Home » The Most Common Volunteer Recruitment Challenges (and Solutions!)

The Most Common Volunteer Recruitment Challenges (and Solutions!)

Volunteer recruitment is simultaneously straightforward and complex. While your objective is clear: to get people to fill your volunteer roles, continuously sourcing reliable talent can be challenging.

Many programs don’t have enough volunteers. And organizations with more than enough volunteers may not be able to manage them effectively.

So, how do you create a recruitment strategy that provides your program with the volunteers you need without overwhelming your resources?

We’ve compiled a list of the most common volunteer recruitment challenges based on over a decade of experience in the volunteer management space. Even better? We’re detailing actionable solutions.

Let’s get problem-solving!

The Top 5 Volunteer Recruitment Challenges:

  1. Finding Time to Implement a Volunteer Recruitment Strategy
  2. Recruiting Committed, Long-Term Volunteers
  3. Navigating Social Media and Digital Marketing
  4. Volunteer Follow-Through
  5. Sourcing Skilled or Pro Brono Volunteers

Finding Time to Implement a Volunteer Recruitment Strategy

As a volunteer leader, you’re pulled in a lot of different directions.

It’s not unusual for leaders to find themselves so bogged down by volunteer scheduling that they just don’t have the capacity to focus on recruitment. And the thought of recruiting and managing more volunteers will only compound the challenge, right? 

But the fact is, volunteer recruitment can actually help you build capacity in other essential volunteer management areas.

Volunteers help programs deliver essential work and meet necessary funding needs. People who volunteer donate ten times more money to charities than non-volunteers. Moreover, 67% of those who volunteered said they would donate to the same nonprofits where they had served.

But how can you make time for volunteer recruitment when you’re already stretched thin?

Solution #1: Set Manageable Goals

You don’t need to implement a volunteer recruitment strategy overnight. Instead, start by setting small, manageable goals.

Begin by assessing your program’s current volunteer needs, so you can focus your efforts on filling a specific gap. Use this information to outline objectives that you can accomplish in the next few weeks or months. Then, carve out a bit of time each week (even if it’s just an hour or two) to work toward this goal.  

Here are some examples of achievable volunteer recruitment goals for volunteer leaders with limited time and resources:

  • Reach out to one new potential community partner weekly
  • Post one call to action on Instagram weekly
  • Create three advertisements to share on local channels monthly
  • Send monthly e-newsletter featuring upcoming volunteer opportunities

 

Solution #2: Employ Word-of-Mouth Recruitment

Word-of-mouth is a volunteer recruitment strategy that any program can employ. Word-of-mouth recruitment relies on existing volunteers, donors, and other stakeholders to promote or market your volunteer program to their networks.

Word-of-mouth recruitment works great for time-strapped volunteer leaders because it’s cost-effective. In fact, most volunteer programs will find that this strategy is already happening.

Some of your existing supporters are probably already telling their friends, family, and coworkers about their volunteer work. You can capitalize on this idea by creating a formal framework that incentivizes word-of-mouth recruitment.

How do you leverage word-of-mouth recruitment?

The best place to start is by simply asking. Ask participants to recommend a friend at the end of a volunteer shift.  Give them the language and materials they need to educate others about your cause. You can even provide a little incentive by offering gift cards for referrals.

Then, ask your stakeholders, followers, and supporters to reshare your calls for volunteers on social media and via email. (Don’t forget to add share buttons to your digital content and online opportunities).

Finally, make it easy to bring a friend or family member by creating group-friendly opportunities or bring-a-friend events. Remember, if volunteers are bringing others, you’ll want to develop a process for capturing the contact information of new participants who aren’t yet in your system and tracking additional hours.

Check out our complete guide on word-of-mouth recruitment to grow your impact.

Solution #3: Invest in Time-Saving Tools

If you don’t have time for recruitment, you’re probably over-burdened in other areas of the volunteer management process. For most volunteer programs, taking on more staff or finding extra time isn’t possible. That’s why smart volunteer programs are turning toward digital tools to get more done.

