10 Simple Steps to Design Effective Volunteer Positions

To lead others well a leader must know what is expected of those being led. In businesses this is often done by the leader or HR department creating a “job description” used to attract qualified candidates to the hiring process. That job description helps the leader determine who would be the best fit for the job and it also provides clarity to the prospective job applicant about what would be expected of her. Businesses often do this process very well. However, when nonprofits attempt to recruit volunteers they often neglect this area.

Sadly, potential volunteers often hear the nonprofit cry “we need help” and show up at the organization to “help” only to discover that there is no clear direction about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, when it needs to be completed, or who is in charge. As a result volunteers often bail out of the volunteer opportunity.

In today’s post I show you ten simple steps you can use to create simple and effective volunteer position descriptions.

10 Simple Steps to Design Effective Volunteer Positions

Photo Credit: Andrew Stawarz

It is important to consider job design before recruitment, for you must know why you need volunteers before you try to enlist help.
Marlene Wilson, The Effective Management of Volunteer Programs, pp. 101-102

When you’re engaging a volunteer to support you with a complex project or task, it’s important to lay everything out on the table. Put the desired outcomes down in writing, along with a proposed timeline and designated check-in points. Each party should sign a letter of agreement or memorandum of understanding (MoU). Everyone should be on the same page from the start about what a successful completion will look like. Then, you can take a step back and let everyone do what they do best.
Shannon David, “How to Deepen Your Impact by Engaging Skilled Volunteers”

I. Connect your organization’s vision/mission with their passion.

Volunteers have passion for specific areas of ministry and nonprofit work, therefore you have to connect your organization’s vision with the passion of volunteers. Volunteers have a passion for what they do. They volunteer because they want to make a difference in the community and help an organization. When you connect your organization’s vision to the passion of volunteers you are engaging volunteers in a way that they will be the most motivated to serve and help your organization.

Clarity of vision and purpose of the ministry will inspire volunteers to discover their service points.
Japhet de Oliveira, “Motivating and Leading Volunteers,” p. 72

Research shows that there are five motivations of volunteers (ranked in order of importance):

  1. to contribute to society
  2. to contribute to an organization
  3. clear instructions
  4. communication that is clear
  5. feeling supported

Most importantly, when you connect the vision of your organization to the passion of your volunteers it will help volunteers be more satisfied and endure longer. That means volunteers who continue with you and stay loyal for longer periods of time.

II. Remember that commitment level is irrelevant.

Time commitment is something that volunteers are indifferent about (“More Than Motivation,” 400).

  1. High commitment opportunities attract specific volunteers.
  2. Low commitment opportunities attract specific volunteers.

Research shows that some volunteers are attracted to opportunities that have a low level of commitment while other volunteers are attracted to opportunities that have a high level of commitment. Basically, it doesn’t matter how high or low of a commitment is required of your volunteers. There will be volunteers attracted to your opportunities regardless of what is required of the volunteers. So, when designing your position description be clear about what you expect from your volunteers.

III. Look for opportunities for volunteers to get their feet wet and test the waters of your organization.

If I had to sum up the key to finding the perfect serving niche, I’d do it in one word: experiment.
Bill Hybels, The Volunteer Revolution, p. 67

We may not be clear on just how God wants to use us. But that’s no excuse for doing nothing. Just jump in, and start doing.
Richard Sterns, The Hole in Our Gospel, p. 273.

A. If you lead and coordinate volunteers you want to get people “litely” involved at the beginning of their service with you for three reasons. 

1. Motives to volunteer can and will change over time.

  • Beginning: Volunteers want to volunteer to make a difference in the lives of people and to support the organization they volunteer for.
  • Long-term: Volunteers continue volunteering because of the personal growth they experience and the relationships they have made with staff, volunteers, and clients.

2. People are not certain of what to expect in the volunteer experience.

  • “People who have recently entered into volunteering may be uncertain of what to expect, and as such could rely on their emotional expectations in order to make behavioral decisions” (Jorge Barraza, “Emotional Expectations of New Volunteers, p. 212).
  • An example of this is when young volunteers want to go to the local animal shelter to help “cute puppies and kittens.” Many of the young volunteers who have good hearts and desire to help go to the animal shelter thinking they will get to interact with grateful and happy animals. Instead, volunteers arrive to an animal shelter where there is smelly animal poop, animals who have been mistreated and are angry, and animals that are being euthanized. The volunteer had an idea of what to expect but the volunteer experience did not match that expectation. As a result, volunteers quit almost immediately because this expectation and experience did not match.

