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Christine Litch

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Voluntourism: Making It Work for Your Organization

A growing trend is taking hold in the travel industry: "voluntourism." In a combination of vacationing and volunteering, some Americans are foregoing time-shares and are instead sharing their time with people in need. In fact, surveys conducted by Travelocity, Orbitz, and the Travel Industry Association show that the number of groups offering these volunteer vacations has doubled over the past three years. The demographics of "voluntourists" vary widely: young, old, singles, families, and even honeymooners are taking advantage of this win-win situation.

Although many voluntourism opportunities are available throughout the world, there are also plenty of offerings within the United States. For example, one prominent Web site, Global Volunteers, lists several U.S. volunteer possibilities. They include teaching English to children in immigrant populations in Minnesota, serving in various capacities on a Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana, and refurbishing homes or tutoring youth in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia.

Interested in voluntourism for your organization? Here are some tips on how to start attracting voluntourists:

Assess Your Area's Tourist Attractions—Because you live in the area, sometimes you take for granted what the location has to offer. Brainstorm, request travel guides for your state, or go on-line to research. Remember that attractions don't need to be in your backyard but could be as much as a couple hours away. Include state parks, unique shopping opportunities, and scenic areas. And don't forget that a sporting event can turn an otherwise sleepy town into a bustling city, especially in college towns.

Network with Other Organizations to Reduce Costs—Voluntourists understand that they will be responsible for their travel and lodging costs. You can make your volunteer vacation more attractive, though, by exploring ways to reduce expenses. For instance, you may be able to partner with a local college during the summer to use their dorms as a temporary hostel, or approach a hotel about reduced rates. Check with local church groups or restaurants to see if they would provide low-cost or free meals for your participants.

Create Your Marketing Plan—When assembling a flyer or brochure to market your voluntourism opportunity, make sure you include all the basics. For example, list the estimated cost per person, the time frame needed (if any), and skills necessary. Emphasize any of the arrangements you have made to reduce your voluntourists' costs, as well as area attractions, and highlight the fact that expenses related to volunteer activities are tax-deductible.

Get the Word Out—Again, it's all about networking. It's always nice when someone else markets for you. Obviously, you will want to make connections with other organizations outside your region so that you will truly attract people who want to "get away" and visit your area. Think about organizations whose missions complement your own; perhaps they will even consider an "exchange program." Church groups are also natural fits. In addition, make sure to advertise your voluntourism opportunities on your own Web site, and look into getting listed on voluntourism sites.

Remember, even though your organization isn't a five-star resort, it can offer the experience of a lifetime. Unlike the typical getaway that just provides a brief respite from day-to-day activities, a volunteer vacation can enrich lives forever—both those of the voluntourists and the people they serve.

Christine Litch, VolunteerHub
© 2007, VolunteerHub

Christine Litch works for VolunteerHub, the latest version of a system first conceived in 1996 to facilitate volunteer registration for the University of Michigan's campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Since its humble beginnings, the service has grown to offer a wide range of features for event, event registration, and volunteer workforce management. Today VolunteerHub connects people and purposes for a variety of nonprofit, educational, and commercial organizations.

Is Your Organization Ready for "The Boom"?

The "boom" years of 1946 to 1964 boosted the country's population by 77 million citizens. The baby boomers have shaped our culture, from their political activism in the 1960s to their business savvy in the 1980s and beyond. Presently we see the leading edge of the boomers hitting retirement age. Consider these statistics:

  • In January 2006, the first boomers began turning 60, with an average life expectancy of 83.
  • Members of the boomer demographic make up one-quarter of the American population, the largest cohort in U.S. history.
  • Every minute three boomers turn 50, while another six turn 60.
Even—and perhaps especially—as they approach retirement, baby boomers will continue to have a significant impact on society. Although they will leave huge holes in the workforce, all indications are that this group will still be motivated to contribute to their communities, often in the form of volunteerism.

