Success with volunteers

Not-for-profits can follow these tips to help volunteers give them a boost.
By Ken Tysiac

At a time when many not-for-profits fear cuts in government grants and donations, expanding the use of volunteers may help them remain successful. Here are ways to maximize volunteers’ effectiveness:

Follow policies and procedures used for employees. This includes policies for background checks, onboarding, training, and liability and casualty insurance. "This should all be part of the policies and procedures of the organization in terms of running any other program that they have," Nicholas Lazzaruolo, CPA, a partner at Grant Thornton LLP and a member of the firm's national not-for-profit leadership team, said at the AICPA Not-for-Profit Industry Conference in Maryland.

Assess volunteers' talents and capabilities. This will help the organization put them in the correct roles. "You should feel comfortable not accepting volunteers if they're not the right fit, or not accepting them for that role," said Jen Hoffman, CPA, a partner in Grant Thornton's not-for-profit and higher-education practice.

Make sure they understand the mission. When Hoffman visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, she was struck by how every volunteer spoke of the not-for-profit's mission. At the facility whose prosthetic treatment inspired the movie Dolphin Tale, the volunteers unfailingly explained that the mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured marine life.

Make administrative work as simple as possible. Few volunteers are eager to spend their time performing administrative duties. They would rather work toward fulfilling the mission. Well-designed templates, documents, and online portals can help reduce the time volunteers spend on administration, including onboarding.

Make mentoring available. A "buddy" program matching a volunteer with an employee can be a great way to help volunteers become familiar with the not-for-profit. "Why not allow your volunteers the opportunity to be linked with a staff person, to feel in tune with the organization?" Lazzaruolo said.

Enable flexibility. Volunteers are eager to help, but often they want to do it on their own time. Offering flexible scheduling will enable a not-for-profit to more easily use volunteers' services.

Get feedback. Surveying volunteers on their experience with the organization is just as important as surveying employees. "You want to make sure that your volunteers are getting the experience that they want to get," Lazzaruolo said. And when a not-for-profit gets feedback, it's important to listen and address any problems that are identified.

Keep the best volunteers for years. John Griffin, CPA, CGMA, senior vice president and controller for AARP, even recommends including volunteers' children when possible, in hopes that they will become interested in the mission.

Editor's note: This checklist is excerpted from "Strategies for Helping Volunteers Boost a Not-for-Profit," June 28, 2017.

—By Ken Tysiac, a JofA editorial director. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at or 919-402-2112.


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