Reading A Volunteer’s Mind

It may come as a surprise to some of you that we encourage everyone to learn how to read a volunteer’s mind as soon as they walk in the door and volunteer to help.   Some of our clients are more successful than others.  Here are some recommendations for “the others.”

If you are an organization that relies on volunteers to fulfill your mission, whether through committee work or day-to-day mission-driven service, you should ensure you understand each and every volunteer.  I don’t mean having them fill out a Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) form (though that may be required, particularly if you provide childcare).  Instead, learn their reasons for volunteering and whether they have long-term goals within the organization (a job, a seat on the board, a major donor, etc…)

Here is a guide to the four volunteer stages.

Stage 1: New Volunteer
When a volunteer first walks in the door or calls to see what opportunities are available, you are in the excitement period.  Both parties are filled with the potential of the new relationship.

Best Way To Engage This Volunteer: 
Always ask each new volunteer to fill out a (relatively) simple form.  Otherwise you are missing a huge opportunity.  Why?  Because when they are interested enough to get involved, they will give you the basic information before they see whether or not they are well treated.  (Not that you would intentionally mistreat anyone – but it happens).

Important Questions To Ask:
Of course, this is the time to find out the basic reasons that they came to your organization.  But that is only the start.  You can find out the person’s other interests, what aspects of volunteering appeals to them, whether they currently sit on any boards, whether they would ever consider sitting on your board, and anything else that can help you tailor their experience with nonprofit.

Stage 2:  The Semi-Experienced Volunteer
This is the volunteer that has been around for 6 months to 18 months on a regular basis.  Understands the basics, has experience in a certain area, and now has a definite opinion of the organization –whether good or bad.

Best Way To Engage This Volunteer: 
Over a cup of coffee.  This volunteer will give more information in a casual conversation than he/she would ever write down now.  Anecdotal information about their experiences can be invaluable.

Important Questions To Ask:
What is the best part of your work with our organization?  What is the worst part? Are there other areas of the organization that interest you? Are there any ways in which you see that the volunteer experience could be improved?

Stage 3:  The Experienced Volunteer
Someone who has been on a committee or volunteered within your organization for more than 18 months and understands the strengths and weaknesses.

Best Way To Engage This Volunteer:
This person should be easy to approach.  The more formal the interview process is at this point, the more information you will get.  A casual meeting with this type of volunteer can often end up being a complaint session for a specific issue or drift into catching up with a friend mode.  That is not to say that it shouldn’t be friendly, but it should feel like a meeting with a stated, shared agenda.

Important Questions To Ask:
Not to put too much pressure on you, but this meeting could make the difference between a life-long donor rather than just a long-term volunteer.  Ask what he/she views as the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, if they are satisfied with their volunteering, whether or not they would or have asked friends to join them in volunteering, and even how they view the staff members.  While this is far from a 360 review, a volunteer is much more likely to list off a staff member’s best and worst qualities than a subordinate would be willing to share.

Stage 4: Former Volunteer
If your organization utilizes volunteers, you have former volunteers. And, those who left on good or bad terms hold valuable insights for your organization.  Asking them to fill out a quick form will assist you in understanding what is enabling you to retain – or lose – volunteers each year.  Then, it is up to you to really listen to their responses and hear how to improve your retention rate.

Best Way To Engage This Volunteer:
Online survey, email or snail mail will all work but keep the response mechanism easy, the entire form simple and provide an option to offer opinions anonymously.

Important Questions To Ask:
In as few questions as possible, ask why he or she ended the relationship in as many ways as you can think.  A variety of lists to check off and open-ended questions can also help you understand the situation.  And improve future experiences.

Click here to download the Nonprofit Volunteer Evaluation Forms now


This overview of how to engage and re-engage your volunteers should help you evaluate your organization.  If you need help conducting these interviews or understanding the results – please contact David Mersky