Recruiting and Retaining a Diverse Base of Volunteers/Helpers

By now it shouldn't come as a surprise that the best way to build a diverse base of volunteers is to make a sustained commitment to doing so. A key element to your success will be to create an inclusive organizational culture and develop relationships with community members who feel good about supporting your organization. There is no quick fix to developing a more diverse base of volunteers, but as with all elements of creating a more inclusive organization, the more you focus on developing inclusive practices regarding volunteers and helpers, the more your whole organization will benefit.

Target Your Outreach

Focus your outreach within a certain geographic or other area. Depending upon the mission of your organization, it might be worthwhile to target your outreach to the communities most likely to benefit from your work.

For example, if you work on educational issues and there is a community with large percentages of people of color that your work particularly impacts, then consider targeting your volunteer outreach efforts there.

Develop Long-Term Relationships

Organizations that successfully develop relationships with communities of color understand that they must establish trust between themselves and community members. Unfortunately, in some communities, there may be a level of fatigue as a result of organizations from the outside coming in to do things with the best of intentions but without a long-term commitment. When this happens, people in the community can get excited about the potential for change and offer their time to an organization, only to discover that the organization doesn't have a long-term plan for working within the community. Fatigue or even cynicism can result, which will have negative effects for other organizations that may want to work with volunteers from that community in the future. For this reason and many others, it is best to make a sustained commitment to any community from which you hope to recruit volunteers and helpers.

Utilize Community Leaders

If you decide to do outreach in a particular community, you will frequently find that there are formal and informal leaders who play an important role in the community. Community leaders often have influence as a result of their involvement in the community, or are affiliated with particular organizations or institutions such as the following:

  • Churches or other houses of worship.
  • Elected offices.
  • Civic and cultural organizations.
  • Neighborhood associations.
  • Community centers.
  • Fraternal organizations such as African-American sororities and fraternities.
  • Small business owners.
  • Media such as neighborhood newspapers and radio stations.

Community leaders can be helpful in recruiting volunteers and helpers of color because they usually have two important resources: information and access.

They can tell you how to work within a community and give you advice on things such as community events to attend and social and cultural centers where people congregate.

They can make introductions between your organization and other organizations and groups of potential volunteers and helpers.

Remember, though, that most community leaders take on those positions because they have a history of looking out for the people in their communities. Thus, they will be much more likely to serve as a bridge between your organization and members of the community if they believe that you have a long-term commitment to becoming more inclusive in every aspect of your work. Consider asking people in your organization - including staff, board members, current volunteers, and clients - if they know community leaders and if they would be able to make an introduction between your organization and community leaders they know. 

Create Recruitment Opportunities

Informally visiting people, companies, and organizations face to face can prove to be quite meaningful, especially if you do so more than once. It also can be valuable to do a presentation to a group, such as a political or civic group predominantly comprised of people of color. Of course, getting an invitation to visit these groups isn't always easy unless you have already established relationships with community leaders who can open doors for you. If you haven't been successful on that front yet, consider asking members of your staff, board of directors, current volunteers, and clients about groups with whom they already have affiliations.

When you visit people or organizations, whether through a formal invitation or by just dropping in, you should always have information about your organization available to leave with people. Make sure that your materials include a visible call for volunteers and helpers. Be prepared to describe your organization and give specific examples of the work your organization does and where volunteer and helping opportunities are available.

Here are some of the types of places to consider visiting and leaving materials with:

  • Immigrant aid groups.
  • Nonprofit organizations predominantly serving communities of color
  • Volunteer centers.
  • Churches, temples, mosques.
  • Youth groups.
  • Sports groups.
  • Schools.
  • Professional employee groups.
  • Arts and cultural groups and cultural events.
  • Language classes.)
  • Small businesses that are owned by and/or primarily serve people of color. ("Strong Together: Recruiting and Working with Ethnocultural Volunteers," Center Volunteer Bureau of Ottawa-Carleton)

Communicate with Potential Volunteers

It is very important that you communicate with prospective volunteers in culturally appropriate ways. As you develop materials to give to prospects, be sure that the materials reflect your commitment to inclusiveness through the use of language and images. Also, try to avoid jargon.

For example, avoid statements such as, "Facilitate interviews between executives of the organization and community members who are interested in acquiring knowledge about volunteer opportunities with the organization." Instead, say, "We're happy to set up a time to talk with you about what we do and how we can work together to do this important work." Avoid being patronizing; rather, keep in mind that you're selling your organization to someone who doesn't know it very well and who will be making choices about how to use his or her time. Volunteer prospects will be more likely to have an interest in volunteering or helping if your organization appears accessible and if they think they will have a positive experience working with you.

If you're not sure how your materials are perceived by communities of color, then find people who can give you some insight into this important matter. Consider asking another nonprofit organization with more experience in inclusiveness issues to give you their perspective, or ask current volunteers or clients of color. Usually people generously provide feedback if they know that you are committed to following through on changes that need to be made.

Utilizing culturally relevant media channels to communicate with communities of color can be very beneficial to your outreach efforts as well.

For example, consider pitching stories to ethnic newspapers in your targeted community, especially if you can propose a story to highlight your organization's direct relevance to their readership. If you can get articles placed, be sure to emphasize that you are looking for volunteers, and give people information on how to contact the organization.

Remember to give significant consideration to translation issues as you develop materials. Some organizations are anxious to produce materials in languages other than English. However, if an organization has no way of communicating with non-English speakers, then it may not be ready to recruit non-English speaking volunteers. Be sure that you have the organizational capacity to meet the needs of these volunteers before reaching out to non-English speakers.


Overview: Volunteers

Benefits of Having a Diverse Base of Volunteers

Motivations and Barriers to Volunteering/Helping


Managing Volunteers: Policies and Benefits