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Highly-skilled Volunteers = High Impact Results!

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I have been privileged to work with volunteers for over 25 years. During this time I observed many changes in my volunteer practice. Volunteers changed, and the level at which they were engaged in organizations where I worked changed as well. Marlene Wilson’s 1976 book, The Effective Management of Volunteer Programs, defined a system of volunteer management that mirrored the human resource systems of the day. She saw the functions of volunteer management as focused on planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling. For nearly twenty years of my direct service volunteer management practice, I faithfully followed this human resource management model to the letter.

This model of volunteer management is in its essence staff driven. I recruited volunteers and found a match between what they were looking for and what my organization needed. If they had special skills to contribute, all the better. This top-down process was highly effective in running a successful volunteer management program.

In the late 90’s, I began to see a change in the kind of volunteers who wished to share their time. These ”new” volunteers were somewhat uncomfortable with the square peg in a square hole mentality. They were far more assertive about wanting to share their skills and talents in a way that worked for them while contributing their time in a way that had significant impact on the organization. And the population of willing volunteers ready to take on any assignment, any time, anywhere began to dwindle.

What skills and talents these ”new volunteers” had! I was thrilled with the variety and range of skills that appeared in abundance in the volunteer pool. We had managers, human resource experts, curriculum designers, public relations specialists, photographers, graphic designers, educators, statistical analysts, software programmers, web design experts, American Sign Language interpreters, technical writers, PowerPoint mavens, and the list went on and on. I felt like a kid in a candy store with so many choices for high-impact volunteer engagement.

I noticed some striking characteristics about this “new” population of volunteers. They were much more independent than traditional volunteers. I found them to be very assertive about what they wanted to do, when they wanted to do it, and where they wanted to do the work. There was little tolerance for busy work, bureaucracy, or top-down management. They were impatient with process and wanted access to decision- making and authority. These volunteers wanted to make a difference and they wanted to do it now.

Case Study: Ocean Journey

Monica Aden, former Manger of Volunteer Services, and Jill Friedman Fixler, former Director of Volunteer Services.

Ocean Journey, a state-of-the-art aquarium in Denver, Colorado, opened its doors in June of 1999 with nearly 1,000 volunteers. In order to develop this program from scratch we had to rely on many highly-skilled volunteers who were willing to share their talents and skills with us. A graduate student in communications created and wrote the copy for our volunteer and training handbooks. Another volunteer, whose day job was public relations and marketing, chaired a marketing committee of public relations and marketing professionals who developed the volunteer program annual report and annually presented the results to the board of directors. A skilled photographer and fish aficionado developed a fish identification book for volunteers to use in their informal education with guests. And a retired employee for our local newspaper edited our monthly volunteer newsletter. Since we had to screen all of the volunteers prior to placement, we utilized 40 volunteer placement counselors who did all of the interviews. We literally could not have opened our facility without the talent and leadership of these and other individuals who were willing to take responsibility for a project and run with it.


Volunteers will rise to your level of expectation. If you treat them like the professionals they are, they will surpass your expectations and provide a product that is better than if you had done it without them. These exceptional individuals inspired us and took our program to heights far beyond our dreams.

Who Are Highly-skilled Volunteers?

When we hear the term highly-skilled volunteers we tend to think of white-collar, college educated volunteers. While highly-skilled volunteers possess specific skills or talents, they may or may not have a college or advanced degrees. They can be master craftspeople such as the carpenter who builds shelves or the seamstress who designs costumes. They may work in a for-profit business at a management level or they may be completing graduate school. Or they may be volunteers who are willing and eager to take on a project that no one else will do. I fondly remember a volunteer who coordinated all of the employee and volunteer uniforms at a large nonprofit that I worked for. It was a huge assignment and she coordinated it with dignity and grace.