3. People are trying to “fulfill” their needs and emotional expectations.

A) Volunteers have needs

  • to feel appreciated
  • to know their time is valued
  • to see a clear picture of the work they are supposed to do

B) Volunteers have emotional expectations

  • to know that what they do makes a difference
  • of clients who are being served to appreciate that service
  • to see resources used ethically and efficiently

B. How to use short-term projects to get people litely involved:

  1. Have a specific time limit.
    • “The more specific the time limit, the more people you’ll likely get to join you to help with the project” (MacKee, The New Breed, p. 61.).
  2. Use your best leaders.
    • Short term projects “expose volunteers to your leadership. Always use one of your organization’s most effective leaders to lead your short-term project teams. Volunteers will have an opportunity to catch the vision of the organization as they work alongside a passionate leader” (Ibid, 50).
  3. Open doors for long-term opportunities.
    • Short-term commitments might “open the door to longer commitments” (Ibid., 61). Utilize this to your advantage when these short-term opportunities are ending by telling your volunteers what is available long-term.
  4. Look for holiday and special events.
    • These are great times for short-term projects because they are short, easy, fun, and times when you need lots of unskilled volunteers.
  5. Provide an “out” for you and your volunteers.
    • When I say “out” I mean an end date of when the volunteer’s tenure with your organization either ends or is going to be evaluated.
    • Determine the “out” on the front end before the person starts volunteering.
    • Provide a specific amount of time that the volunteer will be needed.
    • Include a specific end date of when the volunteering will end.
    • An example of this was for a volunteer I had recruited which I had never met before. I was taking the deposits for our organization to our bank everyday and began to get to know one of the bank tellers. After several months of talking with her I learned about her son who was twenty years old and had a mental disability. The bank teller had described to me that she tried to keep her son busy because he often was bored after school and during school breaks. Throughout my work there were times of the year that I sometimes needed some extra office help do simple office tasks as a way to free up my time for other work interacting with people. I told the bank teller that if her son was interested, he could come into our office a couple times a week to volunteer with me. However, when telling her about this potential volunteer opportunity for her son (whom I had never met) I was very clear with her that there was only a three month period of time when I needed this extra help. I would have work for her son for three months, but after those three months we would need to reconnect and see if there would still be work for him to do. This is an example of how you get a volunteer “litely” involved where you provide some simple tasks for them to do (unless the volunteer has a specific skill set which you want to employ immediately) and then provide an “out” where you can see if the volunteer is a good fit.

IV. Be clear about what will and will not be done while also connecting your vision to the position.

Being clear about what will and will not be done means you address what the volunteer does as part of the position related to:

  • administrative work
  • interaction with clients
  • how long to complete work
  • what role volunteers play in the work

Example: An example of an organization that provides good volunteer descriptions is the Global Aid Network. Their descriptions focused on volunteers gathering people, stuff, and prayer. Those were the three basic things that each volunteer was responsible to do. Obviously, each volunteer description was much more detailed than that, but it at least gave a broad framework of what the volunteer would be doing.

Most importantly, when recruiting volunteers you want to connect the work the volunteers will be doing with the vision of your organization. If they are helping to stuff envelopes that raise money for an after school program for kids, be sure to tell the volunteers what the envelopes are going to do and why it is important.

Knowing what will and will not be done while also connecting your vision to the position of the volunteers is important. You might want to write this down on your volunteer position description or you might want to simply know this information for yourself.

V. Describe how the work will be done as it relates to your organization’s vision.

Some things you will want to describe are:

  • Will volunteers be interacting with clients?
  • Will volunteers need to bring lunch?
  • Will volunteers be working alone or with other volunteers?
  • Will volunteers be closely supervised and managed?
  • Where will the volunteers park?
  • What should volunteers wear?

Do your best to help volunteers get a feel for what they will be doing and how it relates to the vision of your organization.

VI. Outline the required training and qualifications and why they are required to fulfill your vision.

When looking for volunteers who have training and qualifications in areas that you need it is important to consider two areas:

1. Basic requirements that can be learned.
These are things like being CPR trained, having a driver’s license, knowing karate (might be necessary if a volunteer is going to work security), etc.

2. Strengths and skills that volunteers need to inherently possess.
These are things that cannot be learned on the job which means the volunteers need to have before they begin. These are things such as good people skills for interaction with clients, good organization if they are going to do administrative work,good communication if they are going to teach a class, and being able to pass a background check.

Volunteer Requirements and TrainingOnce you have outlined the basic requirements and the skills that volunteers need, it is also important to show what training is required to be done before beginning the volunteer service and what must be done in order to continue serving as a volunteer. A great example of this is the Haven Women’s Center which displays this information very clearly on their volunteer information page (click to enlarge).




VII. Consider which generations might be attracted to your organization, position, and vision.

In my research there are four generations in America right now. This is a one-page layout I have created which summarizes each generation. Click to enlarge.

4 Generations of Volunteers


When designing volunteer position descriptions it is important to do some thinking about:

  • Which of the four generations are most likely to volunteer?
  • Which of these four generations will be my best volunteer? (Examples are thinking skills, problem solving skills, people skills, technical skills, etc.)

VIII. Don’t forget about youth and people with disabilities.

When working with youth or people with disabilities it is important to remember that they are probably capable of doing more work and a higher quality work than you think (I know this has been true of me). However, it is also important to remember that these types of volunteers might need more of your help to get trained and maintain a good work level than do other volunteers.

