5 Fatal Volunteer Management Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them!)

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In order to maximize your volunteer program’s effectiveness and provide a positive volunteer experience, you’ll need to devise a concrete management strategy that prioritizes your volunteers’ needs.

Because there are so many moving parts involved in volunteer management, many nonprofits get a little lost along the way (and some don’t even know where to start).

If that sounds like your organization, never fear! In this article, we’ll talk through 5 common volunteer management mistakes that nonprofits make every day, and we’ll show you some surefire ways to correct them.

Here’s an overview of the mistakes we’ll cover:

  1. You’re not communicating clearly.
  2. You’re not empowering your volunteers to succeed.
  3. You’re not playing to your volunteers’ strengths.
  4. You’re not implementing a digital strategy.
  5. You’re not prioritizing retention.

When you focus on providing a rewarding experience for your volunteers, you’ll be able to develop deeper supporter relationships and see your volunteer program thrive because of it!

The Problem

As a nonprofit, you likely already know the importance of consistent communication. But when it comes to managing volunteers, there’s almost nothing as vital as clear, regular communication.

Think about it: your volunteers rely on your nonprofit leadership to understand their roles and responsibilities within your organization before, during, and following their volunteer time.

Because many nonprofits aren’t managing their time and tasks efficiently, communication falls to the wayside. Poor communication can lead to a number of unfortunate situations, such as:

  • Volunteers don’t know about upcoming volunteer opportunities.
  • Volunteers don’t receive instructions for volunteer day (i.e. time to arrive, location, and other logistics).
  • Volunteers don’t have a thorough understanding of their responsibilities or expectations.
  • Volunteers don’t have an outlet to communicate to the nonprofit.
  • Volunteers don’t receive acknowledgement for their contributions.

All of those potential pitfalls can result in decreased volunteer retention and a poor volunteer experience—neither of which reflect well on your organization!

The Solution

The best way to avoid a communication catastrophe is to develop a plan for how your volunteer program will tackle volunteer communications.

That strategy might include any (or all) of the following components:

  • Utilize volunteer management software to automate and track communications. Most software (whether it’s standalone or integrated with a nonprofit CRM) comes with tools to help you automate emails to specific subgroups within your volunteer list. Plus, you’ll be able to view open and click-through rates as well as responses, so you can easily manage volunteer interactions.
  • Appoint a communications chair or team. Delegating all communications-related tasks to specific member(s) of your volunteer management team can abate some risk for mismanagement among your staff. Select an appropriate number of team members to stay on top of communications and ensure that all emails, social media posts, newsletters, and direct mailings are sent out on time.
  • Pay attention to volunteers’ communication preferences. Because your volunteer program likely includes a number of different demographics, no one communication channel will suit every volunteer. Ask volunteers how they prefer to be reached and follow through with their requests!

Bottom line: If you’re not communicating in a way that’s reaching (and engaging) your audience, you’ll run the risk of leaving your volunteers in the dark on many important fronts. Avoid that by prioritizing clear, consistent communications from the get-go.

The Problem

Volunteers who aren’t confident in their abilities to impact your nonprofit likely won’t look forward to returning to volunteer a second time, much less long-term.

While most nonprofits want to create a fulfilling volunteer experience, many don’t take the time to ensure their supporters are successful in their volunteer positions or excited about their contributions to the cause.

When nonprofits don’t seek to help their volunteers thrive and make an impact in every task they take on, they won’t be able to develop the sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships that are the foundation of truly successful volunteer programs.

The Solution

To ensure that volunteers are at the center of your program, assess your current volunteer empowerment strategy.

Here are just a few ways you can start empowering your volunteers today:

  • Focus on your mission. Your volunteers should know that their service is impactful and meaningful. As you assign tasks, always make a point to show volunteers how their specific role contributes to the cause at hand, whether that be through helping your organization with administrative tasks or performing community service.
  • Develop an onboarding strategy. Don’t throw your volunteers into their role unprepared! Instead, create an intentional plan for teaching new volunteers and providing them with resources to succeed. Make sure that volunteers are comfortable asking questions (and that your staff is available and prepared to answer them adequately!).
  • Set clear expectations for each task. A volunteer can’t succeed in their role if they don’t know what’s expected of them. Clearly and kindly explain how they can meet and exceed expectations in their volunteer role the same way you’d communicate to an employee. Your volunteers want to help, so show them what would be most helpful!