Many highly-skilled volunteers are retired or have downshifted from their professions or careers. These volunteers want to do meaningful work while replicating the community of the workplace and status as a worker that they often miss. They are interested in sharing their wisdom and advice to see progress and to make a difference. Often this group of highly-skilled volunteers desires a great deal of flexibility in their assignments to work around their commitments for travel, life-long learning, work, and family obligations. Retirees are busy people with a wide range of interests and commitments. They are a sophisticated group with sophisticated needs. This can require patience, flexibility and creativity on the part of the nonprofit that collaborates with them.

Highly-skilled volunteers may already be in your volunteer pool. Do you track the skills and talents of your current volunteers? Have you asked them if they are willing to share these skills? In our haste to match candidates to our needs, we often forget to engage them in conversations about their unique skills and talents. You might be surprised at what you have lurking in your existing volunteer resources.

Some Special Issues

Many highly-skilled volunteers find you before you find them. They already have an idea of how they might be helpful to your organization. Their offer may or may not be on your radar screen. Thus, they require a great deal of creativity in designing assignments that are mutually beneficial. While their offer may be fabulous, it is up to you to decide if it fits with the organization’s stage in its life cycle, culture, resources, vision, mission and values. Sometimes the volunteer program manager may have to acknowledge that, while the offer is sensational, the organization is not in a place to do it justice. That is the time to initiate a delicate negotiation to explore if another mutually beneficial assignment can be developed.

In many ways the highly-skilled volunteer requires all of the same support and effort on the part of the organization that traditional direct service volunteers do. Following recruitment, they need a position description, orientation, training, supervision, evaluation and recognition. However, there are some distinct differences for this population of volunteers. They want to work with staff in a collaborative way. They resist being told what to do but are delighted to share their ideas and recommendations. In order for the placement to succeed they need intensive training on the culture and financial realities of the organization, so that their expectations and the reality of what is possible are aligned.

Some highly-skilled volunteers may refuse to accept traditional roles for volunteers. Marc Friedman, author of Primetime: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, tells the story of a retired physician who goes to a hospital to volunteer following the closure of his medical practice. The director of volunteer services assigns him to greet patients while his vision was to practice medicine and have the hospital pay his malpractice insurance. As they said in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” In order to work effectively with highly-skilled volunteers we have to remain open to new ideas even if they initially seem impossible.

Highly-skilled volunteers may have more knowledge and expertise than the staff and the leadership volunteers with whom they work and so staff may feel threatened by them. Yet staff buy-in is a critical component of any successful engagement of highly-skilled volunteers. While buy-in can be mandated and enforced, it is better to create opportunities through choice. This requires great sensitivity, team building and training to form relationships that work, as well as rewarding and celebrating successful teamwork.

It is important to note that not all highly-skilled volunteers are willing to share their skills. I remember so well the insurance expert who just wanted to clean the kennels at an animal shelter or the accountant who delighted in tutoring middle school children. While I have considerable expertise in volunteer engagement, my favorite volunteer assignment was to be the paper chairwoman of the Parent-Teacher Organization at my son’s school. My job was to bring paper goods to classrooms for special events and parties. I had a $500 budget, no committee, no politics, and a flexible and manageable assignment! After coordinating the work of hundreds of volunteers in my professional life, this assignment was nirvana for me.

Case Study: Exempla Lutheran Medical Center

Pat Harrell, former Director of Volunteer Services

Donna P., with a background in counseling and working with Job Corps clients, answered a recruitment advertisement seeking volunteers to provide support to sexual assault victims seen in the Emergency Room.  The ER staff gave her excellent evaluations for her skill in working with these traumatized patients.  In addition, her leadership and organizational skills became apparent when she helped reorganize and refine processes used in providing services.

When the hospital needed to improve patient satisfaction scores, I suggested using volunteers to visit patients and identify any concerns that could be solved quickly.  I asked Donna to take over the project.   She networked with nursing staff to set up and develop the process and recruited and trained 18 patient visitor volunteers.  The volunteers kept a log of each patient's comments (both compliments and concerns were solicited) and referred problems to the appropriate staff for immediate attention.   A volunteer made a follow-up call to each patient within 72 hours of discharge to inquire if their concerns were properly addressed and to determine if the patient needed to speak to a medical professional.  