But are organizations ready for the boomers? Currently most nonprofits are unprepared to accommodate the sheer volume of potential volunteers. In addition, baby boomers boast a large number of well-educated, highly skilled executives, entrepreneurs, and leaders, many of whom will feel that their talents are not being put to use in low-level volunteer positions. Research indicates that these boomers should be placed at programming levels to utilize their abilities fully and to keep them engaged. Achieving this goal will require some agencies to rethink their volunteer management, perhaps resisting the urge to fill unskilled positions with volunteers who clearly want and can contribute at a higher level.

Barbara Weiderecht of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County, New Jersey, sums up the current situation: "Today's older volunteers do not want to be thought of as just office help or envelope stuffers, and are increasingly turning down all such opportunities. Yet when this is addressed with many of the agencies where we place volunteers, they do not understand nor do they want to hear it. 'What do they expect? They're only volunteers,' is a frequent reply. That attitude is deadly for attracting volunteers."

Thankfully, organizations are beginning to change their views, tapping into the wealth of knowledge the boomers bring with them. Retirees are being placed as volunteers in key areas such as strategic planning, program development, information technology, and training/education.

Aside from matching skill level, studies also provide other key recommendations for attracting and retaining baby boomer volunteers:

  • Market your agency's purpose. State your mission clearly and articulate the ways in which you seek to attain your goal.
  • Consider volunteers as part of the organization's regular workforce.
  • Provide a variety of volunteer tenures. Some volunteers may want to complete a one-time project, whereas others may want to commit to a regular schedule.
  • Provide incentives, such as social interaction, advancement opportunities, and public recognition.
  • Ensure that volunteers are well trained, organized, and managed. Baby boomers want to see that their time and skills are being used effectively and efficiently.
Although accommodating, attracting, and retaining baby boomer volunteers may initially require reorganizing and rethinking current systems, these investments will reap huge rewards. If organizations will allow it, the generation that took social activism and industry to new heights will do the same for volunteerism.

Christine Litch, VolunteerHub
© 2007, VolunteerHub

Christine Litch works for VolunteerHub, an on-line service providing event, event registration, and volunteer workforce management since 1996. Today VolunteerHub connects people and purposes for a variety of nonprofit, educational, and commercial organizations.

Volunteers, Part I: What Makes Them Stay?

It's no secret that a dedicated group of volunteers is an important cornerstone of many nonprofit agencies. In fact, according to a recent study, approximately 6 million volunteers are active in American nonprofit organizations, contributing a total of more than 15 billion volunteer hours. Volunteer hours equate to the work of more than 9 million full-time employees, making the value of volunteer labor close to $284 billion. With statistics like these, it's also no secret that organizations should be willing to do what it takes to retain volunteers. But exactly what does it take to keep volunteers? And what causes volunteers to leave?

Simply put, to reduce turnover, volunteers must be pleased with the environment in which they work and motivated by the tasks to which they are assigned. This month, we look at the things that motivate volunteers to stay. Next month, we'll examine the environmental factors that cause them to leave.

Understanding Motivation

When someone shows up to volunteer, often there are many people making bids for his or her time. Everyone's "to-do" list rolls out, and a volunteer may find himself or herself shuffled to a variety of people doing a range of tasks. To retain volunteers, however, an organization needs to be aware of what motivates and leads each one to feel satisfied with the time he or she donates.

Skill Development

Some volunteers want to bring their expertise to your group, whether it is their marketing background, computer experience, or people skills. Others may volunteer to enhance certain skills or maintain ones they already possess. Still others come with the desire to learn something new.

For example, if you find out that your new volunteer, Susan, works in the telemarketing industry, your immediate thought might be to assign her the task of fundraising via telephone. If you dig deeper, however, you'll learn that Susan is volunteering to get away from the stress of her day job, and that she really wants to become part of the volunteer training team. Susan would like to learn about your organization and refine her management and speaking skills. With the experience she acquires by volunteering with you, she hopes to secure a new job.

