Meeting The Realities Of Today's Volunteer

When designing volunteer positions to meet your organization's needs, its important to take into consideration the realities of today's volunteer workforce. Create a diverse portfolio of volunteer opportunities. Different pieces of work or types of service attract different types of people. Some volunteers are looking for positions that tap their creativity, present a challenge or provide the opportunity to learn new skills. Other individuals may want to support your cause, but need a break from the demands of their 'day' jobs. By identifying a range of positions requiring different skills, abilities, inclinations, backgrounds and levels of commitment, you can appeal to a wider array of potential volunteers.

Trends and groups to consider when designing service opportunities include:

Short-term or Episodic Volunteering

In the past few decades, researchers and practitioners have recognized the demand among volunteers for short-term or episodic assignments. Episodic volunteer opportunities include both positions that are short in duration - with definite start and end dates - and positions that occur at regular intervals such as annual events. (MacDuff 1991, pp. 7-8) While some volunteer positions require a long-term commitment on the part of volunteers, many assignments can be successfully completed on a short-term basis. In addition to allowing time-crunched people to serve, short-term service opportunities "provide the volunteer with the opportunity to see how they like working with the agency, its staff and its clientele". (McCurley 1991, p. 10, full citation) Try breaking up a long-term commitment into several short-term placements that can build on one another.


MacDuff, Nancy. Episodic Volunteering: Building the Short-Term Volunteer Program. Walla Walla, WA: MBA, 1991.

Family Volunteering

Increasingly, adults are looking for opportunities to perform meaningful volunteer work while spending time with their families and teaching them the value of service. When adapting an existing volunteer task for family volunteers, the Points of Light Foundation (POLF) suggests that you consider:

  • Is it a safe activity for families of various ages? Why or why not?
  • How can risk and liability of this activity be minimized?
  • How can volunteer families benefit from this activity?
  • What is the minimum age requirement for this activity?
  • How much training/supervision is needed?
  • Could this activity be conducted with flexible hours (e.g. weekends and evenings)? Why or why not?
  • Can this project be expanded to include activities for families of various ages?

(Thurmond, Donna P., and James Cassell. Family Volunteering: Putting the Pieces Together. The Points of Light Foundation, 1996, p. 20)

Family volunteering projects can involve children, parents, grandparents, foster parents, aunts, uncles and the extended family - or any combination thereof. When designing family volunteer programs for the first time, be sure to connect with local volunteer programs that already have a track record of successful family involvement.


Ellis, Susan J., Anne Weisbord, and Katherine H. Noyes. Children as Volunteers: Preparing for Community Service. Philadelphia: Energize, 1991.

Thurmond, Donna P., and James Cassell. Family Volunteering: Putting the Pieces Together. The Points of Light Foundation, 1996. Call 202-223-9186, Ext. 206 to order.

  • Includes steps for addressing some of the most common barriers to family volunteering such as time constraints, liability issues, and the challenge of finding volunteer tasks that are age-appropriate and meaningful for all family members.

College Volunteers and Interns

"About 25% of American Colleges and dozens of high schools have recently instituted volunteer work in the curriculum" (Brudney, 1990, p. 161). In addition, most institutions of higher education have offices that coordinate on-campus student organizations and activities, including service groups. Some tips for recruiting college volunteers and interns are:

  • Find out the campus' policies with regards to flyers and on-campus recruitment before you begin.
  • Contact the campus' office on student activities or volunteer center to find out how to get in touch with volunteers, student organizations, and clubs on campus. Student government, Greek organizations and on-campus clubs/membership groups are generally registered/coordinated through a central office.
  • Post flyers and recruit volunteers where students hang-out, such as the student union or local campus restaurants. Similarly, residence halls may coordinate volunteer opportunities for their students.
  • Students are most likely to initiate new volunteer activities at the start of the fall and spring semesters. As the semester progresses, it can get harder to recruit volunteers. Remember: many students leave town during holiday breaks and the summer months.
  • Colleges and universities often sponsor volunteer fairs where you can recruit support. These are generally organized by the campus' office on student activities or volunteer center. Some classes and departments have well-established internship/field-study programs and classes. Find out what types of placement opportunities they are looking for to determine if there's a match with your organization's needs.
  • If you are recruiting students with a particular expertise, initiate contact with the school or department that is most consistent with your volunteer needs. If your agency needs help with Web page design, for example, you might contact the campus' school of library and information science. If your agency needs volunteers to help with health screening, you might contact the nursing or medical school.
  • Resources:

Lowenthal, Phil, Stephanie Tarnoff, Lisa David, Eds. Recruiting College Volunteers: A Guide for Volunteer Recruitment and Management, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, 1995 (28 pages).

Virtual Volunteering

Many people are looking for volunteer opportunities that they can complete via their home or work computers and the Internet. Family commitments, personal time constraints, a disability and other factors can all make it difficult for individuals to volunteer their services. Virtual volunteering allows anyone to contribute time and expertise to not-for-profit organizations, schools, government offices, and other agencies that utilize volunteer services, without ever leaving his or her home or office.

Although still a relatively new trend, there are numerous examples of both technical assistance and direct service Virtual Volunteering. Here are just a few:

  • Individuals "visiting" via electronic mail someone who is home-bound, in the hospital or in a nursing home.
  • People helping design Web pages, newsletters and brochures using their home computers. Volunteers answering managerial questions and conducting online outreach for nonprofit organizations.

Volunteers with Disabilities

People with disabilities are an excellent yet often underutilized source of volunteer talent. 19.1% of the U.S. population has a disability and "of all people with disabilities, 66% are unemployed; 79% of them want to be engaged in meaningful work." (Taylor 1995, p. 15)

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides for full participation in and access to all aspects of society, including volunteering. Many reasonable accommodations can be made with little effort and expenditure. Other agencies and organizations can sometimes lend adaptive equipment for the use of a specific volunteer.

Texas statewide agencies and groups that might serve as resources in your outreach to persons with disabilities include:

  • Arc of Texas (800-252-9729)
  • Brain Injury Association of Texas (800-392-0040)
  • Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (512-478-3366 voice or TDD)
  • Learning Disabilities Association of Texas (800-604-7500)
  • Governor's Committee People with Disabilities. (512-463-5740 voice or 512-463-5746 TDD)
  • Texas Commission for the Blind (800-252-5204)
  • Texas Commission for the Deaf and Hearing-Impaired (512-407-3250 voice or 512-407-3251 TDD)
  • Texas Department of Health (512-458-7112)
  • Texas Department of Human Services (512-438-3011)
  • Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (800-252-5400)
  • Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (512-454-3761)
  • Texas Planning Council for Developmental Disabilities (800-262-0334 or 512-424-4099 TDD)
  • Texas Rehabilitation Commission (800-252-7009)


  • Taylor, Lisa. "Disability as a Part of Diversity", The Journal of Volunteer Administration, Volume XIII, Number 2, Winter 1995.
  • Texas Planning Council for Developmental Disabilities, People First Language and Describing People with Disabilities. For copies, call 412-424-4092.
  • Paraquad, Words with Dignity, available online at:
  • Virginia Office on Volunteerism. The ADA: Information and Implications for Volunteer Program Administrators. 1992.