Volunteer Management and Recruitment

A top need of most congregations is to find more volunteers, to use volunteers more effectively and to make volunteering better experience. This workshop will share some basics on the best practices on this subject. Presenter: Shirley Lundin is a consultant to congregations and other non-profits on working with volunteers. She was a national consultant for the Girl Scouts of the USA; Coordinator of Volunteer Resources for Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust as well as coordinator, instructor and program developer for the Harper College Volunteer Management (now NPO management) certificate program.

This workshop was held on September 19, 2009 as part of a day-long online Leadership Conference. The program runs approximately 70 minutes.

Volunteers mp3 (audio is temporarily unavailable)

Ten Good Ideas for Working with Volunteers
Shirley Lundin and Ian Evison
Draft:  September 18, 2009

1.     Know your people!  
To work well with volunteers you need to know them, their skills, interests, and motivations.
In any but the smallest congregation “knowing your people” will require you to create a database—whether digital or paper.  Yet this database should not be regarded as a substitute for personal connection.   This is a highly relational process.
2.    Don't kill them.
Many congregations feel a painfully great need to find more volunteers.  Good work with volunteers requires we work with potential volunteers developmentally and at their pace.  Don’t hesitate to ask things that will challenge people and yet don’t ask too much before people are ready.
3.    Find a system that works for you.
Your goal should not be to choose and implement any one set of best practices.  Develop a system that works with your congregation’s size and unique culture.  Pay attention to what works and does not work and use the wisdom that you gain in that way to adapt and improvise.  
4.    Help other leaders maintain a newcomer’s eye view of the congregation.
While established congregational leaders may see your role as recruiting members for their committees, it is important to remember that few people ever joined a congregation to be on a committee.  Don’t allow your work to be reduced to helping to fill committee slots.  Working effectively with volunteers requires helping the congregation to keep in focus the needs and perspectives of volunteers and especially of newcomer volunteers who tend to be rather voiceless.  Suggest that a newcomer start with involvement in a covenant group or by doing a small project—especially a small project involving other new comers.  
5.    Be mindful of safety policies in recruiting and training.
Safety of the congregation, especially of its more vulnerable members such as children, and safety of volunteers needs to be a top priority.  Anyone working with volunteers needs to know the policies of their congregation and needs to advocate for better policies when necessary.  Do volunteers need a background check to work with children or to work with finance?  Building projects can get risky—good training, good supervision, and good safety equipment need to be supplied.
6.    Create Job descriptions.
Consider for a moment the contradiction implicit in the congregation that both feels that there is work that urgently needs doing but that there are no expectations regarding how that work is done.  Nothing, absolutely nothing is more crazy-making than a role that comes with high, unstated expectations.  A key role of anyone who recruits volunteers on behalf of an a congregation is clarifying expectations with such questions as what is the task to be done?  What resources are available for completing it?  What is the time commitment?  What support is available?  To whom will this person be accountable?
7.    Create multiple, varied pathways to involvement.
In another era, people in congregations appreciated involvements in congregational life that were primarily divided up into regular monthly meeting—second Tuesday is Buildings and Grounds, third Thursday is Personnel, and so forth.  Where this structure of involvement continues to work that is fine.  Increasingly, however, congregations are finding fewer people willing to make this kind of commitment with more people willing to take on “bite-sized” involvements.  Newcomers especially want a way to get a toe in the water without jumping off the high dive, without going to that committee meeting that creates the presumption that that is how you are going to spend every third Wednesday for the next three years (or in the case of many of our committees—the very indefinite future).
8.    Use targeted recruitment for key positions.
For key positions it is important to actively recruit the best people for the position.  It is important to tell a person what you observe about them that would make them good for a position and directly invite them to serve in that position.  Usually, even if they say no, people are flattered to have their abilities recognized and honored.  
9.    Provide help and support.
Too often the work of volunteer coordinator ends with recruitment.  The surest formula for burn-out is a strong effort at recruitment and weak effort at support.  Moreover, continuing to improve quality of work with volunteers requires continuing attention to the experience of volunteers and how this experience can be improved.
10.    Provide recognition.
Recognition—large and small—is crucial.  Take particular care to provide recognition to those who work behind the scenes.  On the other hand, don’t presume that any position is above the need for thanks.

Resources and Related Areas

Note:  In the UU world the subject of volunteers overlaps with a number of related areas, especially membership and leadership development.  Membership has become somewhat of a hot topic lately with the development of a group of UU Membership professionals and with the recognition that our congregations often do better attracting visitors than in integrating them.  And Leadership Development is perennially hot—with developing new leaders and preventing burn-out in long-serving leaders being perennially on the top ten list of most pressing issues in congregations.  The volunteer frame has two strengths.  First, it helps make connections with the resources of the non-profit organization world and send it tends to emphasize the part of the process after someone says “yes” to a volunteer opportunity.  