This example illustrates how crucial it is to gather information from a newly recruited volunteer. Find out not only his/her current skills but also what skills he or she wishes to develop through volunteer activities. This is a valuable means of evaluating the tasks that should be assigned to maximize retention.

Personal Growth

Many volunteers come to an organization hoping to expand their horizons. Like Susan, some feel that their volunteer experience will help them advance in their careers. Others simply want to use their volunteer service as a way to cultivate new interests. Another portion will use their volunteering to aid them in making career or education choices.


Volunteers enjoy challenging tasks and look for chances to step up to the next level. If this sense of challenge is lacking, volunteers will not generally continue service with an organization. Make sure you give your volunteers some interesting, more challenging activities along with more "routine" assignments.

Contact with Clients

Some of the most rewarding work for volunteers can be direct contact with the individuals an organization serves. They can see the direct benefits of their work in their role as a mentor, helper, or other capacity. Sometimes a volunteer's greatest motivation to continue his or her service is a heartfelt "thank you" from a client.

Recognition of Service

Another integral part of volunteer retention is recognizing and appreciating the time and effort volunteers bring to your organization. Emphasize to your volunteers the importance of their contributions; volunteers who stay are ones who feel they are making a significant impact.

Of course, there are many ways to say "thank you." Informally, something as simple as "You're doing a great job!" can be a big morale booster. Making snacks available during projects or meetings is another way to show your appreciation. More formally, consider a once-a-year volunteer appreciation night to award certificates, etc. Although this latter idea seems obvious, a recent study by the Urban Institute found that just 30 percent of charities actually follow this practice.

It is important not only to recognize volunteers within an organization but also to promote their accomplishments within the community. Consider using the same methods your group already uses to publicize its programs to acknowledge your volunteers' important work and accomplishments as well. In addition, you may want to ask volunteers if they would like their employers to be made aware of their contributions to your organization.


Even though volunteers are not compensated monetarily, your organization should definitely consider rewarding them in other ways. Effective rewards can include such simple, no-cost things as reserving parking spaces for volunteers or giving them their own desks or workspaces.

As far as actual tasks are concerned, volunteer jobs can be designed in hierarchical levels, allowing a volunteer to advance over time and acquire a higher "status." With each level, an organization can allow for increases in self-direction and decision making. Not only will the added responsibilities make the volunteer feel "promoted" but he or she will also feel more engaged. Volunteer coordinators may also want to reward well-proven volunteers by allowing them to train or mentor new recruits or by assigning them special projects.


Even though volunteers come to an organization to donate their time and abilities, it's important to keep in mind that it's not what they can do for you that keeps them coming back, it's what you can do for them. Given the points we've outlined, it's easy to see that many volunteer retention factors are under the direct control of the organization. Although it appears there are many aspects to juggle, in terms of your organization's time and energy investment, it's worth the effort to keep a volunteer.

It's important to remember that your organization's general goals should be twofold. First and foremost, of course, you are there to fulfill your mission within the community. When a second priority becomes enhancing the lives of the volunteers who help carry this mission forward, you will see an increase in volunteer involvement and retention. As artist and author Florence Scovel Shinn put it: "Giving opens the way for receiving."

Read "Volunteers, Part II: Why Do They Leave?"

Christine Litch, VolunteerHub
© 2007, VolunteerHub

Christine Litch works for VolunteerHub, the latest version of a system first conceived in 1996 to facilitate volunteer registration for the University of Michigan's campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Since its humble beginnings, the service has grown to offer a wide range of features for event, event registration, and volunteer workforce management. Today VolunteerHub connects people and purposes for a variety of nonprofit, educational, and commercial organizations.

Volunteers, Part II: Why Do They Leave?

Last month, we examined factors that motivate volunteers, the things that keep them coming back to their volunteer stints. (Click here to read the article.) This month, we look at the factors that cause them to leave.

