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How to Start a Volunteer Program: The Ultimate Guide

Free volunteer program planning worksheet

Are you ready to start a new volunteer program?

You may already have a few volunteers that you call upon to support your organization. But creating an official volunteer program will help you build a foundation for recruiting more volunteers and growing your community impact. 

In this article, we’ll show exactly how to start a volunteer program. 

Here’s what you’ll learn:

As you learn how to start your volunteer program, make sure you have the right tools in place! Learn more about how Get Connected can easily bring your volunteers, tasks, and data together  

What Is a Volunteer Program?

A volunteer program is an organizational structure for recruiting and managing volunteers while supporting community volunteer activities. 

You may be wondering, does our organization really need a volunteer program? 

Volunteer programs benefit our associations and our communities by

  • Building the capacity of community organizations
  • Improving an organization’s return on investment
  • Delivering services that an organization would otherwise have to pay for
  • Supporting the necessary functions of an organization

If you’re looking to build capacity at your organization and leverage volunteers to help solve a problem, you’ll benefit from starting a volunteer program

FREE DOWNLOAD: Increase the impact of your programs with our Volunteer Program Planning Worksheet

How Volunteers Support Your Organization

From nonprofits to businesses, all kinds of organizations rely on volunteers to help make their communities safer, healthier, and happier places. In fact, many community organizations rely on unpaid volunteers for:

  • Providing direct services to clients
  • Supporting organizational operations
  • Offering pro bono work and unique skills 
  • Aiding fundraising efforts

During the volunteer program planning process, your organization will determine how it will tap into volunteer time and skills to help achieve your mission. 

Starting a volunteer program is about more than taking on a few volunteers. It requires careful coordination and the right tools to make the best use of your volunteers’ time. 

But with these tools and thoughtful planning, setting up a successful volunteer program becomes achievable and rewarding. 

So, now that you know why you need a systematic approach to managing volunteers, let’s get into how to set yourself—and your volunteers—up for success. 

How to Develop Your Volunteer Program 

You’re passionate about your cause and ready to take on volunteers to tackle challenges big and small.

Let's continue to answer the question, “How to start a volunteer program?”

Your next step is to lay the groundwork for a successful and sustainable program before you begin recruiting volunteers.

What Makes a Volunteer Program Successful?

A well-managed volunteer program uses available resources efficiently (more on resource management later) so that volunteer leaders can focus on building relationships with volunteers, clients, and other stakeholders. 

Here’s what success can look like in a volunteer program:

  • The program addresses the real needs of the community.
  • Program leaders forge meaningful partnerships with community leaders, stakeholders, and clients to ensure the community’s diverse voices are heard. 
  • Program leaders regularly evaluate the mission, goals, and processes.
  • Volunteer leadership connects volunteers with opportunities that match their passions and skills.

The volunteer leader is tasked with overseeing the day-to-day management of volunteers. These volunteer management activities ensure that the volunteer program as a whole is meeting its goals and delivering on its mission. 

Let’s learn more about how volunteer management can support your program.

Download your free volunteer program planning worksheet

What Does Successful Volunteer Management Look Like? 

Effective volunteer management is essential to a functioning volunteer program. It's volunteer management that truly makes a volunteer program—a group of well-managed volunteers is a force to be reckoned with! 


Check out our all-inclusive guide to volunteer management or keep reading for details on the building blocks of a successful volunteer program. 

  1. Volunteer Recruitment - Volunteer recruitment is the process of finding and attracting volunteers. You’ll need a strategy for continuously recruiting volunteers to drive your program forward. Read more about volunteer recruitment

  2. Volunteer Scheduling - Your volunteer program will need a method of placing and scheduling volunteers once they express interest in your organization. The volunteer coordinator will oversee the scheduling of volunteers, but many programs find that self-scheduling through a designated volunteer website is the most efficient way to place volunteers. Learn how to schedule volunteers 

  3. Volunteer Engagement - Volunteer engagement is a series of activities that keep current volunteers engaged with your organization from the moment they sign-up for an opportunity (and beyond). Keeping volunteers happy and interested in your organization leads to better work, greater impact, and improved return on investment. Strategies for engaging volunteers

  4. Volunteer Recognition - Volunteer recognition should be a part of your engagement strategy, but it’s so important we gave it its own number! Recognizing your volunteers goes a long way in improving volunteer retention so that you know you always have the volunteers you need to support your program. Top tips for recognition and appreciation

  5. Tracking Volunteer Impact - Capturing your volunteer program’s impact is a great way to show your volunteers how much they’ve accomplished. Tracking volunteer time is also necessary for winning grants and growing your program. Get free volunteer hours log templates

By managing each area well, your volunteer program can successfully support active, long-term volunteers while building capacity at your organization. 