These tools aren’t about replacing people but rather supporting the numerous roles of volunteer leaders. Imagine reconfiguring your time so you spend less on administrative tasks and more on the high-impact work that drives growth.

What systems are volunteer leaders using?

An all-in-one volunteer management system can support nearly every step of the volunteer lifecycle. From self-scheduling to automated data tracking, efficient digital tools can save you time so you can focus your energy and expertise on implementing a sustainable recruitment strategy while building capacity.

Recruiting Committed, Long-Term Volunteers

Sourcing dedicated, recurring volunteers is one of the most common volunteer program challenges. Several factors may affect volunteer commitment, including time constraints, COVID concerns, and geographic barriers.

These days, people are pulled in many directions; the pandemic has compounded this challenge for many families.

What’s more, vying for supporters’ attention is increasingly challenging on your end because you’re competing with lots of savvy organizations that are well-versed in social media and marketing.

So how can you encourage people to spend their ever-shrinking free time volunteering with your organization?

Solution #1: Develop More Flexible Programming

Every volunteer you recruit may be unable to predict their commitment levels in the future. And many may shy away from opportunities that require a long-term commitment.

However, suppose you get volunteers invested in your cause and provide them with a meaningful, positive experience. Then, you’ll foster the feelings of belonging and optimism associated with engaged, committed volunteerism.

Your first challenge is getting volunteers in the door. Offer plenty of one-time, shorter shifts. This tactic probably feels counterintuitive, but today’s volunteers will be encouraged by your flexibility.

Additionally, you’ll want to consider working families and students. Provide family-friendly opportunities, evening and weekend shifts, and even on-site childcare.

Finally, consider capitalizing on two emerging trends in the volunteer space: microvolunteering and virtual volunteering. These low-commitment opportunities can actually provide people with the time and space to buy into your mission and, with time, become long-term supporters of your cause.

Solution #2: Communicate the Value

Are you finding that your volunteer opportunities just aren’t gaining traction? There may be several factors at play here.

In some cases, you may notice that volunteer preferences are changing. The activities of yore—stuffing envelopes and making cold calls—are less appealing to today’s volunteers.

Millennials and Gen Z are especially aware of the social issues that drive their support and want to be directly involved in the change-making process. So, you may find that recruits are much less willing to spend their time on tasks that feel far removed from your cause (no matter how important they are to your organization).

It can be tempting to give volunteers tedious work (think data entry). But if you’re not getting new volunteers to sign up for your roles, it may be time to reassess your offerings.

Start by assessing the needs of your community and your organization. What are the gaps in service and what volunteer projects will directly impact community needs? You can view our complete guide on conducting a community needs assessment here.

You’ll continue by creating opportunities more closely associated with the cause or need. For example, instead of asking volunteers to send mailers, put them on the ground to speak directly with community leaders and members of the public. While these types of activities will require more training and vetting, you may find that participants become more invested in your organization.

In other cases, your volunteers may not see how an opportunity leads to change. Therefore, it’s your job to connect the dots and communicate the value of every volunteer activity.

If you need volunteers to stuff envelopes, for example, explain the purpose of these mailers and the necessity of the activity for your organization and the community. Convey the value of each activity in your compelling opportunity descriptions. Then, communicate the impact of their work after their shift.

When explaining the value of the volunteer role, use language centered on the volunteer rather than your organization. For example:

Organization-Centered: The Backbacks for Change awareness campaign is a core component of our program. Our organization’s mailers will reach more than 3,000 families in the D.C. area and will help raise thousands of dollars for school children in need.

Volunteer-Centered: Your work today will significantly impact the Backpacks for Change awareness campaign. The mailers you compile will reach more than 3,000 families in our city and will help raise the necessary funds that go directly toward purchasing school supplies for children in need.

When you focus your language on them rather than you, your volunteers are much more likely to internalize the positive feelings associated with helping others.  

Solution #3: Set Your Sights on Retention

After you’ve encouraged volunteers to sign up (thanks to flexible, exciting opportunities), you can now focus on fostering long-term relationships with your supporters.

