Volunteer Programs are More Than Free Labor

Volunteer Programs are More Than Free Labor


14 July 2020


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Among the many hats I wore for a time at The Nature Conservancy was that of Volunteer Coordinator. And frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. It always seemed that it took more time to teach and supervise a volunteer than it would have just to do it myself.

That wasn’t always true, of course, and I did get better over time. What I remember was a general frustration with setting standards and trying to make the work systematically efficient.

Anyway, somewhere along the line I ran across this nugget:

Volunteers need three experiences to feel fulfilled and inclined to return:

  • A mission experience – the feeling that their time was valuable and accomplished something important.
  • A professional experience – the activity was well-organized, started and ended on time, and materials and resources available and ready to go when and where needed.
  • A social experience – being with people they liked and respected.


I don’t know where that came from, but it stuck with me, and I’ve remembered for several decades. And I return to it whenever I am thinking about volunteers.

Several of the organizations I’ve met since then have put my early efforts to shame. For example:

  • Joshua’s Trust in Connecticut owns and manages more than 100 preserves and dozens of easements. A small army of land stewards? No. An impressive network of volunteers coordinated by a dozen mid-level managers called Regional Coordinators and with assistance from a single Volunteer Coordinator.
  • The Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin logs nearly 100,000 hours of volunteer labor each year, building and repairing sections of the Trail. They have 2- and 3-day work events with as many as 300 volunteers at a time and even a “chuck wagon” to keep everyone fed.
  • The Ice Age Trail Alliance also runs a volunteer “university,” a one-day training session filled with workshops that establish expectations and standards for volunteer service. Participants can be “certified” on chain saws and other equipment or as crew bosses and other leadership positions. Other organizations have variations on this theme. Bayou Land Conservancy in Texas has a series of training workshops that, after the first one, can be taken in any order to “graduate” as an “Ambassador.” It’s a program modeled in some ways after the Master Naturalist programs. And there are “burn schools” all over the country that teach volunteers how to plan and manage fire as a land management tool.


These programs weren’t created overnight and they didn’t happen by accident. They are each deeply rooted in the fundamentals of the volunteer experience that I learned long ago. And each one features a deliberate, intentional program of:

  • On-boarding – general introduction to the organization and mission including how the current suite of volunteer activities fits into the larger picture. This gives mission context to the volunteer tasks.
  • Initiation – introductions to organizers, co-workers, and organizational leaders who are part of the project.
  • Leadership development – opportunities to grow within the program to deepen volunteer investment and ownership.
  • Communication and feedback – regular check-ins, information sharing about future events, and even coaching. This explicitly includes circling back with volunteers to show them the results (impact) from their labor as a way of expressing gratitude.
  • Recognition – showing volunteers how much they mean to the organization and inspiring others. Volunteer of the Year awards are the common default, but volunteers can also be recognized for milestones of services – years of service, for example, or hours logged.


Wild Apricot’s blog is published several times each week and includes several recent articles relating to volunteer programs:

How To Create A Volunteer Engagement Strategy that Actually Works
Why You Might Need a Volunteer Newsletter + 3 Templates


These articles promote the idea that your volunteer program needs its own communications and branding strategy instead of a scattershot approach through multiple emails. They suggest creating a special volunteer newsletter and offer the following five tips (the annotations are mine):

  • Keep it Short – short and frequent is a better communications strategy in general than long and over-produced.
  • Highlight the Most Important Information – Design for skimmers. Use boxes, bolded or underlined type and color to highlight the information you want to draw the eye.
  • Consult with Volunteers – Your best information about the content of your communications will come from the audience itself. Ask how your communications can be most helpful and keep asking.
  • Create a Strong Brand – Strong brands engender loyalty and ownership, and they portray a sense of professionalism – that you know what you’re doing.
  • Include Appreciation – Always include a small story of a volunteer experience. You will honor the effort of the story’s subject and also inspire others at the same time.


The world is changing and the available volunteer base is changing also. Older people are aging out of volunteer service. Younger people have different motivations, needs, and communications styles. The culture is shifting, and our programs need to shift also. But the fundamentals are still the same:

  • Mission experience
  • Professional experience
  • Social experience


As always, your comments, reflections, and stories are welcomed here.


Cheers, and have a great week!




Photo by Jill Wellington courtesy Pixabay


Share this!
1 Comment
  • Jill Boullion
    Posted at 08:54h, 14 July

    Thank you for highlighting Bayou Land Conservancy’s Ambassador program. This fall will be our 15th class. These volunteers not only work to keep our 14-mile trail maintained, they make their way on to our committees, and our board. They are often our most committed donors. Many form deep and meaningful friendships with other volunteers and our staff. It’s a worthwhile program and one we are always looking to improve.