Resources You’ll Need to Start a Volunteer Program

What resources are available to your organization? Here are the key resources you’ll need to support your volunteer program:

  • People Power
  • Funding
  • Tools and Technology

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these categories:

Investing in People

Think about the staff and volunteers you need to run your volunteer program. Will you need paid volunteer leadership? Do you plan on using administrative volunteers to help manage the program? 

We’ve compiled a list of resources for supporting the people that make up your program:

  • Understanding the Role of the Volunteer Leader - When starting a volunteer program, it’s important to understand what volunteer leadership will look like. Check out our guide on the responsibilities of volunteer leaders, including suggested leadership models for managing volunteers based on your program’s needs. 
  • Volunteer Leadership Training Resources - Whether their paid staff or volunteers themselves, your volunteer leadership team will need training to do their jobs well. We recommend this article chock-full of insight and resources on volunteer manager training and professional development
  • Training and Onboarding Your Volunteers - Volunteers who feel prepared and supported are more connected to your organization and ultimately achieve more impact. Thoughtful volunteer training and onboarding are crucial to the success of your volunteer program. Read our Definitive Guide on Volunteer Training for Volunteer Managers and Volunteer Onboarding Best Practices to learn how to best support your supporters.

How to Fund Your Volunteer Program

Did you know that over a third of volunteer programs have a budget of less than $5,000? Many volunteer leaders agree that their programs are underfunded. That’s why it’s critical to figure out how you can leverage the resources you have to build capacity. 

Before you reach for funding, you’ll need to figure out your program expenses. Some of your highest volunteer program costs will likely include:

  • Staff - Depending on the structure of your organization, your budget may need to include the paid staff, like volunteer supervisors and development officers, who will manage and support your volunteer program. Include their salaries, benefits, and professional development expenses.
  • Advertising and Marketing - These are the costs associated with advertising your volunteer program and recruiting new volunteers. These types of costs might include Google Ads and flyers. 
  • Tools and Technology - Think about the tools and technology you’ll need to do your job well. Things like a website for volunteers to sign-up for activities, printed volunteer training manuals, and materials volunteers will need to perform their activities (such as gardening tools or craft supplies). 
  • Other Volunteer Expenses - Miscellaneous expenses like volunteer t-shirts, appreciation gifts, and transportation add up! 

These are just some of the costs associated with running a volunteer program. Other overhead costs such as facilities expenses should also be considered by your organization. 

Once you’ve listed your predicted costs, you’ll need to figure out how to cover these costs. 

Here are some ways to fund your program:

  • Charitable Donations - Work with your board to direct a portion of the organization’s total charitable donations and membership fees toward your volunteer program.
  • Event Proceeds - Allocate a portion of revenue from fundraising events. Or, create an annual event where total revenue goes toward funding your volunteer program.
  • Merchandise Sales - Use your organization’s website and social media channels to sell t-shirts featuring your organization’s logo. Or sell items made by volunteers, from art to calendars to community cookbooks. 
  • Grants - Some grants, such as local or federal government initiatives, can be used for volunteer programs. You’ll want to check each grant’s eligibility requirements and get familiar with these grant writing tips
  • In-kind Donations - Reach out to local companies and community members to donate goods and supplies needed to support your volunteer program. Donated items such as laptops, office furniture, building supplies, and even discounted utilities and services can help cut down on initial expenses. 

Finding funding can seem like one of the more vexing challenges of starting a volunteer program. However, a big part of securing funding is making the case for your program; tap into the passion that drove you to start your program, mix in a bit of resourcefulness, and you’re on your way to a sustainable and impactful volunteer program. 

Get your free volunteer program planning sheet

The Best Tools for Managing Volunteer Programs

We understand that technology can seem intimidating. And there’s certainly a lot of it out there! But forward-thinking volunteer programs adopt tools specifically designed for their needs. 

Tools like volunteer management software save volunteer leaders hours of administrative work each week so they can focus on relationship building and capacity building. Even better, organizations strapped for resources will save money in the long run by investing in smart tech today. 

Just looking for an easy volunteer tracking tool that you can set up in 5 minutes and start using for free? Try Shift!

