Free but invaluable: What YNPNsfba knows about volunteer labor

Free but invaluable: What YNPNsfba knows about volunteer labor

One form of labor in the nonprofit sector that’s often under-appreciated is volunteer labor. All of our local chapters are run entirely by volunteers from the community, and across the network we see firsthand the kind of amazing work that volunteers can accomplish and how dedicated they can be.

The members of YNPNsfba’s Volunteer Corps, for example, commit to spending 20 hours per month furthering their chapter’s mission. Here YNPNsfba Volunteer Manager Lizzie Timbers Lara shares some of what she’s learned about how to manage and retain a dedicated group of volunteers.

Volunteers are the unsung heroes of the nonprofit sector. Although it may sound like a cliché, it could not be more true. Volunteers add manpower to nonprofit organizations that the organization would not be able to get elsewhere. They put tireless hours into causes and contribute to nonprofits’ successes. In organizations like YNPN, the volunteers run the whole organization. Whether your organization has volunteers only for events, has volunteer interns on a long term basis or is entirely volunteer run, it is essential to know how to recruit, retain and appreciate your volunteers.

YNPNsfba Board & Volunteer Corps YNPNsfba Board & Volunteer Corps. Photo by Moua Lo.


At YNPNsfba, we keep a volunteer application on our website to recruit volunteers. Because we are volunteer run we take applications on a rolling basis, but September is when we have our push for new volunteers. We are fortunate enough to have long standing social media accounts with a strong follower base that we are able to use to recruit volunteers.

Although we are able to recruit some awesome volunteers digitally, I have found that the best way to find volunteers is at events. When you meet someone at an event, you know they have already taken the first step and shown interest by attending. You can speak to them to see what their interests and skills are. People who show enthusiasm in getting involved and using their skills are people who I look for to volunteer.

In the last year, we have created an official onboarding system at YNPNsfba. The first step in the onboarding process is for the manager to meet in-person with the volunteer. This is one of the most important aspects to emphasize. The importance is two-fold; when the new volunteer is able to meet at least one other volunteer they feel connected to the organization, secondly if you cannot get a new volunteer to schedule a time to meet with you in-person, they most likely will not be an engaged volunteer.

We also have a volunteer orientation packet that the managers go through with the volunteers which covers YNPNsfba history, mission, values and structure. It is important that the volunteer understand all of this before volunteering, so that they will understand the organization they are working for better. When I was brought on as a volunteer, this system was not in place and it took me a couple years to really understand the organization’s structure and how it works. It is important when bringing on a new volunteer that they feel connected with the organization and understands their role in the organization.

Members of YNPNsfba at the Board & Volunteer Corps retreat Members of YNPNsfba at the Board & Volunteer Corps retreat. Photo by Moua Lo.


Volunteer retainment is always something that is difficult. We have found that the in-person onboarding helps with retainment. It is also important for the manager to be clear about what will be expected of the volunteer and ensure that is something that they can commit to. To help with retainment, I encourage my managers to have regular monthly meetings with their committees. I have found that the best practice is to schedule the next month’s meeting before the end of each meeting that way everyone is clear when you will meet next. The regularity of meeting helps to keep the volunteer engaged. Volunteers who feel like they are contributing and helping are more likely to stay involved and not leave.

Free food never hurts your volunteer retention strategy Free food never hurts your volunteer retention strategy. Photo by Moua Lo.

One of the best ways to keep volunteers is to make sure that you are recognizing and appreciating them. There are various ways which we try to ensure that our volunteers feel appreciated at YNPNsfba. Volunteer appreciation does not have to be a lavish thing. We appreciate our volunteers with food at meetings.

We also recognize our volunteers with a picture and small bio of each volunteer on our website and regularly updating our social media with pictures of our volunteers. Birthday cards can also be a nice way to show your appreciation. Most of our volunteers are looking for professional experience opportunities. Getting volunteers into conferences or trainings are great ways to foster their career and appreciate them. Volunteer appreciation can be simple, but the important part is to make sure that you are recognizing your volunteers in some aspect and make sure they know that you are grateful for the work they are doing.

At YNPNsfba, volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization. Without energetic, motivated volunteers our organization would not exist. We know we're not the only organization in the sector that this is true for, and we hope that all organizations can be thoughtful about how they manage and value volunteer labor.


Lizzie Timbers Lara Lizzie Timbers Lara
Lizzie Lara is the Development and Communications Director at YNPNsfba. In her role, she oversees the development, membership and marketing committees. Lizzie started her nonprofit career in high school when she was President of a conservation nonprofit, she has been dedicated to social good ever since. Her day job, is at the Homeless Action Center in Oakland, where she works as the Administrative Assistant. She is passionate about human rights, social justice and Latin America. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieTimbers
Volunteer icon from Wilson Joseph via The Noun Project

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