A dingy or poorly arranged office/workplace, inadequate supervision or leadership quality, and nonexistent or ineffective communication can all make a volunteer head for the door, never to return. Fortunately, these environmental factors are all under a nonprofit's direct control.

Appearance of Office/Workspace

Although it's tempting for a nonprofit to downplay "appearances," a cramped, cluttered, or outdated space is not appealing to most volunteers. No-cost or low-cost solutions such as a simple coat of paint or rearranging desks and equipment may make all the difference. Also examine the lighting to make sure that the space is well lit and inviting.

Equipment Quality

Give volunteers the proper tools to do their tasks. If you don't, their frustration levels can run high. Anything from having a hole punch, paper cutter, or stapler that doesn't work, clear up to the computer that freezes when data entry on a spreadsheet is almost complete, can drive a volunteer to distraction—and departure.

Orientation and Training

Just as in the business sector, orientation and training are of paramount importance. A new volunteer should be introduced to the organization and its mission. The volunteer can then see how the organization's services fit into the community.

Part of orientation should also involve communicating how the volunteer's tasks mesh with the organization's goals. After the initial overview, a volunteer should have a training period, in which he or she receives instructions on and becomes familiar with assigned tasks. As in the private sector, make sure to design policies and "job descriptions" for volunteers, so they will know what is expected of them. Ongoing or "refresher" training is also helpful.

Although these suggestions seem rudimentary, research has shown that many volunteers do not receive much in the way of formal training. Instead, many organizations fall back on on-the-job training or use other volunteers as makeshift trainers. Nonprofits should be sure to have "train the trainer" workshops for those in charge of training and orientation of newly recruited volunteers.


Volunteers should receive clear, day-to-day instructions about their assigned tasks. Make sure every volunteer knows to whom he or she may go for additional instructions or clarification

In a larger sense, communication also plays a key role in keeping volunteers on the same playing field as any paid staff members. Make sure key correspondence is sent to volunteers as well as staff members. If a volunteer works in a particular department, make sure to add his or her e-mail address to the distribution group for that team. Volunteers should also be kept abreast of outside issues affecting the organization and factors affecting their jobs within the organization. Invite volunteers to staff meetings if at all possible.

Remember that communication is a two-way street. Make sure to ask periodically for volunteers' feedback. Soliciting feedback can be as informal as asking, "How's everything going?" to conducting a formal survey.

Don't forget evaluation. Not only should supervisors solicit feedback from volunteers but supervisors should also provide feedback to volunteers. Whether done in a formal or informal fashion, providing information about a volunteer's work will enhance his or her future performance.


Many volunteers complain about the level of disorganization within an organization, sometimes leading to a perception of wasted time, money, or energy. One of the most effective ways to improve volunteers' perception of your group is to put more effort into volunteer coordination. Of course, a volunteer coordinator's time is often stretched thin and allocated to a variety of other tasks as well.

To ease some of the load for volunteer coordinators, a number of nonprofits are turning to on-line scheduling programs. Streamlining volunteer organization, these scheduling tools allow volunteer coordinators to devote more time to volunteers and less time to paperwork, phone calls, and e-mails. On-line scheduling allows new projects to be posted and volunteers to be alerted. Volunteers can log on to the site at their convenience, 24/7. They can browse the site to find projects they are interested in and sign up.

Additionally, on-line scheduling provides extra organizational tools for administrators. When planning and promoting an event, a maximum number of participants can be set, so that there are neither too many nor too few volunteers for a given project. Real-time numbers allow project coordinators to allocate an appropriate amount of resources to a task, eliminating redundancy, waste, and unnecessary expense.

Interpersonal Relationships

Team building is an important aspect of any group. Make sure that volunteers feel comfortable with the other volunteers in the organization as well as supervisors, paid employees, and individuals the organization serves (if applicable). Turnover tends to reduce when volunteers develop good interpersonal relationships with others and feel they are part of a team and have a support network within the organization.

