For many nonprofit organizations, assistance from volunteers is critical to mission achievement. Whether the need is sheer manpower or expert knowledge and advice or creativity, unpaid labor is invaluable. Not only does volunteer assistance allow a nonprofit to keep overhead low but myriad types of expertise become accessible that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.

Unfortunately, nonprofit staff sometimes make faulty assumptions about what will attract and keep volunteers, largely because there is no one right answer. Just like a good fundraising program will segment donors and potential donors, a volunteer management program must likewise consider various motivations for donations of time and labor. In other words, short cuts will backfire and a nonprofit organization will lose volunteers by silent attrition, just as financial donors will simply stop contributing funds when flawed reasons are attributed to donors’ rationale for giving. Even worse is when volunteers are made to feel expendable.

Even with purely altruistic motivations, a nonprofit cannot assume that whatever caused someone to volunteer in the first place will keep them committed to the cause. Additionally, not all reasons for volunteering are sacrificial. Volunteers may want positive attention and recognition, or they may expect to receive something in exchange for their actions, whether or not they realize it consciously. There is an exchange relationship between the volunteer and the organization.

A nonprofit is well served by having a mechanism in place to determine each volunteer’s motivations (emotional connection, recognition, networking, honing skills, feeling helpful, etc.), as well as methods to capitalize on those motivations in order to encourage and retain them. Along with leveraging motivations, find ways to connect volunteers to the heart of the organization so that the mission becomes real. A volunteer who becomes vested in outcomes will then become a financial contributor, a larger donor, and/or a messenger to the community who in turn brings in additional support.