Volunteer Management 101

Hello Hack Library School readers! I’m excited to introduce myself with a topic very near and dear to my heart: managing volunteers.

In 2011, after finishing my MA, I found myself at a bit of a crossroads and needed to do something different and interesting while I figured out what was next. So I started a year-long AmeriCorps placement with an arts education nonprofit, helping administer three volunteer programs. I did everything from the nitty-gritty of event RSVPs and answering questions about the application process to big-picture reevaluations of the entire volunteer recruitment and screening system. Although none of these skills are taught in my MLIS program, I can already tell that they’ll be among the most valuable skills in my professional toolkit.

Much of the recent debate about unpaid internships can also be applied to volunteering; it can provide valuable experience for volunteers and build capacity for organizations. Plus, it often just feels really good. But when volunteering becomes an expectation or prerequisite for moving ahead in a field, or when administrators use volunteers to replace professional staff, thorny ethical issues arise. Despite these concerns, though, volunteering remains an important part of our civic and cultural landscape, and my guess is that it’s here to stay.

So I’m not here to tell you that volunteering is inherently good or bad for the profession, or to tell you that you should or should not volunteer as an MLIS student. I am absolutely here to tell you that you will need to manage volunteers at some point in your career, and that your MLIS program most likely will not equip you to do so. Volunteers are a long-term investment for your organization, and without some forethought and infrastructure, neither you nor your volunteers will be satisfied. So here are some basics you’ll want to keep in mind as you get started:

Although some people may contact you directly to find out about volunteering, you might also need to do some recruitment, especially if you have a special event for which you need several volunteers. It’s important to have some idea of type of volunteer who will be the best fit for your needs. You may want to contact a local college or university, post fliers in your library, or reach the general public through websites such as Idealist or VolunteerMatch.

Even if you only have one volunteer, develop a simple application form. Include personal information, an emergency contact, references, and a short answer question about their skills and interests. This will help the position feel more formal, and standardize the process for the future. It can also help you more effectively match individuals with tasks and projects. Conduct a background check. Your organization’s human resources department can probably help with this. There are several inexpensive services that can save you a world of problems down the road.

Offer the volunteer a simple position description and a brief orientation. This doesn’t need to be exhaustive, as it would be for a new employee, but volunteers will feel more welcomed and invested if they’ve met others in the organization, understand what is expected, and know that you’re prepared for them to work. Sandra Hoyer makes some great points about this in her post, For the Love of Volunteers and Unpaid Interns. “Feeling like my arrival was expected, and not a surprise, cues to me as a volunteer that I am truly wanted and needed there,” Sandra says. “Setting off on a note of preparedness makes me excited to contribute and often affects the length of my stay.”

Give your volunteers feedback! Most often, this will mean thanking them, genuinely and frequently. Thank them when they arrive and when they leave, and when they complete a major task or event, spread the good news to others in the organization. You may also want to host a volunteer appreciation event, such as a special tour or party. Sometimes, however, this will include constructive criticism. It’s okay to let a volunteer know that it isn’t working out! Holding volunteers accountable to expectations can make the difference between wasting everyone’s time and truly building your organization’s capacity.

Ready to learn more about engaging and managing your volunteers effectively? There are plenty of excellent resources you can check out to hit the ground running.

 It’s your turn, hackers! Do any of you have additional tips or resources? If you’ve been a volunteer, what did your organization do to make your experience positive, or what could they have done differently?

8 replies

  1. Yay! These are fantastic resources!

    I’m a computer lab volunteer at a local public library and I definitely appreciated the short but informative orientation that took place when I started. Additionally, it was made very clear from the beginning what the volunteers *were* and *weren’t* expected to do.

    I also love that the volunteer coordinator is a great communicator – she has us all on an email list so that when she’s gathering volunteers for special events we can all see how many people she still needs (as people reply). Very helpful!


    • Thanks, Nicole! Setting expectations is So. Important. in any kind of management, but especially in trying to manage volunteers ethically.

      Having an email list is definitely a great way to keep in contact with current and prospective volunteers. I forgot to mention in my post that we also began using a simple Google Form system at my organization, and it made a world of difference! Our recruitment email blast included a link to the form, and when volunteers responded, it populated a timestamped spreadsheet. We could use tell at a glance who had replied first, how many volunteers signed up, and all of their contact info. Plus, the volunteers’ information remains confidential, which can be a concern if you’re using a “reply-all” kind of system.


  2. Very informative post!

    I started volunteering in the public library when I was in my teens and I remember one of the aspects that helped volunteer retention, especially for teens and young adults, was the fact that they made it fun to volunteer. We’d participate in events, help promote library programming, provided input on new programming ideas the for the library, some even worked on the teen’s library site. This in turn helped to increase the volunteer pool, because all the cool kids wanted to hang out where the excitement was and that just happened to be at the library 🙂


    • Great point, Aidy! I love that you had a teen volunteer program at your library — teens have a great perspective to incorporate into your organization, and there’s also a real opportunity there to provide experience that benefits them. Even though I will most likely end up in an academic library/archive, I would love to find a way to get high school students involved.

      There are lots of ways to make volunteering a fun/social/networking experience… maybe a topic for another post 😉


  3. Great post, Anna-Sophia! You bring the weight of personal experience to bear while thoughtfully tackling an aspect that all of us will probably encounter at some point, especially if we work in access services.

    From my own experience, I strongly agree that it is SO important to make volunteers feel welcomed and feel that they are really contributing to the success of the organization. Communicating this aids retention, boosts motivation, and attracts more volunteers by word of mouth. I once volunteered with a wildlife nonprofit, and all of us–old guys and college kids–agreed that we showed up because we loved our coordinator and didn’t want to disappoint her!

    However, volunteers also need to be held accountable, especially given that many public library volunteers are students who just need the community service hours that schools require for graduation. In a way, then, by recruiting them as volunteers, we are doing them a favor as well as they us. Yet some of them will drift in and out whenever they please, skipping scheduled shifts without even notifying staff, or work very, very slowly when they do come in. We’ve had to “fire” volunteers in the past for being consistently unreliable, if you get the pun. 😉

    Full disclosure: I work in a library because I volunteered there first.


    • Ooh, yep, the “consistently unreliable”… everyone’s favorite! I went to a seminar on managing difficult volunteers, and every organization has ’em. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who was phenomenal with that kind of issue, and I do think it becomes easier over time to set those expectations and boundaries while still being personable and professional.


  4. Reblogged this on Paper Trailing My Way and commented:
    I’d never thought that I would one day be in the position to “people-manage,” but here I am! Working in a school library, things pile up fast and you learn to appreciate any extra help you can get! At the school where I currently work, we have great parent volunteers who commit themselves to spending at least an hour a week helping us with everything from shelving and checking in/out books to pulling books for class study units. And guess who’s partially in charge?

    I’ve learned how to “people-manage” on the spot from the experience of working with our parent volunteers. However, this post is a great source of information–a reminder (as well as a source of new information) to appreciate the volunteers who come in as people who free themselves to help out, and not just extra hands. Thanks Hack Library!


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