Jeanne H. Bradner, Leading Volunteers for Results:  Building Communities Today.  First chapter, on trends in volunteering in congregations, places the experience of congregations in wider perspective.  In a survey of volunteers in a variety of kinds of organizations, sixty percent of people said they would be more likely to volunteer if good use were made of their time.  Two out of five volunteers ended up resigning because of poor management including not making good use of volunteer time, not defining tasks clearly, and not being thanked.  Jeanne Bradner has served as Executive Director of the Illinois Commission on Community Service and helped developed Illinois' Harper College Volunteer Management curriculum.

Marlene Wilson, How to Mobilize Church Volunteers.  (Augsburg Publishing House, 1983).  Marlene Wilson is author of what is perhaps the single most classic book on volunteers in the nonprofit world, Effective Management of Volunteer Programs (1979).  In this book Wilson bring her insights into the world of congregations.  It is filled with conviction of what can be accomplished by diligent application of principles from the secular world:  “problems in any church’s volunteer program can be corrected using sound principles of human resources management.”  is a classic and represents the first serious attempt to bring principles of nonprofit management to work with volunteers in congregations.  As such a first attempt it is filled with conviction.  For an online sample of this classic check out  In more recent years Marlene Wilson has taken on more the role of a wisdom figure for those who work with volunteers urging them to think of themselves as leaders and not managers (  In this shift can be read something of the trajectory of the field as a whole.

UU Resources

Don Skinner, Need More Volunteers? Try the Personal Approach.  Another of the Drive Time essays here available as text or as podcast.  This is particularly strong in suggested for how to help make volunteering a positive experience by such methods talking with potential volunteers, giving them good training, and arranging for them to work with others.

UUA: Ways to Help Volunteers Feel Good About Helping.  Another article particularly good in suggesting ways for improving the experience of volunteers including by being respectful of their time.  As  people have gotten busier it has become increasingly important that we be thoughtful and respectful in how we make use of their time.

UUA: Colorado Church Treats Volunteers with Care.  This is a case study of the work of the Unitarian Church in Golden, CO, and in particular of their Shared Ministry Facilitator, Dea Brayden.

UUA: Volunteers, Physical Spaces Create Vitality.  More about the exceptional work of the Unitarian Church of Golden, CO.

UUA: No Volunteers for Finance? Consider Hiring It Done.  Volunteers are not best for every role in a congregation.  This article explores when it may be better to hire outside financial help.

UUA: Attract Volunteers Through Fun RE Teaching.  One of the biggest needs for volunteers is in religious education.  This article focuses on that subject.

UUA: Volunteer Coordinators Help Fill the Committees.  This is one of our earlier UU articles about this subject.  Note that today we strongly caution against the ideas that the main work of volunteer coordinators should be filling committees.  Don’t do it!

UUA: Church Volunteers: What They Want.  This is an excellent, succinct list from Wayne Clarke of key needs of volunteers.

UUA: To Recruit Volunteers Tell About Mission.  Fundamentally we are recruiting people not to fill a committee slot (please no!) or even to do a job but rather to serve a mission.

Relevant UU material also found at these locations:

Web Stuff  Remember the passion for faith-based social service in the middle in the past decade?  That period spawned a number of projects to collect and create resources on subjects like the care and nurturing of volunteers including FASTEN, an urban ministry project funded by the Pew foundation.  This includes good, practical resources on subjects like “Promising Practices for Volunteer Management” and “Three Steps to Correcting Actions of Problem Volunteers.”  While somewhat commercial in its orientation (not everything is free), this also includes a lot of good, free, resources including a collection of podcasts on volunteering (  Recommending individual website on volunteering and volunteer management is a dangerous business.  Sites change quickly and disappear.  This blog attempts to maintain a current list of favorites and so substitutes for doing a fuller listing here.  This site is especially good at collecting web links to good sets of resources relates to tech-savvy volunteering and needs of younger volunteers.  This is another collection of links to web resources, sponsored by the Canadian government.  There are some good, brief, and free resources (like that combination!) like the “Volunteer 101” fact sheets.  In addition, don’t miss some of the more philosophic pieces.  There is a large change impending in volunteering that congregations would do well to consider.  See especially Rethinking Volunteer Engagement.  The following applies well to congregations:  “We need to rethink how we design the work that volunteers do. We also need to rethink how we recruit volunteers, and how we make use of their gifts of time and skill so that our needs--and the needs of our constituents or causes--as well as the needs of volunteers themselves are met.”

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