Volunteer management research tells us that high volunteer turnover can disrupt an organization’s operational efficiency and even threaten its ability to serve clients effectively. Recruiting and training new volunteers requires a commitment of resources.

Retaining volunteers you’ve already recruited is much more efficient than finding new ones. 

You’ll want to create a volunteer retention strategy so your recruitment efforts don’t go to waste. Volunteers are more likely to stick with your organization for the long haul when they have a consistently enjoyable experience.

Consider every touchpoint with your organization. How can each step of the volunteer journey be improved? When in the process do volunteers become frustrated?

You may want to survey your volunteers to gather feedback about sticking points and successes.

Another essential component of volunteer retention is appreciation and acknowledgment. Your supporters like to know that their time is valued and efforts impactful. Invest in volunteer appreciation, and you’ll certainly be rewarded.

View our complete guide to volunteer retention for everything you need to know about retaining volunteers and measuring success.

Navigating Social Media and Digital Recruitment

Volunteer programs can employ multi-channel marketing to increase engagement and connect with potential recruits. But for many, navigating digital marketing seems intimidating. However, with a bit of planning (and a few of our helpful hints below) employing digital marketing tactics can take your volunteer recruitment to the next level.

What is digital marketing?

Digital marketing uses online tools or channels to reach an audience—your volunteers, donors, and community members. Digital marketing is an immensely effective way to recruit new volunteers.

You may be more familiar with direct marketing elements like direct mail, newspaper advertisements, and phone calls. Digital marketing applies similar outreach techniques to online channels such as social media, email and e-newsletters, blogs, and your website.

Solution #1: Develop a Manageable Digital Recruitment Strategy

The key to successful digital marketing is to choose multiple channels. Multi-channel marketing involves communicating with your prospects and supporters across several channels, such as email and social media. Diversifying your online presence ultimately expands your reach.

Marketing your volunteer program requires time and planning that will certainly pay off. And you don’t need to use every digital marketing channel to be effective. In fact, you’re better off focusing your efforts on a few channels to pack the most punch—say email, Facebook, and your volunteer website.  

Ultimately, the media you choose will depend on where your desired volunteer recruits spend their time online. So, you may decide to use a combination of online and offline channels to share your recruitment messages.

Here are a few steps you can take to develop a strategy for digital recruitment:

  1. Assess your current recruitment channels. What digital channels are you currently using? Review your website, social media pages, and email campaigns. Determine which channels are working and which ones are not.
  2. Decide on which channels you want to focus your efforts. Maybe you’ve seen success with your email newsletter and want to ramp up your efforts. Or perhaps you don’t have a presence on Facebook but have identified opportunities to reach new audiences. Choose to focus on no more than three platforms for now to maximize engagement.
  3. Compile your messaging. Your recruitment messages should inspire people to take action, either by appealing to their emotions or speaking to their passions. You’ll use this recruitment message when marketing your volunteer program digitally. Your calls to action will ultimately drive interested individuals to get involved. Keep your call to action direct: “Make a real difference today. Click here to apply.”
  4. Allocate budget and personnel. Determine your budget and allocate channels and tasks to your team members.
  5. Create a digital recruitment calendar. Use a calendar to plan your outreach for the months ahead. Try to post on social media at least once per week and update your volunteer website regularly (add upcoming activities, remove past events, and refresh images and features). Monthly email is also essential to keeping your contacts informed about upcoming events and volunteer needs.
  6. Monitor and Reassess. Your digital marketing and recruitment may feel like trial and error for the first few months, and that’s okay! Give yourself time to hone your skills and adjust your strategy as necessary. The most important thing is to continuously monitor your recruitment strategy to make informed decisions for the future.  

 

Solution #2: Get Familiar with Social Media

Social media is one of your most powerful recruitment tools. And you don’t need to go viral to get more people interested in your volunteer program. You simply need to create content that engages potential volunteers.

By employing social media, you can also help address more complex recruitment challenges, like attracting generational diversity.

The key to a successful social media strategy is content and consistency. Consistently engaging content will create brand awareness and draw in supporters.