Working Conditions

Educating paid staff about the value volunteers bring to an organization is crucial. Paid staff should give volunteers the same respect as any other coworker. Volunteer coordinators should also take care that volunteers are treated equally and fairly. Any volunteer who feels that he or she is being given unequal work or less opportunity is more likely to become dissatisfied and leave the organization.


If the prospect of improving in all these areas seems daunting, then start with some basics. A recent study has concluded that two key factors in volunteer retention are orientation/training and assigning challenging tasks to volunteers. Looking beyond the study, however, think first about improving communication and organization, and you will see an increase in efficiency. This will allow you to dedicate more time to the key factors and ultimately toward all of the volunteer retention aspects.

Read "Volunteers, Part I: What Makes Them Stay?"

Christine Litch, VolunteerHub
© 2007, VolunteerHub

Christine Litch works for VolunteerHub, the latest version of a system first conceived in 1996 to facilitate volunteer registration for the University of Michigan's campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Since its humble beginnings, the service has grown to offer a wide range of features for event, event registration, and volunteer workforce management. Today VolunteerHub connects people and purposes for a variety of nonprofit, educational, and commercial organizations.

Bridging the Gap between Volunteers and Coordination

"So Little Time ..."

Has this become a mantra at your organization? If so, you are not alone; it's a common theme at most nonprofits nationwide. One solution to this time shortage is, of course, to recruit additional volunteers. In fact, a 2004 study by the Urban Institute on volunteer management states that most nonprofit charities indicate a capacity and need for additional volunteers. With each volunteer's time worth an estimated $20 per hour, there is no question that they can be valuable assets to your organization.

A Catch-22

At the same time, volunteers must be recruited, managed, and mobilized, which, of course, requires time, money, and people power. The fact of the matter is, however, that a majority of an organization's resources may already be funneled into fundraising and delivery of service, so coordination of volunteers is sometimes forced to take a back seat. Indeed, the Urban Institute study indicates that half of staff members responsible for volunteer coordination spend less than 30 percent of their time on this duty.

Investing so little time on such a valuable resource runs counter to almost any managerial strategy. Ideally, a simple answer is to add a full-time staff person dedicated to volunteer coordination. In reality, given limited time and a tight budget, this solution is not likely. Alternatively, a staff member who currently spends only 30 percent of his or her time on volunteer coordination may be asked to allocate more time to the task. Unfortunately, as we've all seen too many times, devoting more time to volunteer duties may negatively affect that staffer's other responsibilities. Between juggling calls to and from volunteers for registration, assignment, and confirmation, a volunteer coordinator's job is seemingly never done.

A Volunteer Coordinator's "Virtual Assistant"

Many organizations are turning to technology to streamline the volunteer coordinator's duties. Type "volunteer management software" into an Internet search engine, and you'll find information on several services and applications. Exact costs and features vary, but for about $20 a month you can find one that will let you post information about volunteer opportunities; allow volunteers to sign up at their convenience via the Internet; automatically send registration confirmations, event reminders, and thank you e-mails; generate rosters and printable sign-in sheets; and provide record-keeping capabilities.

The return on this investment includes less workload for your staff, greater convenience and better communication for your volunteers, and the ability to ensure that the right number of volunteers—neither too few nor too many—have the chance to work on projects they want to work on, from one-time special events to routine, on-going tasks. A volunteer management application can enhance even the strongest volunteer program, increasing the satisfaction of everyone involved in it.

Christine Litch, VolunteerHub
© 2006, 2007, VolunteerHub

Christine Litch works in sales and marketing for VolunteerHub, the latest version of a system first conceived in 1996 to facilitate volunteer registration for the University of Michigan's campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Since its humble beginnings, the service has grown to offer a wide range of features for event, event registration, and volunteer workforce management. Today VolunteerHub connects people and purposes for a variety of nonprofit, educational, and commercial organizations.