Why Engaging Your Volunteers Will Help Your NPO Thrive

This article was originally published in our April/May issue of Nonprofit Hub Magazine. Sign up to get a free issue delivered to your mailbox. Also, check out our interviewee Andrew Stanley speaking at this year’s virtual and in-person Cause Camp conference.


For most, being called a grammar nazi isn’t the most flattering compliment.

However, for one volunteer at The HALO Foundation, it is the perfect way to recognize her contributions to the organization. HALO, which works with disadvantaged youth in Missouri and Africa, gives this award as part of a handful of awards at an annual happy hour to honor the volunteers.

“We try to identify a couple things they’ve done during the year and recognize them,” said Nicole Gerken, the director of operations for HALO. “We gave one woman the grammar nazi award, it might not seem like much, but it is stuff she’s able to do.”

Volunteer engagement isn’t just a trivial award or public recognition, but rather part of a nonprofit’s culture. Engagement starts from the recruitment of volunteers and includes training, retention efforts and also appreciation. When done properly, volunteer engagement can help your nonprofit operate more effectively and make your mission work more rewarding for everyone.

Andrew Stanley, president and co-founder of VolunteerMark, said volunteer engagement ties into the overall culture and how you treat volunteers.

“For me, engagement is the key metric that’s impossible to measure,” he said. “It happens when people feel like they are contributing in meaningful way.”

After moving to Kansas City, Stanley was looking for a chance to give back to his hometown, but he received the runaround during his first attempt to volunteer. Eventually, he found an organization to volunteer with, but that first experience gave birth to VolunteerMark, which is a software company that helps manage the volunteer experience through recruitment, communication and scheduling.

Stanley said it is important for nonprofits to treat volunteers like an extension of their employees, but you can’t treat them exactly the same. Volunteers can walk away at any time and may drift away if they aren’t getting what they want out of the experience.

“It’s important to recognize them, but if they don’t feel like they belong and have a voice, it doesn’t matter if you recognize their birthday,” Stanley said. “It ties into the larger culture of how you treat the volunteer. From there it is a matter of getting to know the volunteers. What are their hobbies and interests? What skills are they trying to gain when they are giving to your organization?”

At HALO, the volunteer-nonprofit relationship starts from the first interaction. Gerken said they post volunteer openings on their website similar to how they would post a paid job opportunity so when a person signs up they know what they are getting into.

Upon expressing interest, a possible volunteer will attend a 30-minute orientation to learn about all the areas where volunteers can contribute. At the end of the session, the volunteer will complete a questionnaire to determine their interest. A HALO staff member will then conduct a phone interview and bring in the volunteer for a face-to-face interview with employees.

Even though the process might seem intense, Gerken said it’s proven to be effective as the volunteer is engaged in their activity, whether it is teaching woodworking classes or helping with administrative work.

After they are involved, the volunteers still have plenty of interaction with the staff. Gerken said she schedules one-on-one meetings with volunteers to gauge their satisfaction with their role, catch up with them personally and make sure they are being appreciated. She said based on the meeting, she can find new opportunities for volunteers, write LinkedIn recommendations or sign them up for training classes for further skills development. In addition, the volunteers can serve on an ambassador board and provide feedback to the organization.

Each month, HALO recognizes a volunteer of the month and promotes that person’s work on their website and social media. Gerken is continuing to find new ways to recognize volunteers. This year as HALO celebrates its 10th anniversary, they will offer their first formal awards recognizing the top volunteer, donor, advocate and artist for the past decade.

“We are a part of their lives,” she said. “We get invited to their graduations, baby showers and anniversaries. We are a pretty close-knit group.”

Gerken said volunteers and interns make up 83 percent of their organization. During a month they have about 100 volunteers working on the workshops, helping on various community projects and raising awareness. And no matter what they do, HALO is a success because of people donating the time, talent and energy.

“HALO would not be possible without volunteers and intern program,” she said. “So we really are looking for the best fit. It’s not just a fluff opportunity. What are their skills? Where is the greatest need? We try to find out what they are most excited about and put them there.”

  • Thanks for such an inspiring article! I just finished race directing the Star Kids Triathlon.
    As you may know, these type of events only happen because of the volunteers.
    How can I learn more about recruiting and retaining a cadre of volunteers?