Here are the top tools for managing a volunteer program:

Communication Tools

A communications tool, like a CRM or email platform, is vital for effective volunteer management. You will use this tool to:

  • store volunteer contact information
  • communicate necessary information
  • engage volunteers with email newsletters, texts, and marketing materials

Some volunteer management software options offer an integrated communications tool that allows coordinators to filter and sort contacts already registered in the system. They also provide automated messaging, which helps to streamline communication and save time. 

Registration and Scheduling Tools

Online registration and scheduling can save volunteer program managers hours per week. We found that the best registration and scheduling options integrate with your existing website or volunteer management platform and also allow volunteers to:

  • Register themselves quickly using their contact information
  • Create a profile easily to house contact details, waivers, hours, and interests 
  • Self-select volunteer shifts

Tools for Tracking Volunteer Hours

Your volunteer data has the power to unlock funding, inspire support, and empower your volunteers. 

That’s why volunteer leaders must track volunteer hours and their impact. 

Look for a volunteer hours tracking tool that allows volunteers and program managers to log hours in multiple ways, such as on-site check-in and flexible hours submission forms. Volunteer program coordinators rely on robust reporting tools to quickly compile the data needed to inspire donors and win grants. 

You’ve created an inspiring mission, forecasted your budget, and invested in time-saving tools. Now it’s time to take action with actionable steps on how to start a volunteer program. 

Steps for Starting a Volunteer Program

Ready to start your volunteer program? Follow these 4 essential steps: 

  1. Understand Your Needs
  2. Write a Mission Statement
  3. Name Your Volunteer Program
  4. Make a Strategic Plan

How to Start a Volunteer Program-4-step-checklist

1. Understand Your Needs

A successful volunteer program considers two types of needs: 

  1. Your community’s needs - Your volunteer program should address a genuine need or fill a service gap in your community.
  2. Your organization’s volunteer needs - You’ll need to understand how your organization can use volunteers to fill this gap. 

Let’s take a deeper look at these two types of needs:

Community Needs

Many organizations will conduct a community needs assessment before starting a volunteer program. A community needs assessment is a process for understanding gaps in community services so that you can determine how volunteer services will help address these needs. 

If you haven’t conducted a community needs assessment, we recommend you follow these community needs assessment guidelines and examples

Volunteer Needs

As a part of your program’s planning process, you’ll want to understand where volunteers will fit into your program, and you can use their services to address community needs. 

When planning your program, give these questions some thought: 

  • What services does our organization already provide? Where are we already using volunteers? Can any of our current services be adapted for volunteer activities? 
  • Where are our resources limited within our organization? How can volunteers support the day-to-day operations of our organization? How many volunteers do we think we need to support these activities? How many hours per week? What skills do our volunteers need to fill these roles successfully? 
  • Based on our community needs assessment, what direct services will the volunteer program provide? What roles do we anticipate volunteers filling? How many volunteers do we need to provide direct services?
  • Are volunteers eligible for board membership? How will we incorporate volunteers’ input into the development, direction, and growth of our organization?

There are lots of ways volunteers can get involved in your organization from providing direct service to fundraising to managing your program’s social media accounts. You’ll be amazed at just how much you can accomplish with volunteers on your team!

2. Write Volunteer Program Mission Statement

Your mission statement will define what you’re trying to accomplish with your volunteer program. A strong mission statement helps steer the planning process and drive your efforts moving forward.

Know Your Mission

To write a mission statement, you need to know your mission! Begin by brainstorming the purpose—or mission—of your volunteer program. 

Use these questions to help guide your mission:

  • What impact do we hope our volunteer program will have? 
  • What specific communities will our organization serve?
  • Where do we anticipate needing volunteers? 
  • How will volunteers align with our program’s aim?

Once you can answer these questions, you’re ready to get writing. 

Characteristics of a Winning Mission Statement

Wondering what a strong volunteer program mission statement looks like? Here are a few fundamental components of a successful mission statement with examples from our clients: 

The mission statement addresses an unmet problem or need.

We mobilize and support a robust network of people, partners, and resources to co-create opportunities for every person in our community to live free from poverty and injustice.

United Way of Asheville Buncombe County

The mission statement is focused and succinct.

The Humane Rescue Alliance protects animals, supports families, and advocates for positive change to create a world where all animals can thrive.

The Humane Rescue Alliance

The mission statement inspires stakeholders. 

San Diego Theatres delivers exceptional performing arts and educational experiences, fosters collaboration and partnerships, and creates an accessible place for all people to enjoy the arts.

