America’s nonprofits could not survive without volunteers and they play a key role in helping charities raise more money from the community. Volunteers give their time, talent and treasure to the causes they support, and organizations with a robust culture of philanthropy are hardwired to welcome them with open arms.

Volunteers flip burgers for hungry neighbors without food, serve as ushers for the arts, and pick up trash for community beautification projects. As board members, volunteers lend their brain space and expertise to ensure the organization can not only survive but thrive. Many volunteers will encourage friends and family members to join them in their service and giving.

Get this: in 2018, 63 million Americans donated 8 billion hours of their time to charities! Most importantly, volunteers serve as advocates and ambassadors for the mission. As volunteers serve, they learn, they grow, and they share the ‘aha’ moments with their network. The best reason to embrace them is that, statistically, volunteers donate money at twice the rate of non-volunteers. Why then do nonprofit leaders with professional teams allow resistance to volunteers to flourish?

Statistically, volunteers donate money at twice the rate of non-volunteers.

It pains me to say that I’m aware of more than one program leader who discounts the contributions of volunteers. This phenomenon, known as “volunteer resistance,” hobbles nonprofits at all levels. Sure, training and engaging a willing volunteer takes time, and time is the scarcest resource a nonprofit leader has. But treating volunteers like nuisances or obstacles weakens mission impact, present and future! It’s a classic sign of a scarcity mindset, a debilitating disease that inhibits philanthropy everywhere.  Don’t believe it? Check out the following direct quotes I have heard from leaders’ mouths:

“Unless someone can write a check for $5,000 or more, they are not worth our time.”

Or, “Volunteers are flaky and unreliable; it takes too much time to train and supervise the work they do.”


At times the resistance can be less obvious and is shrouded in the need to protect the people served by the organization. Some program staff claim that “Volunteers just want to be voyeurs in the lives of our clients.” These clinicians have good client-centered intentions, but they don’t realize they’re perpetuating the stigmas they try so hard to protect clients from in the first place.

One of the most pervasive myths about people in need is that somehow, they are not like us. Volunteers who come to your door are already interested in learning more and helping in the work. Facilitating an experience to help them realize the fragile, vulnerable people you serve are more like them than not is transformative. Making room for volunteers to experience these ‘aha’ moments is fundamental to achieving your mission.

Make Room For Experience

As a former volunteer coordinator, I have witnessed this transformation first hand.  The first time Sarah, a college student, went out on the homeless outreach van, she had no personal experience with what it meant to experience homelessness. Her expectations were based on all the stereotypes and stigmas she’d ever heard. Initially, she told other students that the people they were helping were so “dirty” and just needed to get a job. Nevertheless, she continued to volunteer weekly with the team.

One of the most pervasive myths about people in need is that, somehow, they are not like us.

By the end of the semester, Sarah had changed her tune. She had realized in a tangible and experiential manner that the people living on the streets were like her: human and undeserving of their fate. She had newfound gratitude for how easy life had been for her thus far and how short-sighted and judgmental she had been. I can guarantee Sarah continues to serve as an advocate for individuals who are homeless. Her volunteer experience and personal growth are a priceless and ongoing contribution to the mission.

Six Ways to Overcome Volunteer Resistance

Thinking about the Sarah’s I’ve worked with over the years, I marvel at how the investment in those volunteer experiences has paid off, over and over, far beyond financial remuneration. Managing volunteers takes thinking bigger and being intentional about how they will engage with the work of your mission. To help you on your path, here are a few tips to help you overcome staff resistance to volunteers.

  1. Lead by Example: This will resolve eighty percent of the issue. Choosing to resist volunteer involvement reduces the potential for gathering resources and achieving the mission. Board members and top leaders need to take responsibility for their role in influencing the development of a culture that embraces the community as partners.
  2. Put it in Writing: Incorporate expectations of supporting the work of community volunteers into every staff job description within the organization
  3. Quit Playing Small: Recruit volunteers who are subject matter experts to assume challenging and responsible roles. Relegating volunteers to low-skilled opportunities that staff don’t want to do will attract exactly what you deserve.
  4. Keep it Relevant:  Ensure the needs volunteers are addressing are truly needed. Conduct an annual review to clarify top needs, refresh wish lists, and bring volunteer position descriptions up to date
  5. Raise the Bar: Like paid staff, volunteers want to make a difference and need supervision and training. Clarify what they can and can’t do and help them rise to the occasion.
  6. Tell Stories: We are trained to tell success stories about the people we serve. Inviting select staff who ‘get it’ to share stories of success will have a positive effect on peer attitudes.

Volunteers are the Key to Abundance

Staff resistance to volunteers thrives where professional staff believe that the time spent working with volunteers, ‘hour for hour’, is never fully made good. Steeped in scarcity, these well-intentioned staff hoard their scarcest resource, time, feel safe thinking small, and believe they’re doing the right thing. Nonprofits with a strong culture of philanthropy, on the other hand, welcome volunteers in an open, relevant and meaningful way. Volunteers are the key to abundant resources – financial, social, and emotional – that serve a nonprofit’s mission in countless ways.

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