The impact on the satisfaction scores was dramatic. ER complaints fell by 12% in the first quarter.  Volunteers posted compliments every day for staff review. This reinforced positive behavior and treatment while contributing to staff morale. The Volunteer Patient Visitor Program success sparked renewed efforts in other areas of customer service.


When working with highly-skilled people, it is important to agree on the goal of the assignment, facilitate networking, provide resources, and then get out of the way.  Promoting the credibility of the volunteer and publicizing the success of his/her work to the paid staff is probably the most rewarding recognition one can provide for highly-skilled volunteers. 

What Do Highly-skilled Volunteers Want from You?

This is the essential “what’s in it for me?” question. Highly-skilled volunteers want to feel valued. They want to know that their contribution of time and talent is meaningful and will have lasting impact. They expect clear, manageable and achievable assignments that are results-oriented and can be measured for efficacy. These volunteers want to be respected and want an element of control over what they do. They will tell you that they do not want to waste their time, as it is a precious commodity for them. Many professionals may want the opportunity to network, as they see their volunteer time as a way to market what they do. Others may want to move into leadership positions and approach their frontline volunteering as a career ladder leading to service on the board of directors. And some volunteers may want to utilize their volunteer assignment as a springboard to paid employment.

When working with this population it is important to ascertain what they want from their association with you. Most will have an idea of what their personal and professional goals are for volunteering with your organization. Many will appreciate a testimonial thank you letter sent to their employer since many employers expect community involvement from their staff. Others may enjoy observing a board meeting or having lunch with your executive. You may need to prompt some of the conversation by identifying what people want, it makes it much easier for you to create a win/win engagement that will be appealing and satisfying to the volunteer.

Case Study: Visiting Nurse Association

Alyce Novak, Manager of Volunteer Resources

Gwen R. came to the VNA Hospice-at-Home in a traditional way. Her husband was a Hospice patient. When he died, his nurse suggested that the Volunteer Resources Department recruit her. She was eager to give back the caring that he and she had received – but was not emotionally ready to help clients and families. Having previously worked for a German corporation and run a bed-and-breakfast, she had significant organizational expertise. VNA asked her to become the Hospice Librarian. In this role her high level of skills really sparkled. She turned the miscellaneous donated books into a library collection that was convenient and easy to use by internal and external “customers.” She single handedly weeded out the inappropriate items, categorized the remaining books for specific audiences, wrote abstracts for a bibliography that was made available free to the general public, built a computerized inventory from scratch, developed a donation program, wrote book reviews for the Hospice newsletter, and staffed the Hospice Lending-Library phone line! She even thought to bring a selection of the books to the Hospice’s semi-monthly team meetings so the staff would have easy access. The impact was the creation of an immensely valuable service for Hospice clients, families, staff – and the community.


Match talent to timing. Gwen is an example of volunteers who want to maximize their skill set when and how they are ready to do so. In addition to her organizational skills, Gwen also was fluent in German and had a high level of interpersonal ability. Thus, when the time was right (she had healed enough to feel comfortable helping clients and families), she left the shelter of the VNA office and went to the homes of clients to help. She interpreted for German clients, gave solace to long-time married couples during the dying process, befriended those who felt lingering deep losses long after the death, consulted with staff on client issues, and comforted survivors at memorial events. When she moved to Seattle recently, she stated that not only had VNA understood her skills, they also appreciated them and utilized them appropriately – helping her to continue her healing while having a significant impact for the organization.

Creating the Assignment

The key component in creating work for highly-skilled volunteers is to build in flexibility in terms of where, when and what the assignment entails. Potential volunteers have to feel that what they are being asked to do is realistic, manageable and achievable. The work has to fit with their lifestyle and other commitments.

In traditional volunteer management models most, if not all, of the volunteer assignments are designed prior to recruitment. As is often the case with highly-skilled volunteers, they may come to you with an offer or during an interview you may uncover some skills that are useful to you. Thus, the creation of the assignment is much more collaborative, with the volunteer having significant input into its design.

