Recruiting volunteers

The British Navy used to rely on volunteers, and to make sure they had enough volunteers they used to have teams of recruiting agents to creep up behind sailors in dark alleys, hit them over the head with marlinspikes, and drag them on board in irons. Fortunately or unfortunately, very few Australian not-for-profit groups are able to make use of this method of recruitment, and in consequence we must find other ways to induce people to join up to work under our banners.

Your organisation has gone through the planning stage. (If not read this Help Sheet first) You have a clear idea of what you need your volunteers to do and you have staff, procedures, and structures that are ready to receive them.
  • Take a moment to reflect on why you yourself are here.
  • Why are you attracted to the organisation?
  • Why are you committed to the cause?
  • What does it have to offer you as a person?
  • How representative are you?
Try and set down in simple terms the factors that bind you to the group. Ask the rest of the organisers to go through the same exercise.

Recruiting volunteers is very much the same business as recruiting donors. You need to point out to both donors and volunteers why your organisation is unique and valuable. In addition, however, you will need to tell volunteers that it is also fun, rewarding, and a source of personal development.

Screening the intake

You want volunteers, but you do not want just anybody. You need to think about screening your applicants, because
  1. You're going to be assessing prospective volunteers to see if they fit the needs of your organisation - to see whether they're competent, whether they get along with people, whether they have the skills you're looking for and fit the position description. You need to assess their trustworthiness as part of the process.
  2. If someone does come forward to volunteer whom you don't think is suitable, it is going to be very difficult to justify rejecting them unless you have a policy and a system in place that provides criteria for acceptance.
  3. It's for their own good. They're going to be working with the other volunteers, and they want to know that they are able to trust them to do the right thing; and the other volunteers want to know the same thing about them.
  4. You never know. All sorts of people can do wrong things. There can be no real guarantees about anybody, whether they've been screened or not; but we can guarantee that if a volunteer does go wrong and you hadn't checked him or her before they came on board then your organisation could be in big trouble - with the law, with your public liability insurers, with the press, and with your donors. You may be sued, or prosecuted, or pilloried.
  5. In some Australian states, in some situations, dealing with some vulnerable groups, the law says you have to. Even where there's no specific legislation, you have a duty of care to the people you have dealings with, and that means you must exercise reasonable care with respect to their interests, including protecting them from harm.
  6. In most cases, it's a sensible precaution.
Don't present this as an extra bureaucratic hurdle; show prospective volunteers that it is for their protection, and that it is to ensure that they will be joining an elite group that they can be proud to belong to.

The ask

The best way or recruiting people and the best way of raising funds from people are identical; have one of their friends go up to them and ask them. You will very probably have to resort to other less productive methods later, but start with this one. Organise your Board and your members to buttonhole five people each. Ask your existing volunteers to chase their friends.

A recent National Survey of Volunteering in the UK looked at the variety of ways in which people get involved in volunteering. 47 per cent said that "someone asked me to help". Those who were not volunteering but who expressed an interest in doing so wanted "a personal invitation to help" and "a chance to volunteer with a friend or colleague". 37 per cent who did not volunteer said that they would if they were directly invited to. If you're still not sure, ask a few friends why they joined some group -- any group -- Landcare, the Scouts, the lawn bowling team, a reading group, the local church or a welfare organisaton. You'll find it's most often because someone they knew asked them.

Now you have learned the most important lesson about recruiting:

You may ask "Isn't this very slow?" It may seem slow, but it gets you actual real breathing members on the ground faster than anything else. It's what works. We are so bombarded by T.V., billboards. magazines and newspapers that we often think that personal contact is ineffective, that we need more "modern methods." Ask yourself, though, how the pressure you feel when someone you know asks you to do something compares to the pressure you feel when you see a toothpaste ad on the T.V.. Which makes you feel more motivated? And you're not just selling a transitory minty-fresh experience like toothpaste, you're asking people to make a meaningful commitment over the long term.

As one activist said, "I don't recruit people. I just think who might be able to help, tell them what we need, and ask them to do it. They hardly ever turn me down."

