Volunteer Recruitment

Conducting a Volunteer Recruitment Campaign

Volunteer recruitment is one of those balancing acts that volunteer managers are always engaged in.  You want to have enough volunteers so that you can get the work done, but you do not want t have more volunteers around than you can make use of.  You want to have enough potential volunteers to sort through for the best candidates, but you also do not want to spend all your life interviewing and then rejecting unsuitable volunteers.

Warm Body Recruitment

“Warm Body Recruitment” is the first type of recruitment process.  Warm body recruitment is effective when you are trying to recruit for a volunteer position that can be done by most people, either because no special skills are required or because almost anyone can be taught the necessary skills in a limited amount of time.  Warm body recruitment is particularly effective when seeking large numbers of volunteers for short-term simple jobs, such as those who would help at a special weekend event.

Methods for Warm Body Recruitment

Warm body recruitment consists of spreading the message about the potential volunteer position to as broad an audience as possible.  The theory is that somewhere among this audience will be those who find this position interesting.  The primary methods for warm body recruitment are:

  • Distribution of agency brochures or posters
  • Use of public service announcements on television or radio, or newspaper advertisements
  • Speaking to community groups

1. Distribution of Agency Brochure

There are a great number of possible sites for distribution of agency information.  The intent is to place brochures in locations where people are likely to pick them up and read them, or where people can actually utilize the brochure in helping the people who come to the site.  Some programs, particularly those which deliver services within an identifiable neighborhood, might best benefit from a simple “door-to-door” distribution campaign.

2.  Public Service Announcements and Paid Ads

Put an ad on television or radio, or write a good classified ad for the newspaper or online job portal.  Despite the many current new efforts to involve volunteers by mass media processes, it is difficult to count on this method to solve all of your problems.

It may be difficult for you to adequately describe a complicated job in a format that fits the short framework of a newspaper ad or a radio or television public service announcement.  If you do attempt to construct such an ad you might wish to concentrate on “selling” the needs of your client population, since it will be simpler to describe its needs than it will be to describe the entire job.  Other motivational needs that might be mentioned include the provision of training or other support to the volunteer in preparing for the job, and the availability of flexible scheduling to make it easier for the volunteer to meet the time requirements for the job.

3.  Speaking to Community Groups

One of the best methods of warm body recruitment is to arrange presentations to local clubs and other groups.  Such presentations can serve both to inform the public about what your organization does and to recruit new volunteers.  In following this method of recruitment, be sure to:

  1.  Deliberately select the groups before whom you wish to speak.  There are two types that are the most helpful: those groups whose memberships regularly participate in helping out in the community and those groups whose membership as individuals are likely to have a common interest in your cause.  Schedule these types of Groups first.
  2. In seeking entry to speak to the groups, consider going through a group member.  The member can serve as your authenticator to their peer group, paving your way to a more receptive audience.  They can also make it more likely that you will be invited to speak.  Many groups have a program chair that is often desperate to find speakers.
  3. Try to time your speaking to meet with the group’s processes and your needs.  Find out what other projects the group s already committed to and time your talk to coincide with its need to develop a new project.  Determine how much lead time it needs and make sure that your request is not too precipitous for it to meet.
  4. Pick your presenters carefully.  Make sure the person who is speaking can explain what your agency does and exactly what is needed from the group.  Consider sending a volunteer who can speak forcefully about the value of the effort.
  5. If possible, utilize a visual presentation, with slide, pictures, etc. to increase interest.  If your presentation is boring, the group may assume that your jobs will be boring, too.
  6. Be prepared for people to offer their services.  Take along brochures, examples of jobs for which they are needed, sign-up sheets, and more.  If someone expressed interest, do not leave without their name and phone number, and commit yourself to following up with them.  Follow-up as quickly as possible.
  7. Be prepared for too much success.  You may need to have a back-up plan to handle the entire group wanting to volunteer together to help you out, not just a few individuals.  If several group members decide to volunteer, you will need to consider ways they might work together while performing the volunteer work.
  8. Remember that at some point during your presentation you should directly and unequivocally ask the audience to volunteer.  Very few people will insist on volunteering for your program without being asked to do so.

