The Ultimate Guide on How To Start a Volunteer Program in 9 Steps

We outline the top 9 steps to creating a successful volunteer program that will stand the test of time.


Volunteering is a key pillar of healthy and connected communities. In America, an estimated 30 per cent of citizens volunteered for an organization or association in 2019, contributing $187.7 billion to the United States economy through their time, talent and expertise, according to Americorps. A majority of organizations simply wouldn’t be able to exist without volunteers.

So if you want to harness the power of volunteers to inject a little magic into your organization or event, you will need to set up a volunteer program. 

Setting up a robust volunteer program takes considerable work, so it’s important you understand all the steps involved before diving in. Taking the time to set it up properly will save a lot of headaches down the track and ensure your volunteers feel valued and engaged.

In this article, we’ll explain how to start a volunteer program in nine steps. 


Table of contents

  • What makes a great volunteer program?
  • How do I create a virtual volunteer program?
  • What is the first step in developing a volunteer program?
  • Step 1: Conduct a needs assessment
  • Step 2: Write a mission statement
  • Step 3: Set SMART goals
  • Step 4: Create a volunteer strategy
  • Step 5: Invest in volunteer management software
  • Step 6: Write job descriptions
  • Step 7: Create a team name 
  • Step 8: Start recruiting
  • Step 9: Engage and retain
  • Conclusion


Rosterfy - Infographic - The ultimate guide on how to start a volunteer program in 9 steps



What makes a great volunteer program?

Spending time creating a volunteer program will help you achieve great results. But the one major determining factor between a good and a great volunteer program is how much time you spend getting to know your volunteers and their motivations.

Finding out why they are choosing to volunteer, and with your organization, will ensure you can tailor the experience to better match their expectations.

And the easiest way to do this? Simply ask!

During the registration process, at the first onboarding session, or at regular meetings, make sure you ask your volunteers what they hope to gain from their experience. This way you can match their desires, whether it be learning a new skill, meeting people, getting work experience, or helping improve their community, with tasks that help them get there.

This will ensure your volunteers feel appreciated, valued and rewarded. Happy volunteers are more likely to continue volunteering, recruit family and friends, and even donate financially- all key aspects of creating a volunteer program that really lasts!


How do I create a virtual volunteer program?

While some organizations simply cannot replace their regular volunteering with virtual activities, for instance, in-home visits or animal shelters, there are always tasks that organizations can ask volunteers to do virtually. For example, tasks like website design and maintenance, social media, emails and volunteer communications can all be completed remotely.

So before you dismiss virtual volunteering, put your creative hat on and think about ways you could attract more volunteers through virtual volunteering.

In terms of a virtual volunteer program, the nine steps detailed below all still apply. The only difference is the way you engage with volunteers will be online rather than in person. 


What is the first step in developing a volunteer program? 

So you’ve decided you want to set up a volunteer program at your organization, but now you need to know how to start a volunteer program?

The first thing you need to do is identify exactly WHY. Why do you want to recruit volunteers, and what do you need volunteers to accomplish? How will volunteers impact your organization? Being able to answer these questions will help you shape your volunteer program effectively from day one.

So let’s take a deeper look into the nine steps to creating a volunteer program.                                                                                               


1. Conduct a Needs Assessment

Before creating a volunteer program, it’s important to identify exactly what is needed within the community, what already exists, and see if there are any gaps. We call this process a  needs assessment, and it is a critical step that can help ensure your volunteer program is as effective as possible.

Communities are in a constant state of flux, from the average age of the population, the diversity, unemployment rate, as well as general social, cultural, and economic changes. So the programs that exist may not actually be meeting today’s needs. The results of the assessment can identify any gaps which can help you with the design of your program, so your new volunteer team can better serve the community. 

By performing a community needs assessment, non-profit organizations can effectively determine the current community needs and set up an entire volunteer program that solves them. Remember, a little bit of planning goes a long way.

