Successful organizations know that volunteer engagement is more than “pay to play.” The best volunteers want to be utilized fully, inspired deeply, and appreciated fairly. Research among top volunteers at a variety of academic, healthcare, and nonprofit organizations reveals what volunteers want most—and conversely, what is most likely to drive them away. According to these superstar volunteers, here are the five worst offenses:

1. Ignoring the impact

When you’re in the midst of the organization every day, it can seem like the impact of the work you do is totally obvious. But volunteers who see only small aspects of the organization may not comprehend the full impact of their contributions. And, just like donors, volunteers are deeply motivated by knowing they’ve made an impact in an area that’s important to them. When volunteers feel their efforts aren’t making a difference, they become demotivated. This volunteer for nonprofit organizations explains why he needs to see the impact:

You want to make a difference. Within the context of what you have a passion for, you try to make an impact. To the extent that you spin your wheels, that’s probably the most frustrating thing about volunteering. I think we all want to be part of organizations that are growing and succeeding. And a lot of times, you need the organization to demonstrate that to you.

2. Lacking inspired leadership

Volunteers are, by definition, not paid for their efforts—meaning that the inspiring mission of what the organization does is even more important to them because they are involved solely for the difference they can make. Organizations that have a clear vision that can be shared with all constituents are much more likely to inspire their volunteers. This longtime board member for an academic medical institution describes his experiences:

I’m going back 30 years, and we’ve gone through a few periods of time when that kind of enthusiastic leadership was absent. Then you’re just sort of plodding along and nothing new and exciting is happening. I’d say that’s the least fun. But when you have enthusiastic, excited, engaged leadership, and you’re doing something like a campaign or starting a new program, that’s when it’s the most fun. Leaders can make huge differences in every organization, and without good leadership, it’s really, really, really hard to succeed.

3. Underutilizing talent

Volunteers have a breadth of skill and expertise that can make a much larger impact than our organizations may often realize. When volunteers feel their talents aren’t being used, they begin to question why they are involved. This volunteer explains why she is selective about where she volunteers, based on who really needs her:

Unless I feel I can make a contribution, I could just as easily write a check, and that will take care of that. If I’m going to get involved, I need to feel that I am a part of that organization, and that I’m contributing. I don’t want to be a seat warmer. I’ll move on to where I can be a part of something, and be creative and helpful—that’s what makes it all worthwhile for me.

4. Wasting your resources

When those with an eye for business volunteer with your organization, they are likely to notice if something is amiss in the management of resources. Volunteers are impressed when they can see that an organization is doing everything it can to minimize waste—and likewise unimpressed if an organization seems to have a lot of it. One hospital board member explains:

Because I run a business, I controlled costs. I’m fair, but you cannot give me a deal that doesn’t make sense. And we have the same cost structure here. I always find the rising costs of hospitals, and I think there is a lot of waste in the hospital. And if people on top will take a look at how they can minimize the waste, so the cost of doing business is less, that’s the direction I would like to see. For the business, how do you control costs?

5. Rejecting the gift of engagement

Raising their hands to volunteer can often make people feel vulnerable. They are bringing something they believe to be of value to the table, and many are genuinely worried that their offers will be dismissed or declined. This volunteer, who has had mainly positive experiences, explains that her greatest fear is having her desire to contribute rejected:

If I was repeatedly expressing that I wanted to help in some way and I didn’t get a response, that would be totally demotivating. My initial concern was that I’d just be sitting there like a bump on a log, not doing anything. But people have been very responsive to me, and very respectful and appreciative of what I can give, so that’s been very motivating to me.


Does your organization make an effort to avoid these and other missteps? How do you make sure your volunteers have their greatest needs met? How do you make sure that they feel their talents are fully utilized? How do you make sure their experience with your organization is truly meaningful? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

To learn more about optimizing your development volunteer program, contact us to discuss our Building Your Development Volunteer Program workshop.