There are several creative ways to engage highly-skilled volunteers:1:

  • Episodic Assignments: These offer one-time or short-term opportunities to engage highly-skilled volunteers and include a range of activities such as attending a specific meeting, evaluating recommendations or reports, doing statistical analysis, or facilitating a retreat. Episodic assignments allow highly-skilled volunteers the opportunity to engage with you by using their unique skills and talents, with little or no commitment beyond a one-time event.
  • Recurring Episodic Assignments: Some highly-skilled volunteers may be willing to share their expertise but are unwilling to make a commitment to a regular or temporary assignment. However, they may agree to engage in periodically repeated short-term projects or events. For example, the auditor may be willing to interpret and help implement recommendations from the audit report each year. Or a lawyer might be willing to occasionally review contracts.
  • Coaching: Many highly-skilled volunteers are experts in their field. While they may be reluctant to engage in an ongoing assignment, they are willing to lend their expertise and wisdom as needed to paid staff and other volunteers. Coaching assignments can be done virtually or on the telephone, so they are highly flexible. Even “snowbirds” can stay engaged in volunteer coaching while they are wintering far away from your organization. I recommend contracting for coaching over a defined period of time. After an initial face-to-face meeting, the rest of the coaching relationship will most likely be on the telephone or by e-mail. The employee or volunteer who is being coached should agree to set up appointments well in advance, respect the time commitment of the volunteer, and do all follow-up work required.
  • Task Forces: Task force committees, by their very nature, provide short-term examinations of a problem or subject resulting in recommendations. The task force format is an excellent way to involve highly-skilled in the incubation phase of a project for a limited and defined period of time. This is ideal for those individuals who are achievement oriented and enjoy assignments with a beginning, middle and end that result in a product, change or addition to your organization. Be aware, however, that some highly-skilled volunteers may have had a bad experience as a committee member in a previous volunteer assignment. They may have found the committee consensus process too confining and process-oriented. Nevertheless, they may embrace a temporary task force with a specific goal in mind or might enjoy working with a small team to get the goal accomplished.
  • Special Projects: In project assignments, volunteers are willing to see an initiative or project through from beginning to end. The possibilities for special projects are endless, from redesigning a Web site, to translating materials into another language, to researching legislation. Project volunteers may work side by side with other volunteers and paid staff or the assignment can be done independently.
  • Seasonal Work: Highly-skilled volunteers may only be available seasonally. For example, they might winter or summer in another locale or have a profession such as accounting that makes them unavailable during particular times of the year such as tax season. Seasonal assignments allow volunteers to engage with you when it is convenient for them.

Case Study: Colorado Legal Services

Gail Lorenz Administrator of Volunteer Services

Colorado Legal Services (CLS) recently orchestrated collaboration between a staff person in the CLS Boulder office, a Denver volunteer who was working remotely, and a stakeholder who works in the Attorney General's office in Denver.  The CLS staff person clipped an article from a national paper concerning the benefits and risks of becoming a co-signor on a loan. The benefit of inclusion of this topic on the CLS Web site was discussed among members of the CLS Website Content Review Team. The Review Team is composed of several attorneys in the Denver office and two staff from outlying CLS offices. This group meets quarterly to discuss the evolution, maintenance and management of content on the site. The Review Team agreed that having information about co-signing on the site would be beneficial to the client community and the community in general.

The article was given to the volunteer, who was asked to use it as a framework to gather more information about co-signing and to put together a document for the site. This gave the volunteer the opportunity to create something useful for the community and also something substantial to include on his resume. The project created a meaningful volunteer experience for someone who did not initially have significant opportunity to use and develop his writing skills.  After the article was written, a consumer law expert from the Attorney General’s office was recruited to review the article. He reviewed the article and made suggestions as to content and format. The CLS Website Coordinator then made the revisions and posted the article on the CLS site. The volunteer who wrote the article continues to work on the site by adding content while at school in New York.


Try to create a win/win for both your agency and the volunteer involved. The results are always worth the effort.

