The Top Volunteer Recruitment Challenges for Nonprofits 

Recently, we asked some of our audience members about their top volunteer recruitment challenges.   

And, we learned so much. In the end, regardless of organization type or impact area, many volunteer organizations are struggling to connect with volunteer talent. In this case, it turns out these challenges are more alike than different.

So, in this post I’m sharing a rundown of the key challenges that nonprofits are facing, both from the perspective of those we interviewed and responses we received in the 2020 Volunteer Management Progress Report survey. 

Top Challenges for Leaders of Volunteers 

Each year, our survey asks leaders of volunteers around the world to share their “#1 biggest challenge” in their own words. 

The question reads – “What’s your #1 single biggest volunteer management challenge right now?  Please be as detailed as possible. (Please go beyond a few words. The more specific you are, the more clearly we can understand your obstacles.)” 

The question is open-ended on purpose, and we encourage respondents to answer in as much detail as possible. We really do want to know where people are coming from, unencumbered by a list of pre-chosen multi-choice questions. 

For our 2020 survey, we received 1,495 total valid responses to this question, and peopled poured their hearts and souls into their answers. To read them is both inspiring and frustrating all at once. 

First, because we see folks are struggling and second because they don’t appear to be getting the required support they need from within their own organizations.  And, this is a shame. 

We also track the top issues that have been most frequently cited since the inception of the survey. They reappear year over year, with some slight variation in the order of most cited. In fact, over the years, the most prevalent issues have become more and more concentrated around these top five areas, with issues other than those below not mentioned very often. 

2020 Volunteer Management Progress Report Top Challenge Trends 

volunteer recruitment challenges

Volunteer recruitment – finding the right volunteers for specific roles and needs – is the top need every year. In fact, it is often cited two to three times more often than any other issue. 

Respect and Buy-In – from co-workers, volunteers, and leadership – always comes in second place. 

This year, time management – or managing competing and multiple priorities – moved from last place to third place. The lack of time may be due to other duties leaders of volunteers are asked to handle. Only 49% of staff spent three quarters of their time or more on volunteer management, down 7% from four year high of 56% in 2017.   

It appears that “wearing many hats” is taking a toll on staff’s ability to get the job done. This may also be impacting their ability to invest in the time and effort needed to attract volunteers in today’s environment. 

We also asked, “In the past twelve months, what percentage of open volunteer opportunities were filled at your organization?” This helped us get a sense of current capacity. 

We found that many organizations reported high capacity, with over 80% of roles filled, or had too many volunteers and had to turn community members interested in volunteering away. 

2020 Volunteer Management Progress Report Percentage of Opportunities Filled 

volunteer recruitment challenges  

However, when you compare these by cluster, it’s clear that a significant percentage (over 42%) are struggling to meet the organization’s fundamental needs when it comes to a volunteer workforce. 

volunteer recruitment challenges

Top Volunteer Recruitment Challenges 

So, what’s getting in the way of connecting with community volunteers? With volunteer rates surging in some areas, not everyone has been able to take advantage of this trend. 

From the “Biggest Challenge” question noted above, we also analyze and sort the responses we receive into smaller sub-themes. 

Here the common themes we see crop up frequently when it comes to the challenge of volunteer recruitment: 

  • Geographic barriers to finding volunteers 
  • Long-term volunteers 
  • Event volunteers/Short term 
  • Finding “skilled”/qualified volunteers 
  • Finding enough volunteers, in general 
  • Too many volunteers
  • Reliability of volunteers/follow through (once recruited)
  • Refusing individual/team volunteer applicants 
  • Involving specific populations (men, youth, older, ethnically diverse, multi-lingual, corporate, former volunteer groups, etc.) 

Recently, we also spoke with ten volunteer managers about their volunteer recruitment challenges, in order to inform the design and content of our upcoming volunteer recruitment course. 

Here’s what we learned about their hopes and wishes: 

  • Most leaders of volunteers have high hopes and believe in the power of volunteerism. They want to build their volunteer department into an amazing engagement conduit for volunteers to serve our community.  They want to broaden their audience and reach new people. 
  • They want to have a strategy in place – a proven method to help them reach the community, businesses, companies, religious institutions, and service organizations – that they can rely on to make connections.  
  • Finally, they want to feel comfortable and confident in their ability to grow their volunteer team.   

We also learned they had plenty of challenges, many of which were also echoed in the Volunteer Management Progres report survey. 

In these calls, they shared that: 

  • Their co-workers did not understand the reality of what it takes to recruit quality volunteers and, therefore, had unrealistic expectations. This left some feeling ineffective at their job, even when many nonprofits are facing the same challenges. Some are even afraid to put a recruitment plan in place because they would not have staff in place to train them. 
  • Many noted that fewer people are looking for long-term volunteer roles, making it difficult to find people who are a natural fit for longer term roles. The organization’s volunteer training requirements scare people away. On the other end of the spectrum, some feel like they are “drinking from a firehose” – they get a lot of applicants, but not the right people. 
  • Many don’t have enough high-quality volunteers. Volunteers are aging out, or volunteers don’t follow through, once they are recruited.  One person noted they were only operating at 50% of volunteer capacity. And, as a “department of one” there’s simply not enough time to map out a plan to change this. They reported feeling frustrated and pulled in too many directions. 
  • Finally, while most are comfortable using technology, many struggle with what to post in social media, and don’t use other digital marketing channels to build an engaged audience. They don’t know how to best work their agency’s marketing department and to voice what that need for their volunteer recruitment campaign. 

These are only a few of the volunteer recruitment challenges our generous audience took the time to share with us. 

In the end, everyone wants a consistent pipeline of active, engaged, happy volunteers who are ready to take on new levels of leadership, 

No one wants to have to worry they will have enough volunteers for the next critical need at their nonprofit. 

In the next few weeks, we’ll be building out our course.  Thank you to all who’ve helped guide us so far.  We can’t wait to launch it and start helping volunteer organizations make connections with the amazing volunteers that are in their community right now waiting to help.