Building Diverse and Inclusive Volunteer Networks

Many nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers to be their boots on the ground and eyes and ears within the communities they serve. As discussions of diversity and inclusion have become more common, some organizations are asking whether their volunteers ought to better represent the communities they serve. Why might an organization want a more diverse and inclusive volunteer network? And what could an interested organization do to build one?

(Much has been written on definitions of diversity and inclusion. In this post, I use diversity to mean demographic [e.g. disability status, racial or economic] representation whereas inclusion refers to the involvement of different types of folks in governing and operating processes.)

There are many reasons that an organization might want to create a more inclusive and diverse volunteer base. First, when volunteers interact directly with the people an organization serves, having volunteers that are more similar to the client population may create a more welcoming environment in which clients feel freer to pass along information about what is and isn’t working. Diverse teams also promote creativity and hard work. An inclusive organization will provide opportunities for this new information and divergent perspectives to be incorporated into programmatic decisions, ultimately leading to better outcomes.   

Second, while we usually think about volunteerism as helping others, research shows that it is correlated with a host of mental and physical health benefits for volunteers themselves. Furthermore, academic research proposes that volunteering gives low-income individuals opportunities to build social, human, cultural and political capital. So expanding the diversity of a volunteer pool can act as one more way for an organization to strengthen a community.

Finally, as the U.S. experiences a diversity boom, organizations that have traditionally drawn from a homogenous pool of volunteers may need to expand the volunteer populations they engage, just to maintain their volunteer capacity.

Once an organization sees the benefit of a diverse volunteer base, what are the practical steps it can take to recruit and retain this volunteer base?

While it might seem obvious, organizations can begin by asking members of different communities to volunteer. In the 2013 Volunteer Supplement of the Current Population Survey, more than 42% of volunteers reported that they first became involved when they were asked to do so. Volunteers tend to respond more to personal appeals. Therefore, it may make sense to ask any existing staff or volunteers who come from those communities the organization is targeting to act as ambassadors. Ties with other organizations can also help, since some evidence indicates that institutional facilitation of volunteering is particularly important among those who are low-income and people of color.   

Organizations may also adjust the duties they ask volunteers to undertake and volunteer management processes to retain more diverse volunteers. The match between a volunteer’s skills, interests and reasons for volunteering and the duties they’re asked to complete is a strong predictor of whether that volunteer remains active. Organizations which are investing in transforming their volunteer pools should be particularly vigilant in asking new volunteers whether their expectations are being met.

While approaching all people with dignity and respect is a given for many nonprofits, processes that feel inclusive to one set of volunteers may need to be tweaked to facilitate participation for a new pool of volunteers. For example, a formalized process for sharing ideas might discourage certain volunteers from speaking up. Above all, organizations should seek out input from new volunteers about how to improve processes to make them feel welcome. While each organization’s circumstances differ, most benefit from being both purposeful and flexible in the ongoing process of building a diverse and inclusive volunteer network.