Your volunteer program should aim to produce material that:

  • Educates: Educational social media posts focus on sharing your mission and impact.
  • Inspires: Inspirational posts focus on sharing the transformation your volunteerism has been a part of with commitment to your mission through programming. Strong inspirational posts typically involve storytelling.
  • Invites: These posts invite your volunteer base or prospective volunteers to come and join you by taking action. Include a strong call to action and links to your volunteer page.

There’s plenty you can do and say on social media. Check out these resources to dive deeper and plan a winning social media strategy:

> Smart Social Media Ideas for Your Volunteer Program

> How to Implement a Social Media Strategy for Your Nonprofit

> Watch our Webinar on Social Media for Volunteer Programs

Solution #3: Set Your Website Up For Success

Your website is one of the hardest-working tools in your recruitment toolbelt—and it’s a direct reflection of your organization. A professional-looking site that’s easy to navigate instills confidence in site visitors.

Typically, visitors are drawn to clean, user-friendly sites. You’re more likely to lose a potential recruit if your website is cumbersome and difficult to navigate.

What steps can you take to improve your website experience and online presence?

  1. Update content. Remove irrelevant or out-of-date information. Regularly update your calendar of events and other time-sensitive information.
  2. Review navigation. Is your volunteer page easy to find? Does your website communicate clear calls to action to get involved? Prospective supporters should know where to go on your site to get involved in just a few clicks. Invite volunteers and staff to test your website’s navigation.
  3. Refresh branding and design. Make sure your website’s branding (including logos, colors, and mission statement) matches branding on other materials, like social media and mailers. Rotate website images regularly to keep your design fresh.

If you’re finding that, despite these changes, your website is still not converting, you may want to consider investing in a dedicated, centralized volunteer site.

Volunteer Follow-Through

Volunteers have found you’re opportunities, and they’ve registered. But you’re having trouble actually getting them to complete their training or show up to their shift.

Often, volunteers get hung up on onboarding and training. Either the process takes too long, they’re unclear on the next steps, or they simply lose the spark of interest that initially drove them to sign up.

The real issue is you may have too many barriers to getting involved.

You’ll need to find ways to reduce these barriers and keep volunteers engaged during that transition period between signing up and showing up.

Solution #1: Identify and Reduce Barriers to Entry

First, you’ll want to understand the barriers that volunteers face that prevent them from following through. Where in the onboarding process are you losing volunteers?

Consider collecting data on a subset of volunteers to determine where along the way your volunteers are losing interest and why they’re failing to show up for shifts.

You may want to start by following the volunteer lifecycle for a specific event or project. Then, track this data:

  • Volunteers who registered for a particular event
  • % of volunteers who completed background checks
  • % of registered volunteers who submitted other required forms and documentation
  • % of registered volunteers who signed up for a training session
  • % of registered volunteers who attended training
  • % of registered volunteers who showed up to their shift (attendance)

Compare your data during each step of the onboarding journey. Did you notice a steep drop in engaged registrants when you asked them to submit background checks? Or perhaps a particularly low percentage of volunteers actually showed up for training. Collecting this data can help you make targeted decisions about your onboarding and training processes.

Solution #2: Streamline Volunteer Registration and Onboarding

Once you’ve identified a particular pain point or barrier, it’s time to take action. Here are a few recommendations based on common sticking points in volunteer onboarding:

Vetting Volunteers

While vetting volunteers is essential to safeguard your organization and community, the process can become cumbersome. Here are a few ways to streamline the experience so volunteers can get involved quickly and safely:

  • Background Checks - If your volunteers must submit background checks, consider a provider that integrates background checks with your registration system. Additionally, have volunteers submit necessary information as soon as they sign up for an opportunity. This process can be as simple as filling in a few personal details without waiting for back-and-forth communication.
  • Qualifying Documentation - Have volunteers sign documents like waivers electronically. Store these documents online so they don’t have to submit them via mail or email.  
  • Volunteer Interviews - Asking your volunteers to drive to an interview location can be a big ask. Instead, consider performing volunteer interviews remotely via video conferencing. This will save your volunteers commuting time without excluding this step in the onboarding process.