A. What you need to know when working with youth.

1. Characteristics of youth (in general):

  • They move fast.
  • They can work long periods of time without getting tired.
  • Most are limber and strong.
  • Often they do not have “social norms” knowledge which you have.
  • All are highly capable with computers and technology.
  • Often they are teachable because they have fewer preconceived ideas about how things should be done.
  • Because of their limited experience you will not have to retrain old, bad habits.
  • They get bored easily.
  • You will need consent from parents for service.

2. Because of this you:

  • should provide communication in writing.
  • need to give them reminders about everything!
  • should text them with necessary information (do not call or email).
  • might find it more beneficial to talk directly to a parent.
  • must finds ways to keep their attention.
  • need to entertain them if possible.
  • should place them with friends if possible.
  • remember youth appear to have a stronger need to volunteer with their friends in order to have fun in the opportunity (“Shannon, et. al., “Constrainsts Younger Youth Face,” 32).

B. What you need to know when working with people with intellectual disabilities.

1. Characteristics of people with intellectual disabilities (in general):

  • They desire routine.
  • Some do not talk much while others might talk excessively.
  • They can be good at maintaining focus on their work.
  • They are often happy to do any type of work.
  • They are likely to appreciate being used to do work regardless of the task.
  • They might not know “social norms.”
  • They often are brilliant at a specific thing.

2. Because of this you:

  • have to be very clear and communicate things multiple times.
  • need to set boundaries.
  • must know the limits of what they can and cannot do.

I would like to be clear that these are simply “generalizations” of what I have found to be most common when leading volunteers who are teenagers or have some type of intellectual disability. Each person is very different, and it is up to you as the volunteer leader to determine the needs of each volunteer and how he or she is best led.

C. Two Brief Examples of Volunteers with Intellectual Disabilities (not the volunteers’ real names):

1. Alan

  • enjoyed getting to come to the office twice a week
  • called it his “job”
  • liked being part of a community of coworkers
  • did not speak to people unless he was spoken to
  • loved being included in meetings and with the other staff, it caused him to feel connected with others
  • was not disrupted if he had to move desks or change his work routine

2. Kelly

  • desired routine and was stressed when that routine changed such as changing a desk, work duties, or transportation to and from our organization
  • was talkative and sometimes had to be told to do her work and not disrupt coworkers

IX. Make it as easy as possible for volunteers to contact you.

When recruiting volunteers it is important to remember that most volunteers have normal jobs which means they are busy from 8am-5pm (the same times you probably work). Therefore, you must provide ways for volunteers to easily contact you both within and outside of the 8am-5pm window. Here are some of the simplest ways you can make it easy for volunteers to contact you.

A) List your phone number (don’t forget area code).

Put your phone number on all marketing materials. If you have a work cell be sure to use that number.

B) List your email address (put it on all flyers and advertisements.

C) List your website.

Create a website submission form where volunteers can submit information that allows them to tell you what volunteer opportunity they are interested in and how they can be contacted.

D) List social media.

If possible, allow volunteers to contact you or your organization through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. People already spend a lot of time on these sites everyday. If possible, allow people to contact you through sites.


What does DUA stand for?

It stands for “Don’t Use Aacronyms.”

I say you should not use acronyms because the are often industry specific and only put barricades between you and potential volunteers.

A. Therefore, don’t use acronyms even if:

1. You spell out what the acronym means earlier in the position description.
People scan when they read so they might not read the sentence where you spelled out what your acronym stands for. Also, someone might have forgotten what the acronym stood for earlier in the position description.

2. You think most people know what it means.
The truth is that most people do know what “CPS” and “NGO” and “USO” stand for, but there will always be someone who does not know what those acronyms mean. So, do not use acronyms. Also, it is important to note that sometimes acronyms stand for different things in different industries.

For example:

  • ACH – is “All Church Home” (the name of a nonprofit in Texas) while it can also be “Automated Clearing House” (how companies withdraw money from bank accounts)
  • CIO – is “Chief Investment Officer” at a bank while it is “Chief Information Officer” at an information and technology company.

B. However, Do use acronyms if:

1. Your organization’s acronym stands for a word(s) that are no longer relevant to your work.
An example of this is an organization called WATCH in Sonora, CA. When the organization was started the “H” in WATCH stood for “Handicapped.” However, that word is no longer politically correct and does not convey to their clients the message they hope to provide. So, WATCH only uses the acronym for their organization and never spells out the words.

2. People cannot pronounce your name.
An example of this is when the ALS Ice Bucket challenge was popular in the summer of 2014. Everyone used the acronym “ALS,” and the best reason is that very few people would remember the words Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

3. Finally, your organization’s name is the acronym.
Some organizations only use the acronym for their name and do not spell out the words for various different reasons. If your organizations does not spell out words, then just role with what your organization does. An example of this is ACH Child and Family Services. No one knows what the ACH stands for but the “Child and Family Services” provides enough descriptions that people can get a feel for what the organization does.

Question: What is something you have learned that is new or different than what you have done in the past when trying to create a volunteer position description?

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