Highly-skilled volunteers may work independently, collaborate with staff, assist the board of directors or consult with the Executive Director. This is determined by the content of the assignment. The best efforts result when these volunteers are utilized throughout the organization. But staff may have little training in working with direct service volunteers let alone sophisticated professionals who may have more expertise than they do. A wise mentor once told me to build the volunteer program around employees who champion volunteer engagement. As tales of their success with highly-skilled volunteers spread throughout the organization, more staff will come forward to request highly-skilled volunteers to work with them.

An effective way to determine staff commitment and knowledge of working with highly-skilled volunteers is to conduct an agency-wide needs assessment. The needs assessment should include questions about how volunteers with special skills might be utilized and questions about staff’s previous experiences with volunteers. This will tell you what level of training and support the staff member will need.

Where Do You Find Highly-skilled Volunteers?

The good news is that highly-skilled volunteers are an abundant resource. They are your existing volunteers, donors, clients, neighbors, friends, bankers, vendors, physicians, childcare providers, handymen, and family members. They are everywhere you look; they just haven’t been asked to contribute in a way that works for them. Also, it may never have occurred to the highly-skilled person that his or her skills would be useful and valuable to your organization.

You may not have to look for highly-skilled volunteers – they may seek you out instead. I recently had a conversation with a colleague who told me that when she retires she plans on helping a nonprofit organization that builds houses for the homeless. My friend has a vision beyond carpentry. She knows that her skills in organizational development would be an asset and have significant impact for the organization. And she mentioned that she was prepared to combine a financial contribution, perhaps even a planned gift, as part of the package. I asked her if she was a donor now and she said: “No, that is for when I retire”. Consequently she isn’t even on the organization’s radar screen. I only hope that when my friend finally does retire and pursue her dream, she will find the fit that she is looking for. I imagined the conversation with a volunteer coordinator of the old school who might not be see the potential of collaboration with this individual. Hopefully my friend will find a willing participant in a journey that could pay big dividends for the home-building nonprofit she chooses.

In today’s volunteer marketplace there is an abundance of highly-skilled individuals who, when given the right opportunity, will willingly help your organization. As already described, a key factor is what you are asking volunteers to do. The work must:

  • Be flexible in terms of where, when and what the assignment entails.
  • Be realistic, manageable and achievable.
  • Has to fit with their lifestyle and commitments.

Begin your recruitment in your own backyard. Look to your stakeholders first: your clients, consumers, donors, vendors, community members and, of course, your existing volunteers. It is recommended that you engage in frequent conversations about what people know, what they do, whom they know, and what their interests are both professionally and avocationally. You never know when you will come upon a match that is the perfect solution for a problem or a dream that you have for the organization.

One of the organizations that I worked for faced closure and the potential existed for all of the employees to be laid off. I contacted a leadership volunteer who was a retired human resource specialist. I asked him if he would be willing to provide career coaching and counseling to the employees. He willingly set up office hours and provided resume and interviewing consultation to anyone who was interested.

Once you have tapped the resources close at hand, there are many other sources of highly-skilled people. Some ideas:

  • Professional societies – almost every profession has local chapters
  • Graduate schools
  • Executive Service Corps and other similar organizations that exist specifically to match skilled volunteers with nonprofits needing assistance
  • Chambers of commerce
  • AARP and other associations of retired people

Recruitment: Creating the Offer

How you ask potential volunteers to become involved with you is an important link in building the relationship. Almost everyone will be flattered that you are interested in him or her. Many find the idea of pioneering a project, building a pilot or template, or creating something where nothing existed before to be an appealing offer. Remember that the structure of how you make your request is just the beginning of the conversation. You don’t know where the discussion will lead if you remain open and flexible. By asking a lot of questions, you may go places that you never dreamed of. Here are some conversation starters that can help you discover talents and preferences:

  • Tell me what your dream volunteer assignment would be.
  • Tell me about a time when you created a project or an initiative. What worked for you? What didn’t work for you? What would you do differently next time?
  • If we could design your dream project with our organization, what would it be? What resources would you need? How would you structure this endeavor?
  • Clearly you have significant skills. How do you think that we could capitalize on your skills and create a volunteer assignment that you would love to do?
  • Now that you have read our new strategic plan, are there some areas that are of interest to you or where do you think you could use your skills in helping us implement the plan?
  • For existing volunteers: Now that you have been with us for some time, what interests you the most in helping us to fulfill our mission and have lasting impact?

