For any nonprofit organization, volunteers and volunteer leaders represent an absolutely essential source of strength, contributing to the success of the mission as no other group can. Consider a few of the ways volunteers’ impact can be particularly meaningful and valuable.

  • Helping you avoid entrapment in an echo chamber—in which the same opinions recirculate among the same circle of insiders, isolated from wider trends and influences.
  • Bringing specialized expertise to bear on key priorities—from real estate transactions and capital projects to technology decisions and investment strategies.
  • Making sure a broad range of voices and constituencies are heard—especially important if the limited size of your Board makes it impossible for it to reflect the full breadth of your organization and the community it serves.
  • Fueling your success with their positive energy and generous philanthropic commitment—because even though your paid staff may love your organization and believe in its mission, your volunteers show up only because they believe.

So yes, if anyone, even facetiously, asks, “Who needs volunteers?” your answer should be an instant and resounding, “We do!”

That doesn’t mean, however, that harnessing the ideas and energy of volunteers is simple or that there is only one way of doing so. In fact, we would say just the opposite. There are many structures and channels of involvement beyond the expected that may prove effective for your nonprofit. You may even find approaches no one’s tried before that are uniquely appropriate given your situation, your goals, and the community of volunteers you are working to engage.

What kind of “structures and channels” do we mean? Well, first of all, anything beyond your Board of Trustees. For an educational institution, that will likely mean a parent association and alumni association. But for any organization, it can mean other options as well: ad hoc committees or working groups, advisory councils, or a foundation board, focused on fundraising and endowment.

To understand the potential value of forming one or more of these groups, consider a few examples of organizations that have successfully put them into action:

  • A boarding school in Dallas that has not only an active alumnae body, but a 54-member Alumnae Board, with a well-defined substructure (chairs for each decade of graduates, for special events and traditions like the Sweetheart Tea, and for various affinity and special interest groups). The result is an expansive array of leadership and service opportunities for all the many alumnae eager to be involved, and a structure through which alumnae can contribute powerfully to sustaining the culture and identity of the school.
  • A youth-serving social service agency in Washington, D.C. that has created a President’s Advisory Council to complement its Board. The Council allows the agency to forge connections with and gain insights from leaders across the community, including other mission-aligned nonprofits. (Think the president of the top children’s hospital in the area—someone with invaluable perspectives on issues affecting young people’s wellbeing.)
  • A boy’s school in Pennsylvania that has found success with a Corporate Leadership Council, composed of local business owners. At first the group met to consider giving opportunities at the school, but they have become more and more engaged with students and now focus on helping them explore career paths.
  • A day school in Philadelphia that, like most, has been navigating the complex decisions around when and how students can learn in person during the COVID pandemic. For guidance, they formed a Task Force that includes a nationally recognized expert on infectious disease, a professor in a public health program, and a top area pediatrician—all volunteers drawn from the school’s parent body.
  • A community foundation serving one of the most diverse counties in Pennsylvania that made the creation of several Advisory Councils a key provision in its recent strategic plan. By expanding opportunities for engagement beyond the Board of Trustees, these councils mean that the volunteer leadership of the foundation can reflect the ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity of the community and include expertise in areas ranging from social service programming and education to small business development—all highly relevant to the foundation’s mission.

By no means is this set of examples meant to be exhaustive. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—just a hint at the approaches different organizations can take. Surveying these and other nonprofits that have found success in tapping their volunteers reveals several lessons that are key to keep in mind.

First, attention and coordination from staff is essential. Even the best functioning volunteer groups are wont to stray off course, or lapse into inactivity—or become overactive—if left to their own devices. A bit of regular guidance and communication makes all the difference.

Secondly, it’s important to set and communicate clear expectations for any group you form and to carefully calibrate the level of commitment you ask of members. This will help avoid frustration and ensure that everyone feels they’ve “gotten what they signed up for.”

Third, and most fundamentally, the nature of the volunteer relationship must be meaningful and mutually beneficial. Groups should be convened to study only issues that truly deserve study. Task forces should tackle only tasks that need tackling, and that they are equipped to take on successfully. If your real goal is to make someone feel honored, it’s probably better to think about an award than a committee.

So to sum up our key take-aways: Volunteers can be an invaluable asset. We recommend creativity and resourcefulness in exploring the pathways through which you involve them in the life of your organization. And, we suggest care to make sure the relationships you nurture yield real value to everyone involved. The result can be a true win-win, enhancing the ties between your nonprofit and committed individuals among the most eager to help you succeed.