4 Volunteer Engagement Myths to Avoid

Nonprofit leaders have grown accustomed to seeing their roles defined in terms of leveraging tight resources, maximizing community engagement, and advancing organizational growth and development.  Too few have made the connection between those goals and creating an effective system for volunteer engagement.

The effort exerted by nonprofit leadership to engage volunteers often results in outcomes that meet neither the needs of the organization nor those of the volunteers involved.

Avoid these four common myths to maximize the success of your volunteer engagement strategy:

Myth #1:  Volunteers are free.

While it is true that volunteers operate without receiving financial compensation for their work, a credible effort to recruit volunteers needs a vision and plan, resources sufficient to the task at hand, and a dedicated,  skilled, staff person to assure that tasks run smoothly and reach completion.

Myth #2:  You can’t “invest” in voluntary efforts.

When it becomes apparent that effective volunteer engagement requires an investment, especially a financial investment, many nonprofit leaders hit a brick wall. Won’t funders and board members see it as “cheating” to invest in free labor?

Volunteer engagement is a process, no different than fund development or marketing:  it connects nonprofits with mission-critical resources. Few question spending money to raise money; spending money to raise people (a prerequisite to raising money) is just as necessary.

Myth #3:  Volunteers want only what you want.

Volunteerism is multifaceted. Not only do people serve for a multitude of reasons,  today’s volunteers serve in a variety of ways and with various expectations for the return on their investment of energy and time. Understanding the changing face of volunteers in America, as well as the top motivations for volunteering, provides an essential foundation for strategically maximizing volunteer contributions.

Myth #4:  Volunteer “work” is best defined as the grunt work that no one else wants.

The word “volunteer” connotes a pay scale, not a function. Move beyond the stereotypes sometimes associated with volunteers:  those images of unthinking, low-level robots available for any mindless task. Volunteers manage archeological digs, train seeing-eye dogs, serve as board members, manage city government, fight fires, and run nonprofit organizations.

What matters is the vision associated with the idea of volunteers and volunteering. Imagining low-level functionaries with limited abilities will lead you to design jobs only for such a person. On the other hand, envisioning a highly qualified artist painting a mural in your hallway, or a CPA overseeing a restructuring of your accounting systems, or a ropes instructor guiding your staff through a team building exercise will likely lead you to create and fill a position for just such a person with time and interest in service.

What other volunteer engagement myths are there? How does your organization overcome them to build volunteer support for your organization?

Shannon McGarry
Project Specialist
Campaign Consultation, Inc.


* Adapted from “An Executive Director’s Guide to Maximizing Volunteer Engagement,” A publication of the RGK Center for Philanthropy & Community Service The LBJ School of Public Affairs University of Texas at Austin.

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Shannon McGarry

Shannon McGarry is Project Specialist at Campaign Consultation, Inc. and an advocate for systemic, holistic approaches to building the capacity of nonprofits and community organizations. She has worked with nonprofits to strengthen and diversify their funding streams, expand and mobilize their membership base, and build sustainable programs. Read more.

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