San Diego Theatres

3. Name Your Volunteer Program

Naming your volunteer program may be more important than you think. The truth is, volunteers have many choices of where to devote their time. When volunteer programs have memorable names and creative marketing, they’re more likely to stand out from the crowd. 

Check out our list of over 100 creative volunteer program names for all types of volunteer programs and causes. Be sure to download our Volunteer Program Name Generator—it’s a fun tool that will help you create a volunteer program name that sticks!

Make a Volunteer Program Strategic Plan

How do you create a successful volunteer program? Have a plan. 

Your plan should outline your approach to setting up the following volunteer management areas:

  • Volunteer Recruitment
  • Volunteer Engagement
  • Volunteer Communications
  • Volunteer Recognition

Now, let’s have a more detailed look at each of these components:

Volunteer Recruitment

Volunteer recruitment is essential when starting a volunteer program. So, you’ll need to have a recruitment strategy in place from the outset. 

Volunteer recruitment involves:

  1. Advertising your opportunities
  2. Managing new volunteer registration
  3. Screening incoming volunteers
  4. Developing strategic partnerships

You can find ways to streamline all of these tasks and more by adding volunteer management software tools to your program. 

Remember, you’re looking for volunteers committed to your cause, so striving for a few committed volunteers rather than many disengaged volunteers may be a more valuable use of your resources. 

Volunteer Engagement

A strong volunteer program relies on happy, active volunteers. That’s why you need a volunteer engagement strategy that keeps them choosing your organization. 

Volunteer engagement starts by cultivating a positive experience for each volunteer. Here are some more strategies for better engagement:

  • Match your volunteers - Opportunity matching ensures your volunteers are best utilized based on their passions, skills, and expertise. 
  • Vary your opportunities - Short-term projects with high impact are great for new volunteers, as they tend to be more manageable. Once volunteers have experienced success, they’re more likely to commit to long-term volunteer opportunities. 
  • Welcome new volunteers - Welcome new volunteers with a personal email. A volunteer orientation will provide an opportunity for new members to get acquainted with–and invest in– your organization. 
  • Set clear expectations - Involve participants in setting goals and expectations for the volunteer role. Provide adequate volunteer training so that your volunteers feel prepared and invested. Supervise volunteers during their shifts and offer constructive feedback and recognition.
  • Thank your volunteers - Always thank your volunteers for their service. When volunteers feel useful, prepared, and appreciated, they’re more likely to engage in your cause and become committed volunteers and donors. 

Volunteer Communications

Your strategy should include a plan for keeping your volunteers informed and updated. Your plan should allow you to share important information effectively and respond to volunteer queries efficiently. 

The best way to establish a system of communication between volunteer managers and volunteers is to start a volunteer database. 

Most organizations choose email as the primary method of communication—although many are also adopting text messaging to reach their volunteers fast. 

Whether you decide to email, call, or text your volunteers, you need a way for capturing their information. 

A volunteer database is a tool for storing volunteer contact information and facilitating communication between your organization and its volunteers. Besides storing volunteer contact information, your volunteer program database can also house detailed records on potential volunteers, like their skills, interests, and availability. 

The most effective volunteer database is web-based so that all your volunteer contact information is stored online and accessible anywhere. 

Gathering volunteer information doesn’t have to be complicated! Volunteer management software centralizes your communications and automates much of your outreach, drastically simplifying volunteer communications. 


Don't forget your free Volunteer Program Planning Worksheet!

Volunteer Recognition

Most of us probably agree; acknowledgment for our hard work feels great! Your volunteers are no different. Therefore, acknowledging your volunteers’ efforts should be an essential component of your program plan.

From a simple thank you note to an annual volunteer banquet, there are many creative ways to show your appreciation. The important thing is that you establish a consistent, genuine system for letting your volunteers know they’re valued.

The good news is we’ve already put together lots of creative ways to thank your volunteers, so they’re ready to incorporate into your program strategy. 

Creating a volunteer program doesn’t have to be rocket science. But it should be intuitive. Your program exists because you have identified a gap in service, and volunteers are the change-makers your community needs. 

If you’re learning how to start a volunteer program, take the time to plan each stage of the volunteer management process to address your community’s needs.

Don't forget your free download:
Increase the impact of your programs with a Volunteer Program Planning Worksheet

And don't forget the right tools to lead and engage your volunteers. Learn more about how Get Connected can help jumpstart your new volunteer program

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