Bottom line: To keep volunteers engaged, it’s important that you help them understand that the projects they’re taking on are meaningful and that they are capable of completing the tasks and impacting the community.

The Problem

More than likely, your nonprofit has a diverse group of supporters. If you combed through your constituent database, you’d likely find individuals with different professional backgrounds, skill sets, and interests.

Unfortunately, many nonprofits aren’t considering that diversity as a potentially game-changing element of their volunteer program!

Instead of tailoring their recruitment process, many nonprofits take a generalized approach to acquiring volunteers. Similarly, many organizations don’t consider how they can align the right volunteers with the right opportunities.

If you don’t make an effort to discover volunteers’ strengths and place them in roles where they can thrive, you might be missing out on a myriad of great benefits, including increased volunteer retention and greater volunteer engagement.

The Solution

Every volunteer can add unique value to your organization, but only if you take some time to discover what that value might be.

Let’s look at a few examples of how you can align volunteers with the best opportunities for them:

  • Create comprehensive volunteer profiles. Use your CRM or volunteer database to store as much volunteer information as you can. When you have relevant data on file, you can segment your volunteer list to find individuals who fit the bill for what you need. (Hint: you can collect this data through your volunteer application as well as surveys or general conversations!)
  • Search for skills you need. Starting with volunteer recruitment, consider what volunteer skills will come in handy for your nonprofit. Then, don’t be afraid to reach out one-on-one to ask previous volunteers or supporters with the right skill sets or experience.
  • When in doubt, ask! If you’re unsure what your volunteers would be most excited to do for your nonprofit, just ask. Send out a survey or speak to specific individuals in person to find out how they’d like to contribute. Trust us: you and your volunteers will both be glad you asked!

Bottom line: When you make a point to provide opportunities that serve your nonprofit and fit with volunteers’ skills and interests, you’ll see satisfied volunteers who are well-qualified and excited to complete the projects at hand.

The Problem

We live in a digital society, and nonprofit volunteer programs are no exception. The internet is convenient, accessible, and instant—it’s no surprise that we rely on it for so many aspects of their daily lives!

Most likely, your nonprofit has some form of digital communication plan in place already to connect with all your supporters, including volunteers.

However, if you’re hoping to really engage volunteers online, posting sporadically on Facebook or sending out a generic weekly email just won’t cut it!

When you don’t develop a volunteer-specific digital strategy, you’re setting yourself up to miss out on connecting with a large chunk of your supporters, as well as a wide network of potential volunteers.

The Solution

To amp up your online strategy and reach volunteers in the digital age, you’ll need to consider your audience as well as what you hope to achieve through your digital strategy.

The internet can help you reach your existing volunteers in a convenient, engaging way, but it can also be a great tool for reaching prospective volunteers as well.

Depending on your goals, you might try any (or all!) of the following tips:

  • Revamp your website. An outdated or hard-to-use website is a major deterrent for prospective volunteers looking to learn more about your cause as well as existing volunteers. Design your nonprofit website for optimum user-friendliness, and make sure your volunteer registration form and upcoming opportunities are prominently displayed.
  • Post opportunities on social media. Since so many individuals are on sites like Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis, it makes sense to advertise upcoming volunteer opportunities in their social media news feeds. Keep your posts short, provide a link to your website, and don’t forget to include a high-quality photo!
  • Create a volunteer-specific newsletter. If you have a high volume of volunteer opportunities, consider sending out a volunteer-specific newsletter every week or month. You can also use this platform to highlight recent activity or give shoutouts to dedicated volunteers. Keep emails brief and link to your website for more information.