Evaluating Warm Body Recruitment

Warm body recruitment only has one disadvantage:  it works.  This may seem strange, but the difficulty lies in that warm body recruitment will effectively recruit people if you distribute enough information, but it will do so in a way that gives the volunteer manager control over neither quantity nor quality.  A warm body campaign will bring in potential volunteers but you will not be able to predict their numbers or their inclinations.  Moreover, you will have to do a lot of juggling to make things fit well together, sort through the possible volunteers and, potentially, run the campaign several times.

Targeted Recruitment

The second method for volunteer recruitment is called “Targeted Recruitment.”  Targeted recruitment takes a very different approach to locating potential volunteers.  Targeted recruitment works best when the job you wish filled is not one that is suitable for most people, either because it requires a specific skill, a specific commitment, or a specific characteristic or trait.

A targeted recruitment campaign is designed to track down the few people in the community who have the required skills rather than to broadcast a message to all the community, including those who you would have to reject if they showed up for an interview.  With this approach we determine the kind of person who would really like to do the job and track them down.

A targeted recruitment campaign involves answering a series of questions:

  • What are the skills / attitudes needed to do the job?
  • Based on this picture, where can we find this type of person?
  • What motivations of this person can we appeal to in our recruitment effort?

Targeted recruitment tends to work best when you are looking for a particular type of skill, such as experience in accounting.  It tends to work somewhat with psychological characteristics, but only if they are sufficiently identifiable that they can be readily traced by going beyond internal mental states into outward physical manifestations.  You can also, however, utilize targeted recruitment in some cases if you are trying to find individuals who possess the degree of commitment needed by your organization.  Start by examining the motivations and backgrounds of current volunteers in the position to find out if there are any common factors.  Do they all have the same type of motivation?  Do you they have similar backgrounds or education or experiences or occupation?  Do they come from similar groups?  Did they all hear about the job in the same fashion?  Common factors will enable you to identify populations who seem to like the job despite its requirements, and the commonality will enable you to locate others from that population group.

Evaluating Targeted Recruitment

Targeted recruitment is highly efficient form of recruiting.  In its ultimate form, the volunteer manager literally identifies people by name to approach about volunteering.  Targeted recruitment also tends to work because it helps you to think about possible motivations that can be used in persuading a potential volunteer to become involved.

Targeted recruitment is the ideal process for seeking involvement of new types of volunteers, because it forces you to begin to think through the needs and interests of that new population, and leads you to proactively seek that new group instead of waiting for them to come to you.

The limitation of targeted recruitment is that it is labor intensive, requiring thinking, tracking, and tailoring for each volunteer position.  This means that it probably is best selected when you are trying to fill a volunteer position that has a high value for the agency and cannot be filled by simpler means.

Combined Targeted and Warm Body Recruitment

By carefully wording your mass media communication you can actually make use of targeted recruitment.  By utilizing targeted recruitment techniques to identify the motivations of likely volunteers you can design a mass media campaign which will generate a greater number of qualified and interested applicants.

Word-of-Mouth Recruitment

Word-of-mouth recruitment is the lazy way to always have a flow of replacement volunteers applying to work at your agency.  It works off of the simple theory that those people who are already connected to you and your agency are the best targets for a recruitment campaign.

Simple thinks of ripples in a pond when a rock is thrown in.  Starting in the center of contact, the ripples spread outward, with each successive wave striking another, getting larger with each following wave.  Word-of-mouth volunteer recruitment operates in the same manner.

To utilize word-of-mouth recruitment, first attempt to locate a volunteer for the position by starting with the population groups who are already connected to you and work outward.  You can capitalize on the fact that most volunteers are recruited by people they know.  Ask the incumbent in the job to recruit a friend to replace them. You might look among former clients or your current volunteers for a replacement.  This approach will make it more likely to get a positive response, because the group of potential volunteers with whom you will be talking will be already be favorably disposed toward your agency, or least will be informed about it and what it does.

Because word-of-mouth recruitment involves a familiar face-to-face contact, its strength is the personal testimony of asking the volunteer.  During the conversation the volunteer can say, either directly or indirectly, “This is a good volunteer job with a good agency.  I know this is because I worked there and I think it is worth your time to work there, too.”  This is a very credible and a very persuasive argument that mass media techniques and appeals from strangers have a hard time equaling.

