Tips for Volunteer Management

post by Naomi N · 2020-07-14T09:08:46.275Z · EA · GW · 6 comments


  Main takeaways
  Elements that contribute to volunteer retention
  A short note on coordination

Cowritten with Justus Baumann. I would like to thank Cecilia Saura Drago, Colin Bested and Konrad Seifert for their feedback. 

Who should read this: people working with volunteers. The content might also be applicable to people who work with interns. 

Estimated reading time:  7 min


The intention of this post is to support Effective Altruists who coordinate volunteers by providing a practical guide. To limit the scope of this post I have chosen to only focus on elements that contribute to volunteer retention as this seems to be the issue that most people struggle with. When there is enough interest I could write a similar guide for volunteer recruitment.

The content is based on my experience as an advisor for volunteer organizations and Justus’s experience as a volunteer manager at the Happier Lives Institute, combined with the input of several people who are involved with volunteer management inside the community. It is nevertheless possible that I have missed important elements or that certain aspects are less applicable. If that is the case, please let me know so I can update the post. 

Main takeaways

  1. Help people to recognize the meaning and importance of their work by helping them think through why their work is meaningful. Ask specific questions and let them come up with their own reasons why their work is meaningful.  
  2. Show appreciation, trust the people you work with and structure the work by providing reasons for your gratefulness, praising people who did great work (also in front of others) and breaking the work down into sub-tasks. 
  3. The social environment can heavily influence the volunteer experience. Create bonds between the volunteers and a positive social environment. If feasible, organize regular volunteer co-working sessions, facilitate peer-accountability and celebrate successes together. Some people, however, prefer to work by themselves.
  4. Coordination can easily consume a lot of time. Be strategic about it and try to create efficient systems by creating clear documentation, teaming people up and delegating some of the coordination. 

Elements that contribute to volunteer retention


People usually volunteer their time because they get something in return. When working with volunteers it can, therefore, help to focus on the reciprocity of the volunteer - organization relation. How can you help your volunteers? What are they looking for in their volunteer work and what do they need?  

An easy way to support the volunteer could be, if you are in an expert position relative to the volunteer, sharing valuable literature and intros with (not heavily time-constrained) contacts in your network.  

Nevertheless, it can also be beneficial to focus on the volunteer’s contribution to the organization, in order to assess their fit. Sometimes it is better to terminate the volunteering. Ask: what does the volunteer add to the organization and the bigger picture? How do they help you?

By answering these questions you can focus on elements that contribute to the motivation of your specific (group of) volunteers. For the volunteers, these questions can help with recognizing the meaning of their work and evaluating whether working with you is currently the best use of their time.


For most people, perceiving one’s work as meaningful is probably the number one factor for long-term motivation. You can help others to see the meaning of their work by:

Appreciation & Trust

Apart from meaning, feeling valued, and recognized is an important motivator for most people. You can do this by:

Structure & Direction

The feeling of ‘being stuck’ can be a major contributor to volunteer dissatisfaction. Breaking down the work into subtasks can help to create a sense of constant progress. It is also important to prevent confusion, as this is a barrier to continue their work for many people. When they are confused, people sometimes even assume that they are not needed anymore. You can create structure and direction by:

Social environment

For most people (depending on their personality) the team is an important determinant for their volunteer experience, and also for the likelihood of continuing with their work. You can create a good team spirit by:

Organizational culture 

Think about what kind of organizational culture you have, and what kind of culture you would like. You can create the desired culture by:

A short note on coordination

As this EA forum post [EA · GW] outlines, volunteering is not free. One of the reasons that volunteering might not be an effective use of the organization’s or a volunteer’s time is the coordination that’s required. Therefore I would like to finish this post with a few tips that could reduce coordination time. For example by:


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Naomi N · 2020-07-16T12:08:49.152Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The post above comes from the personal experiences of Justus and myself, but for the people who prefer a more academic approach, I recommend this literature review on volunteer management.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-07-14T12:15:29.561Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this post.

Another post on this general topic which readers might also find interesting is Case Study: Volunteer Research and Management at ALLFED [EA · GW]. (I didn't write that post and haven't worked with ALLFED, but what I've heard about their volunteer program sounds impressive to me.)

comment by aogara (Aidan O'Gara) · 2020-07-14T09:51:29.607Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this! I’ve done a bit of volunteering and these suggestions seem very accurate and applicable. I’ll refer to this if I work with a volunteer program again.

Do you have any thoughts on when organizations benefit most from working with volunteers? When is it a bad idea, what makes the difference?

Replies from: Naomi N
comment by Naomi N · 2020-07-16T16:09:42.676Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your comment, great to hear that these suggestions seem to be helpful.

And great questions. I don't have a definitive answer (I might miss some things and the situation can differ a lot between organisations) but I can share some thoughts. Your second question is easier to answer, so I will start with that one.

I think that it's a bad idea to work with volunteers if:

  • The organisation does not realise that volunteers aren't free [EA · GW]. They cost time, for coordination, recruitment, training, answering questions, etc. And sometimes the organisation needs to pay for an insurance, the volunteer's equipment, etc.
  • The organisation is not willing to invest in the relationship with the volunteer. Even though some volunteers work independently, everybody is still human and would like to have some relation to the organisation. (Or to say it more bluntly: if you are a jerk, don't work with volunteers (or other people))
  • The organisation has the resources to pay people for their work. I think that, in general, it is preferable to compensate people for their work. Payment is a strong sign of value and appreciation, and if an organisation has the means to pay for the work, but doesn't do it, I would question what the additional value of the volunteer's work is. Besides being a great motivation killer for the volunteer, it seems to be a better use of the volunteer's time to volunteer somewhere else.

