The past two posts I wrote about your board (and inactive board members). Your board consists of unpaid volunteers. However, you may also have other volunteers working in or for your nonprofit. Especially in the beginning when you may not have money for paid staff. Depending on your operations you may have a need or desire for volunteers later, too. They make great ambassadors, can help you reach more people and may even help get some work done, too. However, don’t be mistaken. Volunteers are not free of charge.

What can volunteers do

What volunteers can do depends on their skills, knowledge and enthusiasm as well as their availability. It also depends on the opportunities you can provide them with. If there is a good match, a volunteer can bring real added value to your work and organization.

What is in it for the volunteer?

Whether there is a good match or not depends to a large extent on the volunteer’s motivation for getting involved. There are as many motivations as there are volunteers of course. But you can distinguish some categories and this can help better understand the needs of your different volunteers. In my experience the following categories cover most of the volunteers I have known.

Looking for a job

There are volunteers who hope to learn skills and knowledge and build a network that will help them find a job. They are interested in getting practice and learning on the job as it were. These volunteers may leave when they find a job that suits them.

Thinking about a career change

There are volunteers who have a job they don’t much like and are thinking of finding a job in the nonprofit sector. They want to learn more about the nonprofit environment before they make that choice. These volunteers may leave once it is clear to them what decision to make. However, if they do decide not to leave their job after all, they may like to stay with you for a bit longer to combine their dreary day-job with meaningful work for you.

Wanting to be a social person who adds value

There are volunteers who face certain challenges, maybe due to an illness or affliction, for whom volunteering is a way of giving meaning to their life as well as a way of building a social network in which they are not the ‘patient’ or ‘victim’ but visibly add value to other people’s lives. If these volunteers feel safe and appreciated in your team they may stay for a long while.

Desiring to apply professional skills for an assignment ‘for good’

There are volunteers who have a well-paid job that does not give them sufficient meaning and want to use their skills and knowledge ‘for good’. These volunteers usually want to get a certain task done for you, often in line with their professional expertise, and may then move on to another volunteer assignment at another organization.

Looking to keep an active role in society

There are volunteers who are retired and want to feel useful, offering their insights, knowledge and skills for free to a good cause. If these volunteers feel appreciated and build a real connection with your team, they may stay on for a long while.

Tender love and care

Every volunteer requires tender love and care. The shape and intensity of this depends on the motivation of your volunteer. For some volunteers you need to be a coach, for some a confidante. Some volunteers will require more of your time and attention than others. And you may feel they deliver less. You may at some point feel they are taking your time and are not being productive. And you might be right there, too.


It all depends on your expectations: what they are and whether they are realistic. If you look at my categories of volunteers you can probably see that for each of these groups, different things are important. Each of these types can deliver differently to you. And each of them requires a different kind of support or effort from your side.

Ambassadors …

As I wrote in the first paragraph: if you treat them right, volunteers make great ambassadors for your work and your organization. If you can give them the support they seek, they can be fans for life. It is impossible to overestimate the power and importance of ‘good press’ from your volunteers, during the time they are volunteering and especially beyond their volunteering.

… and hands for outreach

As your ambassador, they will help you reach people you may otherwise not be able to reach. Maybe because they are outside your network, or simply because you do not have time to give everyone you know a call. This, too, you should not underestimate. If you are thinking about the return on your investment of time and attention in your volunteers, do not focus on output alone. Be realistic that some of your volunteers may never be fully productive on an output level. But instead they may be super valuable when it comes to your social network and public image.

TLC is also: being clear

Being supportive and appreciative of your volunteers includes being clear. Make sure you have clear agreement with your volunteer about what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. It is not weird to put this in writing in a contract between the nonprofit and the volunteer. It is also not weird if you keep track of what is agreed and if you hold your volunteers accountable for what they agreed to do or deliver.

Does money come into it?

Some of them may not want to be paid in money and you should respect that. But for some it may be nice to earn a bit of extra money. And it is, in principle, in most countries possible to pay your volunteers. Obviously, that will not be anything near a professional salary or fee, not should it be.

What you can pay depends on your context. In the Netherlands, it is possible to pay a volunteer a symbolic amount free of taxes. If it does not exceed a certain price per hour worked. This goes to show that in this context having a contract and keeping track of time spent is a necessity for the volunteer, too. Note that reimbursement of costs incurred is included in this maximum amount. Make sure you check applicable regulations before you create any issues for your organization or for the volunteer.

Other forms of payment

Keep in mind that you can ‘pay’ volunteers also in other ways than giving them money. Let them join a training, so they can learn something new. You can give them appreciation and a public (or private) thank-you. You can give them a certification or a written recommendation. There are countless ways to reward them. What is the best way depends on their needs and heart’s desires, as well as on your possibilities and creativity.

Want to know more and ask questions?

Then join my Facebook group how to become a professional and resilient nonprofit with Suzanne Bakker here. In this group we will create a safe space for open exchange and discussion on potentially sensitive topics like boards, nonprofit management, fundraising, etc.