Wider still and wider

This won't be enough by itself. Word-of-mouth is by its nature limiting -- volunteers tend to recruit people much like themselves, which limits diversity. You must make an effort to get a spread of people, even at the beginning - in fact, especially at the beginning. If people come to a meeting and see the group does not look like them they feel uncomfortable, and that's the last time they come. This happens at every subsequent meeting, and the mix you start with turns out to be the same mix you end up with. To reach a more diverse group of volunteers, additional tools are needed.

If you're putting on an event, try and recruit from the people you're selling to. If they have a good time on the day, they may want to get more closely involved. Consider holding special social events such as picnics or parties to show prospective volunteers (and your friends and family) that volunteering is fun as well as work.
Make your recruiting program a central part of your whole marketing and public relations program. When you have access to the media, or when you are getting your message out to the public, include a call for volunteers. When you are delivering a presentation to a service group or addressing a mob in the Domain, ask for volunteers.


When you have done all you can with face-to-face soliciting consider a more closely targeted volunteer campaign. First, decide where you would expect to find people who were in sympathy with your aims, and where you would go to find volunteers with the qualities you require (if these are the same place, then your job is simpler; but they are often very different). Once you determine this, set about designing promotional materials such as brochures and flyers to reach these groups. The material should be consistent with your general media strategy, and should as far as possible share a common look and feel with your other promotions.
Your material should describe the needs that the program is trying to fill, in terms that people can relate to, and describe how volunteers will fill those needs. It should stress what volunteers will get out of it - not in monetary terms, but in terms of personal satisfaction and community recognition.

Too many recruiters believe that people respond only to need, and to the needs of your program at that. A typical ad might run
Volunteers needed. XYZ Community Services, 555-6741.
Other groups will take this expectation a step further, -
Volunteers desperately needed. XYZ Community Services, 555-6741.
Focus on a "desperate need" does not, in fact, inspire action, it just makes people think your organisation is on the skids and unworthy of support.  

Getting the word out

The Ad

Once your recruitment process is in place you are now ready to target the appropriate audiences to recruit those who are truly interested in the project.
First you need to develop concise, clear-cut recruitment ads that will attract the best applicants to your program.
Ads should include
  •  The objective of the program
  • The task
  •  The client group
  • The time required
  • The place
  • Any requirements/qualifications
  • Training/support/reward
  • Contact for response

Placing the ad

Next you will need to place your ads in places where people are going to see them.
First, you can list your volunteer needs with which you can access through the Community Giving Centre on
Any Australian community or non-profit organisation is able to take advantage of this free and comprehensive volunteer posting service.
By posting your volunteer position needs with GoVolunteer, you are able to:
  • Access potentially new types of volunteers. Many different people use the internet, but the medium is used a lot by younger and/or tertiary trained individuals - segments of the community who traditionally have lower participation in volunteering activities.
  • Improve your volunteer relations by making volunteering easy and convenient. is able to send electronic correspondence and thank you letters on behalf of organisations, saving you staff time and expenses.
Other options to help get the word out include;
  • Your newsletter
  • Local newspapers volunteer listings
  • Paid ads
  • Human interest stories on your program in print or broadcast media
  • School newsletters
  • Professional association and club newsletters
  • Senior citizens clubs
  • Employee newsletters
  • Places of worship and their newsletters
  • Other "specialty" publications
  • Radio and TV public service announcements
  • Posters on community bulletin boards, at library, shops, community centres, sports clubs
  • University campuses
  • "Bring a Friend" coffee morning for current volunteers
  • Open house tours
  • Brief talks at community or professional organization meetings
  • Public talks/education/demos on area of service
  • Public recognition of your volunteers
  • Stall at community events/festivals
  • Special announcements at your organisation's other events
  • Your current clients, staff, board and volunteers
  • Your own web page
Once you have your volunteers in, of course, you then have to learn to manage them.
For the remainder of the volunteer cycle, see the separate helpsheets dealing with

Planning, Recruiting , Managing and Maintaining volunteers
Managing volunteers
Retaining volunteers