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4 Lessons for Engaging Volunteers

By Mary P. Walker, Petrus Blog Contributor

We all know that volunteers are vital to our ministries. Without them, we would have to spend more money doing things that need to be done or forgo doing them entirely. An engaged volunteer believes in your mission, and even learns more about it on the job. How we treat them matters, not only because we value their work, but also because volunteering can be a first step in financial support.


When my kids were young, I wanted to volunteer and give them the experience of volunteering. So I went to my local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. The store sold donated clothing and household items at a low cost, which gave those in need the dignity of being able to make their own choices. Proceeds from the store were channeled into helping the poor with rent, utilities, medications, and food.


Gretchen ran the local store and was its only paid employee. Whenever I visited to drop off gently used items, there were always busy volunteers cheerfully doing what the store needed. I asked Gretchen about the possibility of me volunteering with my kids in tow, promising that I would keep track of them and do my best to put them to work too. Gretchen not only welcomed me, she was happy to get my kids involved.


When we showed up on our appointed day to help out, Gretchen had a job ready-made for a mom with her six and four-year old. She quickly put them to work sorting hangers for clothes. She explained to them that the people who sorted the donated clothes needed to hang them up so they could be sold in the store. But the hangers she had—and she had thousands—were all mixed up together. If the hangers were organized, it would be much easier to get the clothes into the store faster. The customers would be able to buy what they needed, and the money they spent would help people who didn’t have enough to eat or needed medicine to stay well.


I marveled at how Gretchen elevated that simple job into something noble. And my kids responded by enthusiastically sorting hangers for about an hour! They took great pride and pleasure in seeing their piles of hangers grow. Gretchen stopped by every so often and praised them for their work.


After about an hour, Gretchen brought the children a small glass of Coke (with my permission) and a couple of cookies. It was break time. She sat down on the floor with us and talked to them. Then it was back to work for another half hour.


Right before it was time for us to leave, Gretchen had one more job for the children. She asked them to strike a pose in the store window for a few minutes. Can you imagine how much fun it was for my two small children to be live models in a store window?!


Of course we returned to volunteer during that summer, and my children sorted mountains of hangers. We even brought trash bags full of hangers home to sort. I never had to drag them to the store. They wanted to go.


A few years later, when I worked in a school, I got my kindergarten class to sort hangers too. Gretchen taught me how to communicate this simple task in a way that excited them about being an important part of something that helped others.


As I think about those experiences, I realize that Gretchen offered the perfect model of how to attract, treat, and appreciate volunteers.


Let’s look at what she did:

When we came to the store, she was prepared! I’m sure Gretchen had a list, at least in her mind, of the jobs that needed to be done. When my children, who had a particular set of abilities, talents, and limitations, presented themselves, Gretchen had a job for them to do!   

The lesson:  Volunteers come to us with talents, abilities, and limitations.  We need to be ready for them even if they just drop in. 


Gretchen explained why even the simple job of sorting hangers was important. I’m sure if I had told my kids that we were going to the store to sort clothes hangers, they would not have been happy. Yet Gretchen showed them that sorting hangers was crucial to the success of the store.

The lesson:  Volunteers want to do something important!  Even the most mundane tasks we ask them to do must be communicated in such a way so they understand that their help is vital.  



Gretchen made volunteering fun. The kids wanted to make the piles of sorted hangers grow because they wanted to please her. They also enjoyed their snacks.

The lesson: With creativity, even the hard and boring work we ask volunteers to do can be fun.


Gretchen recognized and rewarded my children in a way that meant something to them. While a verbal thank you is important, it’s not enough. Everybody likes to be appreciated, and we need to appreciate volunteers by respecting what is meaningful to them. My kids LOVED posing the in window. Gretchen figured out a way to thank them that would THRILL them.

The lesson: There is no “one size fits all” for recognition of volunteers. A gift card, a thank you letter, a listing in a program, etc. are all “tools” of recognition to be deployed in a way that should THRILL the recipient. This means that we should be creative and really get to know what would make our volunteers, as individuals, happy.


Two More Things!

While life has moved on and I don’t actively volunteer at the St. Vincent de Paul store now, I have donated clothes, household goods, and money for many years. Volunteers are often the most dedicated financial supporters, and the time we spend giving them a good experience while they help our organizations is truly an investment.


And finally, I’m proud to say that both of my adult children are “good” volunteers today. Because Gretchen invested in them and made them feel important, she helped them experience the joy of helping others. This type of engagement is life-changing.


Should we settle for anything less in the volunteers who come to us?


Mary P. Walker is a member of the Petrus Blog Contributor Program. She has published hundreds of articles in Catholic and secular publications. After a career in technical marketing with IBM, she was the communications specialist at St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M for nearly ten years. During that time, the base of donor support grew five-fold. Presently, she serves on three nonprofit boards.


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