Finding great volunteers is hard work. But low cost volunteer recruitment and retention can be easier than you think.

Here’s the secret: it’s not about your short-term tactics. It’s about your long-term brand.

If you’re a remarkable nonprofit, your chances of attracting top-notch volunteers becomes much greater.

The bottom line: Getting and keeping great volunteers is a side effect of a great nonprofit culture.

Understanding Why People Volunteer

Most people who volunteer for a charitable organization already have some kind of a relationship with that organization.

Imagine the places you’ve volunteered at. How many of those did you have a relationship with already? If you didn’t, you were most likely recommended to it by a friend.

The best nonprofit volunteers aren’t usually complete strangers. They know about you in some capacity, or have a mutual warm relationship connect with you.

But first, you have to promise them something they want.

What Volunteers Want

All volunteers come to your nonprofit with certain hopes and dreams:

  • Some volunteers want an experience for their resume and personal development.
  • Helping your organization might enable a volunteer to develop their hobby (say, practicing their web design chops).
  • In the case of teenaged volunteers, they’re usually in need of volunteer service credit for a class. Maybe their friend told them your nonprofit is a fun place to volunteer, since they have to somewhere.

If you can understand their perspective and match those expectations, volunteers become much easier to keep around.

Volunteers Want to be a Part of Something Remarkable

Likely the biggest reason we volunteer: so we can talk about it later.

Let’s say your volunteer tells someone about their experience volunteering (and they will). If she says great things, you’ll have two volunteers next time.

Being talked about is the essence of remarkability. What will your volunteers talk about once they leave?

The places we volunteer say something about who we are. Give your volunteers something interesting to say about themselves and your organization, and they’ll come back.

Make Sure You Can Afford Free Workers

When I’ve volunteered to help with organizations, it’s been in one of two ways.

1. Warm body volunteerism: Anything that just needs to be done. No mad skills required. Sorting, standing, handing out, arranging and crowd control all reign supreme here.

2. Specialized volunteerism: Work that requires a specific skillset. For instance, I’ve helped nonprofits with email marketing and web copywriting. Others lend their skills as pro bono accountants, designers or event organizers.

The catch is that, like hiring a paid intern, managing either type of volunteer takes a lot of time.

For skilled and unskilled workers both, volunteers need to feel like their work is important, even if just in a small way.

Warm body volunteers need someone to direct them and field questions at all times. This means your “free work” is subsidized by a staff member’s salary.

Specialized volunteers will have to be managed much like a normal employee. If they’re valuable, it will take time to orient them. They’ll need to be affirmed and guided. You’ll need to be quick to respond to questions.

If you don’t have time to do these things, retention suffers.

But if you have the time and generosity to take care of your volunteers, to patiently guide them and help them make a difference, they’ll be worth the investment.

Make Your Organization a Great Place to Make a Difference

There are ways you can focus your energy on recruiting new volunteers. Start with your existing circles, and encourage them to encourage others. Talk to friends. Send out a few pointed emails.

While you can try quick fixes to advertise your organization, no single technique will magically usher a stampede of enthusiastic and talented volunteers to your organization.

Instead, we earn a volunteer with everything we do.

Our websites say something about what volunteers will get from us. So does your attitude greeting existing volunteers. The video on your homepage. Each interaction might be make or break. You never know.

Like it or not, this is another way that nonprofits are in the business of sales.

And great volunteers come to those who sell their organizations as exceptional places for people to do work that matters.