Word-of-mouth recruiting approaches those who already have a good reason for helping out, but it can be limiting.

A clear strength of word of mouth is that it concentrates on approaching those who may already have a good reason for helping out, either because they have received services themselves or they have seen the impact of the services on others.  They have thus become convinced both of the need for the services and of the ability of your program to meet that need; all that remains is to demonstrate to them that they are capable of helping.  Ideal groups around whom to structure your concentric circles of recruitment include:

  • Current volunteers
  • Friends and relatives of volunteers
  • Clients
  • Friends and relatives of clients
  • “Alumni” (clients and volunteers)
  • Staff
  • Donors
  • People in the neighborhood
  • Retirees in your field or subject

In short, any population group that has already been favorably exposed to your program makes an excellent target for a word-of-mouth recruitment effort.  Continually stress to all of these groups that they are essential to your recruitment campaign, and help them in knowing the types of volunteers for whom you and looking and the ways in which they can assist in finding and recruiting these volunteers.

Evaluating Word-of-Mouth Recruitment

Although a lot of effective person-to-person recruiting “just happens,” we can make a lot more of it happen by systematically encouraging it.  Everyone involved in the organization, both volunteers and staff, should understand what their recruitment responsibilities are within the framework of the overall plan.

The primary advantage of word-of-mouth recruitment is that, once established, it will provide you with a steady supply of“replenishment” volunteers to compensate for attrition and will do so with remarkably little work.

The disadvantage of word-of-mouth recruitment is that is can be very limiting, and if it is the only method of recruitment that you utilize, will lead to a process of “cloning.”  Since much of it works off recruiting “friends” it has a natural tendency to create an “inbred” group, all of whom look and think the same way.

If you are a new agency you will probably not be able to take advantage of word-of-mouth recruitment, and will have to rely on the less effective methods of mass media and targeting.  In time, however, you will build up the goodwill among a sufficient audience to take advantage of this simplest and most efficient method of recruitment.

Choosing Among Recruitment Campaigns 

All of the campaign systems listed above; work, they simply produce different types of return for different types of effort.  Picking the correct campaign system starts with identifying what you are trying to accomplish.  If you need large number of volunteers, try warm body recruitment.  If you need a specific skill or are trying to outreach to new populations, try targeted recruitment.  If you want a steady flow of volunteers to compensate for attrition, or want to encourage volunteering with a defined group, try word-of-mouth recruitment.  During the lifetime of your agency you will probably need each of these approaches.

Writing Persuasive Volunteer Recruitment Appeals 

In the old days, most volunteer recruitment appeals were delivered in face-face meetings where you had a bit of time and space to fully describe why volunteering was a good idea.  These days you are probably limited to a quick explanation, most often through a static media such as a newspaper announcement or a Web site, where space is at a premium and you need to make a good, quick, first impression.

Catch Attention with a Good Opening

The opening of the message must be compelling enough to entice the potential volunteer to continue reading or listening.  The body of the message must be appealing enough to interest the potential volunteer in considering the volunteer opportunity or, at least, in contracting the organization to get more information.  Boring messages are only likely to appeal to bring people.  The short opening line in each conveys an image that is likely to entice the reader to continue through the remainder of the message.

Present a Complete Picture

The body of the message should present information in an order that psychologically matches how people will think about the offer:

  1. Need:         Is there a problem?
  2. Solution:     Can this job help solve it?
  3. Fears:         Will I be capable of helping with it?
  4. Benefits:      What is in it for me?
  5. Contact:       How do I get involved?

One way to cover all this is to imagine you are directing a motion picture.  Your goal is to get the prospective volunteer to“view” the movie in their head – seeing the problem you are trying to solve, the difficulties it creates and the ways that volunteers are involved.  In essence you want the prospective volunteer to picture themselves as a star of the movie – the volunteer coming to the rescue.

As a general rule, spend more space on need than on logistics.  People will first decide whether you are worth volunteering for and then decide whether you they fit you into their schedule.  The need you stress may be yours, your clientele’s, or a perceived need/benefit of the volunteer.

