How the Clients of Your Nonprofit Can Serve As Volunteers

Little affirms human dignity more than honest work. One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility. And the creation of productive, meaningful employment fulfills one for the Creator’s highest designs. Because of that, it should be a central goal to our service.
Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity

One thing that changed drastically when I stopped leading A Day of Hope and turned over the reigns to the new team of leaders was that they changed “who” the volunteers were.

In my five years of leading A Day of Hope the primary volunteers I recruited were teenagers who had required community service hours, college students, and adults with kids. Those were the three groups I often sought out as potential volunteers to support our work in the community.

However, when Enclave Community Church began to lead A Day of Hope they enlisted the help of clients to serve as volunteers. This was a group of people which I never thought to or attempted to recruit as volunteers.

For several years Enclave had been running their weekly food program mostly through the work of volunteers, and most of those volunteers were clients in their program. The same people who were receiving a grocery bag of food every week were the same people who were going to the food bank to get the food, organizing it, preparing it to be given away, and then doing the cleanup work after the distribution of food.

Doing ministry with volunteers who are also the clients of the program looks different, but it can be done. In today’s post I show you how the clients of your nonprofit/church program can serve as volunteers.

Opportunities to volunteer must be expanded to all segments of the community—it is consistent with the concept of equal opportunity. Instead of being the privilege of the already privileged, volunteering must become the right of everyone: minorities, youth, seniors, the handicapped, blue-collar workers, business people, the disadvantaged. Remember—those who understand the culture and lifestyles of those you are trying to recruit make the best recruiters.
Marlene Wilson, The Effective Management of Volunteer Programs, p. 118

How the Clients of Your Nonprofit Can Serve as Volunteers
A great example of having clients serve as volunteers is a community garden where people in need of food can plant and grow their own food while learning life lessons of responsibility, patience, etc.

 Photo Credit: US Department of Agriculture

I. Your clients can do a great job of serving as volunteers because they know about:

  • services provided by your organization
  • who the clients are that are being served
  • the culture of your organization (what to do and what not to do, what to say, who to avoid, etc.)
  • your organization’s mission
  • how your work can make a difference in the lives of clients

II. Get them involved:

  1. talking with other clients if possible
  2. serving clients if possible
  3. doing something simple and tangible

III. Monitor them closely.

When you begin to use your clients as volunteers it is important to remember that your clients are going to need some coaching and support from you. This might be the clients’ first time volunteering and it might be the first time they have had a “job.”

Here are a few areas your clients might need coaching in:

  • Language: I remember when a client who was starting to volunteer used an “f bomb” and used it regularly. This was something that had to be addressed and corrected.
  • Social Interaction: Sometimes clients need to be taught and coached about what is and is not appropriate to say to other volunteers as clients. When serving as volunteers, your clients need to be reminded that other volunteers are giving their time freely and should be treated with love, respect, and appreciation.
  • What can and cannot be done while volunteering: When a client begins serving as a volunteer it is important to remember that this might be the first job that client has had. This means there will need to be some training about what the client can and cannot do while volunteering. Be clear on what the role and responsibilities of the volunteer are, what job he needs to complete and, the manner it should be done in. It is also important to tell the client what cannot be done while volunteering such as talking on a cell phone, taking breaks, etc.

IV. The Clients Who Are the Best Potential Volunteers

Based on my research here are several of the best potential volunteers among your clients.

  • Women are more dependable than men.
  • Older volunteers are more dependable than younger volunteers.
  • Levels of education are not a predictor of volunteer quality (Zweigenhaft, et. al., “Motivations and Effectiveness of Hospital Volunteers,” p. 33).

V. Be careful.

If using clients as volunteers at your nonprofit is something new to your organization you need to be careful as you begin this process.

A. Make a plan.
Be clear about which clients you want to ask to be volunteers. Don’t just open up this opportunity to everyone at the beginning. Pick who you think would be the best volunteer.

B. Work with other staff members to get buy-in.
Like any new idea you need to work with your coworkers to share with them your ideas, listen to their concerns, answer their questions, and get feedback. To have the implementation of clients as volunteers you need to have support and buy-in from your coworkers.

C. Start slowly.
At the beginning don’t launch an extensive effort to use your clients as volunteers. Start with just a few clients (the ones you think will be best) and go from there.

If you attempt to use your clients as volunteers and something goes wrong you might not get another chance. Be sure that your implementation is well thought through, discussed with coworkers, and that your clients are monitored closely.

A couple of great books related to this topic of using clients as volunteers are

Question: How have you used clients as volunteers at your nonprofit organization or church?

By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at