You should expect to see evidence of skills the applicant describes. You can ask for a resume, work samples, letters of recommendation, or even to speak to previous employers or clients. Other tips for starting off on the right foot are:

  • Provide the same orientation to the organization that you would give to any other volunteer. No one is “too skilled” not to need information about who you are and how you operate.
  • Make sure you explain the realities of your organization including resources, politics, and culture.
  • Write down what you have agreed is the work plan: scope of the assignment, deadlines, access to information, and anything else that clarifies who does what. This includes specifying who owns any product produced: is everything owned by the organization or can the volunteer, for example, retain copyright ownership of graphic designs?
  • Determine how you both will know when the project is completed. Do you expect a written report, an oral presentation, or what? Will the volunteer turn over raw materials to you?
  • Clarify the resources available to the volunteer: access to which staff, what data, what equipment, etc.

Case Study: Volunteers of America

Nancy Blevins, Project Manager

Susan K. contacted Volunteers of America about seven years ago wanting to teach a Bible Study class. She started with us in that capacity, but her volunteer work has evolved so that today she serves as our Project Manager (a volunteer position) of the Sunset Park Senior Center.  Now Susan is responsible for the overall development and operation of Sunset Park Senior Center including program development, personnel management, data collection, fiscal management, fundraising and grant writing, and developing and maintaining professional liaison relationships within the community and with agencies.

Having Susan in this position has allowed precious funding to go towards participant services instead of personnel costs. The agency benefits from having an individual of Susan's caliber in a leadership position. Her willingness to tap into the resources that are available to her in the community has brought countless resources to us. Our clients benefit from our ability to offer more activities at the Center than our budget would otherwise allow. Just as important to our clients is the caring oversight that they receive from Susan.  


When working with highly-skilled volunteers, allow them the freedom to find their niche in the organization so they will become engaged and make the maximum contribution that they are willing to provide.

Working with Highly-skilled Volunteers

Impact can happen from the work of highly-skilled volunteers when you engage in discussions that are focused on outcome, sustainability and results. Build such discussions into the planning phase of your work and identify measurable and achievable results. Some questions to facilitate this are:

  • What do we anticipate the initial outcomes and benefits to be for our organization?
  • What are the sustained outcomes or lasting changes that we expect from this engagement?
  • What are the results or lasting changes for our organization and/or our beneficiaries?
  • What will be different in the world because we have done this collaboration?

Many nonprofit organizations shun working with highly-skilled volunteers because they fear that they cannot hold them accountable for their work. The reality of working with highly-skilled volunteers is quite the opposite. However, creating boundaries and accountability takes attention and forethought:

  • Always design a position description that clearly outlines boundaries and accountability.
  • Discuss realistic timelines with the potential volunteer that incorporate organizational needs and respect the volunteer’s personal and professional commitments.
  • Schedule regular meetings to follow up on progress. These meetings can be by e-mail reporting or on the telephone, as well as face-to-face.
  • Celebrate your successes along the way.
  • Continually ask the volunteer for feedback about how the collaboration is going.
  • Have the volunteer participate in an evaluation following the completion of the engagement.

The journey to building collaborative relationships with highly-skilled volunteers may not always be a smooth one. It requires creativity, patience, flexibility and excellent listening skills. However, it is worth the effort and investment and there will be huge dividends for your organization and for the volunteers who participate.

If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door. -- Milton Berle


1 Excerpted from The Art and Science of Engaging Baby BoomerVolunteers, © 2005, Jill Friedman Fixler and Jill Canono (to be published).