Sometimes you cannot cover the whole picture, so you selectively choose what you think your “strengths” might be.  These could simply be different interests that a prospective volunteer might have.  In general, there are four different types of “selling points” that might be used:

  1.     The Cause of Community Serviced
  2.     The Solution or Accomplishment
  3.     The Type of Work
  4.     The Setting

Dont Be Misunderstood

Recruitment messages must be easily understood.  They must be intelligible and avoid jargon, unless it is included for a specific reason and will be understood by the intended reader.  Messages should be examined for ease of comprehension by someone other than the author of the message, Remember: “What Can be Misunderstood, Will Be.”

The sad news is that an amused reader is unlikely to call up and insist that you probably do not really mean what you wrote, but is more likely to conclude volunteering for an agency that this probably is not what they want to do with their time.

Test the Message

The message should be tested on members of the target group at whom it is aimed, to make sure it is understandable to them and communicates in a way most likely to be appealing to their interests.  The most common – and fatal – mistake in writing recruitment appeals is to end up with something that appeals mightily to the person who wrote it but says nothing to its intended audience.

Make the Message Inviting

The whole point of a recruitment message is to make the potential volunteer contact the agency for a further discussion.  This means that the message should be aimed at getting the prospective volunteer to visualize themselves successfully becoming a volunteer.

One small but significant way to make a message more inviting is to give the name of a person, preferably including their first name, not just the name of the agency which is to be contacted.  Volunteering is a personal decision and people like to talk with other people about it.  Follow these tips and you will be more likely to end up with recruitment appeals that attract precisely the kind of volunteers that you are looking for!

In Summary

Volunteers are “out there,” and (whether they know it or not) the right cause, presented in the right way, is awaiting them.  To capture this hidden audience requires strategy, planning, and foresight on the part of the cause-related agency.  While no single method guarantees success, following the plan laid out in these pages certainly increases your chances of building your group, furthering your mission, and filling the vacancies at all levels of your organization.

Tips for Finding and Keeping Youth Volunteers


-Accommodate different levels of knowledge and sophistication – have instruction, models, or mentors when needed.

  • Include youth on orientation and training team.  Give them a role in both developing and presenting orientation and training. Encourage them to share their examples and perspectives.
  • Develop work teams.
  • Place young people with adults who respect, facilitate, encourage, and model.
  • Train youth team leaders.
  • Respect their ideas, suggestions, and advice. Do more than listen, find ways to implement, and support their ideas and approaches.
  • Create an environment that encourages young people to be fully engaged in the mission of your organization.
  • Work with paid staff and adult volunteers to create an overall supportive and inviting organization.
  • If you value the contributions of young people, it will be reflected in the work you assign them, the ways you communicate with them, and the expectation you have for them. They will know if you are saying one thing and doing something else.


  • Be immediate – young people tend to be impatient.  Do not wait for an annual recognition event, give recognition frequently and consistently.
  • Be personal – acknowledge their individual achievements and contributions. A one-year pin for service is nice, but everyone who serves for a year receives the pin. It recognizes continuity, commitment, longevity, but not individual contribution. Be certain they receive individualized recognition.
  • Recognition is a perfect way to incorporate some fun into the experience. Volunteering does not have to always be serious work. Find innovative fun ways to say thank you and lighten up the environment.
  • Send letters to parents and schools.
  • Provide letters of documentation for students so they can include them with scholarship and college applications.
  • Send articles for school papers or to company newsletters where parents work.
  • Nominate youth volunteers for community and civic awards.
  • Post a success story so that outstanding volunteers can be recognized.

Also, online volunteer opportunities can be very appealing to young people.  Young people who cannot drive and/or have limited time availability because of other obligations, can blend online volunteering into their personal time schedules more easily. Young people are frequently online and are very “plugged in” to what is current and exciting.  They would be great at creating resource libraries for organizations, or for helping to design marketing language, and visuals to attract other young volunteers.

The youth of today can offer ideas and techniques for making your website more attractive and your volunteer positions more appealing.  All of this can be done online.  In addition, online volunteering offers a level of anonymity that can allow young people to be evaluated based on their work and not their age.  So why not post your volunteer opportunities today?  You will be getting so much more than a “kid” helping out in your organization—you will be getting a fresh outlook, a valuable worker, and a future leader.