Ok, so when do organisations benefit the most from working with volunteers? I think this question is more complex than the former and depends on several factors. In general I think two components are important: 1. the nature of the work and 2. the available volunteers. If the organisation's work is not too specialised and there are enough people who fit with your organisation (and are willing to donate their time), then an organisation can benefit from working with volunteers. Otherwise, I think an organisation will struggle and it can become (very) hard to have an impact while working with volunteers.

1. The nature of the work.

Usually volunteers can be very skilled, but they do not have much time to become specialised. There are of course exceptions, but generally volunteers can not spend too much time on their work, therefore getting to know the specific organisation (and the specific work) less well than a staff member. So if your organisation's work needs a lot of inside knowledge, or is specific, it will be harder to work with volunteers. Of course, volunteers can be trained, but as they tend to spend less time on the job (and the turn-over is sometimes high), it can make the volunteer work so costly that it's not efficient anymore (for these costs, the organisation can better hire 1 person full-time and train him/her/them). Another factor that plays a role is how easily the work can be coordinated and managed, as all these are costs as well.

As a rule of thumb I think for short-term volunteering the work should be easy and straight forward (if you give somebody a description of the work, they must be able to carry it out without further instructions). For tasks that take longer, the work should contribute towards volunteer satisfaction. That is easier if the work can be carried out autonomous, is flexible, the volunteer is responsible for the whole process, and the work is challenging. If the organisation's work does not have any of these characteristics I assume it could be hard to retain your volunteers.

2. The available volunteers.

Your question was about when organisations benefit most from working with volunteers, but I think that this question can not be separated from the volunteers themselves. Partly because volunteers have to fit with your organisation, partly because volunteers who donate their time to one organisation, can not do that for another organisation (what is the best way to distribute this resource in the community?), and partly because if there are no qualified people to volunteer, the organisation can not have their intended impact. And as an organisation usually needs more volunteers to carry out the same work as one paid employee (because of the time availability), and it can be hard to find reliable, high-quality volunteers, an organisation can be easily bottlenecked by a lack of volunteers (some people say that good volunteers are power-law distributed).

Another factor is if the volunteering is the best use of the volunteer's time. Somebody could not only donate their time to another (more effective?) organisation, but also use their time to e.g. skill-up or earn to give. For effective volunteering that means that volunteers often volunteer to learn something, improve a skill, or test out a career option. If your organisation can offer an opportunity for people to do one of these, it could be encouraged (and positive for the community) to create volunteer opportunities. But if the organisation's work provides an opportunity that people are not looking for, it can be really hard to fill your positions.

comment by BrianTan · 2020-12-11T13:04:32.058Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Naomi for this post! I think there's some good advice here. I think the advice would be more persuasive though and would stick with me more if you cited examples from your personal experiences. 

I think you could cite anonymous examples (or to check with the volunteers if they're willing to have you put potentially de-anonymizing details). It would be good to know of stories of volunteers feeling really good because of the advice here, or feeling really bad because this advice wasn't implemented yet at the time. Just wanted to give this feedback!

Replies from: Naomi N
comment by Naomi N · 2020-12-15T10:39:20.116Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Brian,

Thank you for the feedback, I hadn't included examples indeed because of the potential personal details, but I like the suggestion to make them anonymous. 

Anecdotally, I encountered the following example the most often*:

"Alice started to organize the global priorities reading club two months ago. The idea for the reading club started during a  conversation at the monthly (online) social, where she chatted about an EA forum posts that argued in favor of more global priorities research. Bob mentioned that EA FictitiousExample should do something related to global priorities research and Alice suggested the reading club. Because her conversation partners, Bob and Denise, were excited about the idea, Alice started organizing the club. 

However, two months later, Alice is not that excited anymore. The first meetup of the reading club was a success: 10 people showed up and they had an interesting conversation. However, during the second meetup, only 2 people attended and both Bob and Denise had another commitment. The discussion stalled and one participant dominated the conversation with long, not necessarily related, stories. Last week, they had the third meetup and even though Bob and Denise attended and the discussion was alright, two people showed up late and during the last twenty minutes the group mainly discussed the new card game 'EA against humanity'. At the moment, Alice doesn't have inspiration for suitable articles for the reading club and started to doubt the goal of the meetups. She doesn't have much time to think about it anyway, as her exams are starting in two weeks."

I think that this is a moment when a volunteer often disengages and where certain elements might increase the likelihood of the continuation of Alice's involvement. Three things a volunteer manager could do here:

  • Helping Alice to see the importance and meaning of her work by discussing the relation between her reading club and the strategy of the community (or in more general terms: the 'overall good' that could be reached). This could be done by, for example, highlighting the bottleneck of global priorities researchers and the reading club being a place for exploring the topic before members would consider changing their career. Another, often quite powerful, method is to let Alice come up with reasons herself.
  • Helping with accountability and structuring the task. As Alice is busy with her exams, it is easy for her to avoid thinking about the reading club and just focus on her exams. Planning a 1-1 to discuss the club and find out how Alice could be supported could help her. Maybe she never realized that, if she doesn't have inspiration for new articles to discuss, she could ask Bob and Denise to pick topics for the next meetups.
  • Showing appreciation for the club and explicitly pointing towards things that were going well.

*This is a fictional example, created from a compilation of conversations I have had.