to get it all started.

3. Set Goals

Goal setting is a key step in setting up your volunteer program.

What is it that you want your volunteers to achieve? Setting goals will help keep your organization on track and help to give your volunteers a sense of purpose and direction.

When setting goals, it is important to use SMART goals. SMART goals are

  • Specific - What exactly do you want your volunteers to accomplish? How is accomplishing a certain task or project furthering the mission of your organization?
  • Measurable - It is hard to work toward your goals if you don’t have a way to track them. For example, if you provide meals to those in need, you could measure how many meals your volunteers are serving each day.
  • Attainable - Everyone wants to dream big and reach for the sky, but this can be a hindrance when setting goals. Make sure your goals are something you can actually achieve. If you set a goal that is too lofty, it may discourage your volunteers because they could feel like they are working toward something unachievable.
  • Relevant - Is the goal you’re setting for your volunteers and your organization relevant to your mission and values? You want your goals to lead to positive outcomes for those you serve.
  • Time - When setting goals, it is crucial to create a time frame. This will help you create a clear plan to achieve your goals and give you and your volunteers a sense of urgency. Your community needs your services—having a timeline helps ensure they get the services they need.

4. Recruit

Now that you know what jobs and tasks you need help with, and you have a management system in place, it's time to start getting volunteers in the door.

The time spent on recruiting volunteers is just as crucial as the time you took behind the scenes getting your volunteer program ready. Some great places to start advertising your volunteer program are on your website, in social media posts, in regular organization newsletters, and by word of mouth.

Each of these methods will help spread the word to your community and supporters that you are in need of volunteers. Here’s a great example from The Trevor Project’s Facebook page that shows how you can leverage social media to recruit volunteers.

The Trevor Project Facebook page

5. Training

Once you have created your volunteer program and recruited your volunteers, it is time to start training them so that they can do important work for your organization.

Any training should always start with an introduction to your organization. It is vital that they have an understanding of your history, mission, and values. Let them know about your programs and why you chose to provide the services that you do. This will help them as they work with you to make an impact in your community.

This is also a great time to reiterate your expectations.

Make sure they are aware of the time commitment needed and any policies and procedures they need to follow. You will also want to make sure they have a thorough understanding of the task or project they are working on. Your volunteers want to do good work and make an impact. Make sure they have the tools they need!

6. Engage

Just because you have volunteers working with you and filling positions does not mean your work as a volunteer program manager is over. It is imperative you keep them engaged with the organization. This will help them feel good about the work they are doing and make them want to continue working with you.

Check in with your volunteers. See what feedback they have for you. Listen to their suggestions. They may have ideas that you have never thought of before.

Volunteers who feel valued and heard are more likely to continue volunteering or even give financially.

7. Recognition and Thanks!

Volunteers are donors! While they may not be giving financially, they are giving their time. It's imperative to make sure they are thanked properly.

Your volunteers are an important piece of your organizational puzzle. Make sure they know that! Some ideas to let them know they are appreciated could include:

  • Social Media or Newsletter Shout Outs - Let all of your supporters know just how great your volunteers are. This could even inspire others to get involved in volunteer work.
  • Recognition Event - It is a great idea to host an annual (or even more frequent) volunteer recognition event. This is the perfect opportunity to get all of your volunteers together and let them know just how much they mean to your organization.
  • Saying Thank You - A simple thank you can go a long way. Each time you see one of your volunteers take a few seconds to thank them for their hard work and let them know how much their efforts mean. You could also send your volunteers a thank you letter. They will appreciate knowing you took the time to write and send them a personal note!

Wrapping Up: How to Start a Successful Nonprofit Volunteer Program in 7 Steps


A nonprofit volunteer program can be an essential part of achieving your mission and providing for your community. While it may seem like a tall task, if you follow these seven easy steps, you can create a flourishing volunteer program.

Identify your needs, create a system to manage your volunteers, set goals for your program, recruit and train volunteers, engage with them, and don’t forget to thank them. If you do all of that, your organization should have a thriving volunteer program.

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