Bottom line: There’s just no way to avoid online engagement as an integral part of any volunteer management strategy. Make the most of your digital presence by effectively utilizing channels such as your website, social media, and email.

The Problem

Between finding the right volunteers, training them in their roles, and following up afterward, securing a first-time volunteer is hard work, which might be why many nonprofits spend so much of their time focusing on volunteer acquisition.

But let’s think about that: volunteer recruitment is hard work. If that’s the case, why would you put your volunteer program through the trouble of relying on new recruits to fill your volunteer slots rather than retaining past volunteers?

When you look at it this way, it makes sense that volunteer retention should be a major facet of volunteer management. Sadly, many nonprofits let their hardworking volunteers slip away instead of investing in them long-term, which leads to more work on the nonprofit’s part.

Plus, when you don’t keep volunteers around long enough to get to know them and what they can contribute to your organization, you’re missing out on the chance to build relationships that can impact your nonprofit for years to come.

The Solution

Take a vested interest in your volunteers like you would an employee of your nonprofit. When you show them that you value their support and service, you’ll open the door for a sustainable nonprofit-volunteer relationship.

Many of the tips we’ve discussed can help boost volunteer retention, but here are a few specific ways to prioritize retention in your volunteer program:

  • See your volunteers as individuals. What are you doing to reach out to your volunteers on an individual basis? Whether it’s just remembering volunteers’ names or calling them on the phone to thank them for their support, a personal touch can go a long way.
  • Recognize and reward their efforts. Volunteers don’t do their part because they expect something in return, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t thank them for their contributions. A thank-you note or public acknowledgement can remind volunteers that they’re valued and appreciated.
  • Always seek to improve. Volunteers might not know that they can have a say in your organization’s practices, so be direct in asking for their feedback and input. Send out a survey or seek out individuals’ thoughts so that you can truly develop a volunteer program that meets your volunteers’ needs and expectations.

Bottom line: By focusing on volunteer retention, you’re emphasizing that each volunteer is an important, unique part of your organization. Show your volunteers that you care about them as individuals and will do what you can to make the volunteer experience a positive one.


Volunteer management can be tricky. By knowing which mistakes to avoid, you can ensure your nonprofit stays ahead of the curve in creating a volunteer program that’s fulfilling and engaging for your volunteers!

Read more about Volunteer Management from TopNonprofits –  or my recent post on the topic:

Volunteer Management 101: 5 Keys to Total Volunteer Success

About author

Amy DeVita

Amy DeVita is managing partner at Top Nonprofits. A publisher, entrepreneur, mother, wife, social media enthusiast and fan and avid supporter of the do-gooders in the nonprofit/ for-impact sector. She has written for Top Nonprofits and Third Sector Today; she has been quoted on pieces about social media and social impact on The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. She was named to the Leading Women Entrepreneurs in NJ Monthly and she is a member of Social Media for Nonprofits' Leadership Council. In her spare time she enjoys kayaking, yoga, hiking, traveling, and playing Scrabble. Amy lives in New Jersey with her husband, two children, and three dogs. In 1984 she earned the "Most Improved Average" honor on her bowling league.

4 comments

  1. Robert 7 September, 2017 at 15:48 Reply

    You’re so daed on the Digital Strategy is critical. Great post! Nonprofit growth is difficult to manage in any case, but without a digital strategy, it might be impossible.

    • Amy DeVita 11 September, 2017 at 12:10 Reply

      Thanks for reading, and for your comment, Robert:) Unfortunately, the tech-savviness of the nonprofit sector lags behind others. I’m a big fan of orgs like NTEN, TechSoup, and TechImpact who are there to help give expert guidance.

  2. Sarah 3 November, 2017 at 22:47 Reply

    Do you have any suggestions for software that helps with the things mentioned in your post? I want to be able to have a database of volunteers with their personal interests and skills attached to their record. I want to be able to do a search when I have a volunteer opportunity, pull up those names and then automatically send out an email to them with an electronic sign up sheet for matching opportunities. Any suggestions?

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