National Volunteer Week — Recruiting and retaining volunteers

April 6 marked the beginning of National Volunteer Week in both Canada and the United States. In Australia, National Volunteer Week takes place May 12 – 18, and in the UK, they will recognize their volunteers June 1 – 7. As genealogists, we rely on volunteers’ efforts to help us with our research.

This is the final article in a four-part series about volunteer recognition.

In my previous career, I worked for a large Canadian corporation, managing a multi-million dollar donations and sponsorship program. Not surprisingly, I was contacted daily by charities from across Canada and the US,  from some of the biggest who requested millions of dollars to one of the smallest whose volunteer asked for $100.

Apart from the size of the charities with whom I came into contact, all were pretty much the same. Each wanted money. Each had a good cause. And each relied on volunteers.

What often sets non-profit organizations apart from each other are their leaders and volunteers. Volunteers are a reflection of their organization. If the volunteers are professional and motivated, it usually means the organization is equally dynamic.

A good recruitment process and recognition program are a good place to start with finding and keeping the right volunteers.


When possible, personally contact potential volunteers. “The main reason described by those who have never volunteered, as the cause for their non involvement is because ‘they have never been asked to be a volunteer.’” (Source: Bridging the Gap: Enriching the Volunteer Experience to Build a Better Future for Our Communities, Volunteer Canada 2010.)

When recruiting in your newsletter and website, promote the impact volunteers make on your society.

Interview_Microsoft Word

Interview the prospective volunteer. During the first interview or meeting, ask the individual why they want to donate their time. What kind of an impact do they want to make?  How would they like their contribution to be recognized?

Clearly explain the duties and responsibilities of the job and the impact their contribution will make. Provide training. When appropriate, offer to help them improve their skills or acquire new skills. For example, one person improved her research skills by volunteering in the library. Another improved his technical skills by becoming a webmaster. As tempting as it may be, don’t sugarcoat the duties. One society told me they were so desperate for volunteers that they told people they can spend all their volunteer hours doing their own research.


Volunteers need to know they are making a difference and that their contribution is important to many.

According to Volunteer Canada, “Research reveals that volunteer recognition is tied to volunteer retention rates. Volunteers who feel their contributions are appreciated are more likely to uphold their volunteer commitments.”

Recognizing a volunteer’s time and effort can sometimes be as simple as telling them how their work makes an impact. Gather tangible evidence of how the volunteer have helped others.

Create a volunteer committee

Put together a volunteer committee that will be responsible for the following duties:

  • Establish recruitment guidelines;
  • Provide and/or oversee training;
  • Meet and/or maintain contact with volunteers on a regular basis;
  • Create a mentoring program with seasoned volunteers working with new volunteers;
  • Gather tangible statistics and evidence of the impact of volunteers’ contributions; and
  • Develop a volunteer recognition program.

There is no magic potion to retain volunteers. Even large charitable organizations struggle. But we should not give up. It is a weekly, often a daily, challenge. The most successful organizations will be those who work hard to improve their recruitment and recognition programs.

For more ideas, take a look at Andy Telfer’s Top ten tips for volunteer management and retention. He is a director at Volunteer BC.

Part 1: — Should genealogy societies do more to recognize volunteers?

Part 2: — How volunteers want to be recognized

Part 3: — 15 ways to thank volunteers

Copyright © 2014, Gail Dever.

About Gail Dever

Gail Dever is a Montreal-based genealogist and blogger and a webmaster for the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa.
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