We’ve put together a highly detailed guide on how to conduct a needs assessment to help you get started.


2. Write a Mission Statement

Once you understand how your volunteer program will help serve the community, it’s time to turn it into a clear and succinct mission statement.

This mission statement will become the guiding principle for your organization, and your volunteer program specifically. 

Take a look at some of these powerful mission statements:

  • Oxfam: To create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice. 
  • Smithsonian: The increase and diffusion of knowledge.
  • The Nature Conservancy: To conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.
  • charity: water: Bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries. 
  • Make-A-Wish: We grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.

Ideally, your mission statement is 20 words or less, and it should convey the volunteer program's purpose within a larger social context. It should inspire volunteers, stakeholders and donors to get involved. And remember, it isn’t a concrete statement, it can morph and grow as your mission changes.


3. Set SMART Goals 

Goal setting for non-profit organizations can help future-proof your organization and ensure you’re always moving towards your mission. 

Writing down goals is a great way to extrapolate all your big ideas floating around in your head into actionable tasks.

The best way to think about your goals is by asking yourself, where do we want to be in 12 months' time?

Consider the financial, staff, impact, sustainability or awareness objectives you would like to achieve. While it’s great to set lofty goals, you should also make sure they are attainable, and above all, that they fit within your organization’s overall mission.

A popular framework in the business world is SMART goals. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. Experts have found that you are more likely to achieve goals when they are detailed, as expectations are clear for everyone. So follow these guidelines to start setting smarter goals: 

  • Specific: define the who, what, when and where of your goal with smart objectives.
  • Measurable: you can track your progress in a quantitative way using measurable goals and key performance indicators.
  • Achievable: attainable using your existing skills and resources.
  • Relevant: to your organization's mission.
  • Timely: to give you a time constraint to work towards.

If you want to learn more about non-profit goal-setting and volunteer goals examples, read our latest piece, 10 Examples of Smart Goal Setting For Nonprofit Organizations.


4. Create a volunteer strategy

Ok, so now you know what you want to achieve, and by when. But you’re probably still wondering exactly how to get there. That’s where a volunteer management strategy comes in. It encompasses all the steps that a volunteer-involving organization takes to recruit, track, engage, recognize and retain volunteers. You could think of it as a volunteer program template. 

A detailed volunteer program strategic plan is an important legacy document for any volunteer-involving organization. Taking the time to create one will create operational efficiencies, ensure everyone is on the same page, and ensure nothing gets missed.

A volunteer strategic plan covers the three key R’s of volunteering: recruitment, retention and recognition, as well as software and tools, marketing, training and communication.

Spend some time answering questions such as:

  • What are some areas where we need additional support?
  • Do we need ongoing or ad-hoc support?
  • Who will be in charge of managing volunteers?
  • How many volunteer hours do we need to allocate?
  • What will volunteers learn or gain in return?
  • Where will we find these people?  
  • What communication channels will we use?
  • How will we onboard and train them?
  • How can we create a warm and welcoming atmosphere?
  • Can we create a community for volunteers?
  • What tools will we use to engage volunteers?

Learn more in this article: The Ultimate Non Profit Volunteer Management Guide.


5. Invest in volunteer management software

Don’t go any further towards creating a volunteer program without investing in a volunteer management tool. Software such as Rosterfy is specifically designed to handle all the elements of running a volunteer program. You can automate the recruitment, screening, training, engagement and retention of volunteers from one central place, saving you increased time and effort. Embracing technology will also help reduce friction, admin, paid staff, confusion and volunteer no-shows that can be major headaches for volunteer managers.

“One of the best decisions we made was engaging Rosterfy as our volunteer management solution for the ICC Women's T20 World Cup,” said Matt Cullen, Volunteer Program Manager at the ICC T20 World Cup 2020 Local Organizing Committee. 