 

Streamlining Volunteer Training 

Think about ways to make your volunteer training more flexible. One of the best ways to streamline your training program is to move it online. Digital training has many advantages; it tends to be more accessible for many, and volunteers can complete it in their own time (volunteers don’t have to schedule separate training sessions).

Solution #3: Automate Reminders and Communication

Sometimes registrants don’t show up simply because they forgot. If you’re not already, make sure you’re sending regular reminders of volunteers’ training, shifts, and events: one month before, one week before, and the day before the activity.

However, sending manual reminders is likely impossible for most managers. That’s why you’ll want to invest in a tool—like a volunteer management system—that automates communication and reminders. A robust software will automatically remind volunteers via email and text messaging about an upcoming shift. These reminders go a long way in improving volunteer attendance rates.  

Finding Skilled and Pro Bono Volunteers

Traditional volunteers help your organization solve challenges in your community by offering time and people-power. But some initiatives may require specific expertise to deliver highly impactful services.

Yet finding skilled or pro bono volunteers is more involved. In fact, the cost of recruiting pro bono and skilled volunteers is higher than traditional volunteers. They require extensive vetting and take more time to recruit since you cannot apply broad recruitment techniques you’d use for general volunteer roles.  

How do you get the expertise you need without over-extending your resources?

Solution #1: Target Your Recruitment Message

Instead of casting a wide net, opt for a more targeted recruitment strategy. Targeted recruitment means you’re directing your recruitment efforts toward a target audience, so you find passionate volunteers with the skills needed to support your program.

Here’s how you can target your recruitment message to get skilled and pro bono volunteers:

  • Direct your recruitment materials toward smaller special interest groups, community Facebook and LinkedIn groups, cultural societies, language societies, and more.
  • Leverage your CRM to segment your contacts and identify groups based on data such as skills, passions, and previous engagement.
  • Adopt a volunteer management software to track volunteers’ preferences when they register with your organization and automatically recommend opportunities based on these preferences.  
  • Create a personal, specific ask that skilled prospects can identify with. Suppose you’re looking for a qualified ELS teacher to offer their free services to your organization. Your recruitment message may read: “Are you ELS certified and love making a difference in your community? Volunteer with us today!”
  • Leverage corporate partnerships. Access a wealth of talent by tapping into the professional experience of corporate employees. More than ever, for-profit organizations are looking toward corporate volunteerism to deliver on CSR promises. A mutually beneficial partnership is a win-win for your organization, community, and local business.

 

Solution #2: Invest in Skills-Based Volunteer Matching

Nationally, organizations rely on skilled or pro bono volunteers to fill community-wide gaps in service, from healthcare to literacy programming. When the role requires certification or professional expertise, you must hire the right volunteer for the job.

Perhaps you’ve already initiated partnerships that provide a steady stream of professional experience. But once you’ve established this connection, you need to place volunteers efficiently and consistently.

Many volunteer programs engage in skills-based volunteer matching, which pairs recruits with the best activities for their expertise. Typically, the process looks something like this:

  • The volunteer program posts skilled positions on their volunteer site or platform.
  • Volunteers browse opportunities based on the position title, skills required, and other qualifying fields.
  • The volunteer registers for the opportunity and submits necessary documentation and application materials.
  • The organization vets these submissions and accepts qualified volunteers.  

The key here is developing an organizational system that allows interested recruits to browse and filter your volunteer opportunities based on their skill or expertise. For some organizations, this may look like a unique webpage for pro bono volunteer opportunities or corporate partners.

Others adopt a volunteer management platform with customizable tagging and filter capabilities. Volunteers can quickly and easily search for opportunities that match their skill area. Particularly robust systems will offer opportunity suggestions based on volunteer preferences and qualifications, significantly simplifying skills-based volunteer management.


Volunteer recruitment is a complex but necessary pillar of volunteer management. We hope these solutions prove effective in boosting your recruitment strategy and growing your volunteer program.

Additional Resources

How to Future-Proof Your Volunteer Program

The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Volunteer Program

Author: Addison Waters