“Operating across six different host cities with multiple venues and roles to fulfill, Rosterfy enabled our small team to confidently execute our workforce management strategy and to engage with our volunteers in meaningful ways. From recruitment and screening right through to scheduling, communication and on-site reporting, Rosterfy was a fantastic asset from start to finish,” he added.


6. Create job descriptions

When volunteers are considering registering, they want to know what exactly they’re signing up for. A job description is a really helpful way to communicate your expectations of your volunteers and volunteer coordinator, helping you to attract the right volunteers for your nonprofit, event and/or organization.  

A good volunteer job description should explain the role including the skills, abilities and time commitment required to perform the volunteer role successfully. 

Consider including the following details in your job description. Depending on the role or volunteer opportunities available, they may not all be relevant, but always try to give as much information as possible:

  • Job description
  • Location
  • Role
  • Skills
  • Physical requirements
  • Line of approval
  • Benefits of volunteering
  • Certifications
  • Expectations
  • Additional training

Once you’ve created all the roles, you can load them into your volunteer management software and start recruiting. 

Need help getting started? Download Rosterfy's free Volunteer Job Description Template here. 


7. Create a team name to rally people

When you’re recruiting volunteers, consider choosing a creative volunteer group name that reflects your organization's mission. Instead of just being known as ‘vollies’, why not give your crew a catchy name such as ‘The Positivity Squad’ or ‘The Kindness Krew’. Giving your volunteer group a moniker they identify with can create a sense of unity among volunteers, and inject more fun into the overall volunteer experience. You could use this name for T-shirts, social events, stickers, social media posts or communications groups!. 

Take a read through this list of 50 original volunteer program names that will engage your volunteers and make them feel like part of an awesome team!


8. Start recruiting

Getting recruitment right is a major factor in building a strong volunteer program that stands the test of time. When you start a new volunteer program, you can’t rely on things like word of mouth to grow, so you need to make a concerted effort to recruit as widely as possible.

Invite individuals within the community to join and support your cause with an open and informative recruitment message, designed to initiate a call to action. 

We’ve found the top five places to find volunteers are:

  • Universities and/or colleges
  • Sporting clubs. 
  • Local businesses
  • Social media
  • Through connections

You can post your job ad on listing websites such as:

Encourage volunteers to sign up using a dedicated registration form on your website - this way they will be automatically added to your volunteer software database. This form should capture basic contact information, as well as motivations, skills, and experience. 

Learn more about how to implement a recruitment plan here.


9. Engage and retain

The final step when starting a volunteer program is perhaps the most important of all. Just because volunteers aren’t receiving payment, it doesn’t mean they don’t want some sort of recognition for their contribution. Make sure you have considered how you will continually engage your volunteers, whether it be through regular meetups, email newsletters or social media, as well as how you will reward and recognize them.

Rosterfy prides itself on our unique Reward and Recognition offering, allowing clients to better recruit, engage and retain their volunteers. Read about our favorite ways to reward and recognize volunteers here.

And remember, after starting a volunteer program, it’s not something you can “set and forget”. It should continue to evolve based on feedback from your volunteers, stakeholders and other staff.


Further resources on how to start a volunteer program 

An effective volunteer program is an important element of any nonprofit organization or event, providing a solid foundation for achieving goals. Volunteers can deliver programs and create an impact that you simply wouldn’t be able to achieve with paid staff.

So hopefully this article has shown you not only how to start a volunteer program, but how to make sure it’s highly effective! Taking the time to set it up well from the start will pay dividends for years to come!

Keep reading more on our blog:


About Rosterfy

Rosterfy exists to connect communities to events and causes they are passionate about through our volunteer and paid workforce engagement solution. We reduce the amount of time volunteer managers spend in spreadsheets and manual processes, as well as increasing the retention, engagement and attendance rates of non profit organization’s volunteer database. 

If you’d like to learn more about how Rosterfy can help you recruit and retain volunteers more effectively, why not book a demo of our product today?

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