How Volunteer Recruitment Works

Ron Livington volunteers
Actor Ron Livingston drums up support for Barack Obama in 2008, one volunteer helping to promote other volunteers in support of a cause.
David Greedy/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Whether you're running a political campaign, cleaning up the community or promoting an independent film, volunteerism is a truly awesome tool to have at your disposal. After all, these people aren't simply willing to work on your cause free of charge; they're willing to adopt your cause as their own. This is the kind of grassroots power that can change entire political and social landscapes.

Of course, to harness the power of volunteerism, first you need to recruit your volunteers. As it turns out, there's more to this process than meets the eye. These people don't grow on trees, but in many ways, they are like the fruits of a healthy garden. Sure, some of them are ripe for the picking. Others, however, require a little nurturing prior to harvest, which entails outreach and even education. They may be tailor-suited to help a particular cause, but that doesn't mean they know the cause even exists yet.


The garden analogy stretches even further. If you don't have plans for your tomato crop, you risk wasting the tomatoes. And if you grow only tomatoes, then you can't get too bent out of shape when all your recipes call for zucchinis. Likewise, you want your influx of volunteers to match your needs -- and you want the right kind of volunteers.

In this article, we'll look at just how organizers go about nurturing and harvesting a crop of volunteers. First off, let's get a handle on the different types of volunteers out there for recruitment.

You've probably heard the term "army of volunteers" thrown around in the press before -- and not just in reference to an actual fighting force. Aside from making for a nice visual in a news article, the comparison is apt. A group of volunteers is much like an army.


Warm Body and Targeted Recruitment

volunteer recruitment in action
This sign is a form of warm body recruitment.

An effective fighting force depends on organization. This, by degrees, separates armies from mere mobs. Few examples illustrate this concept as well as the game of chess: different pieces, different movements and different values. You don't want an army of pawns. Nor do you want an army of rooks. You need foot soldiers and generals in order to carry out military strategy. In the realm of volunteerism, these same principles hold true.

Imagine a scenario where a group of volunteers come together to help elderly members of their neighborhood with yard work and housework. For much of this work, you can depend on virtually anyone willing to volunteer -- warm bodies in other words. One volunteer might have a medical degree while another boasts mad "Halo 3" death match skills, but as long as they both can pick up a rake, that's all that matters. This is where warm-body recruitment or broad-based recruitment comes into play.


If it's volunteer work that virtually anyone can do, such as distributing flyers or picking them up off the roadside, then it often pays to try to recruit virtually anyone. To recruit these warm bodies, an organization simply promotes its message and need for volunteers to as broad an audience as possible. This might entail taking out ads in the media or sending recruiters to target groups.

Warm-body recruitment typically works very well, but it takes both quality and quantity out of the recruiters' hands. To jump back to the gardening analogy, the results are often more tomatoes than you know what to do with -- and there might be some you'll want to keep clear of the dinner table.

While warm-body recruitment works well for pawns and foot soldiers, many volunteer efforts need their specialists and generals as well. If a volunteer organization needs to recruit a Web designer, for instance, it would want to go after individuals with that particular skill set. This is called targeted recruitment and it's exactly what it sounds like. If you want a volunteer Web designer, you approach Web designers and you make an individualized plea for a donation of service. It's not a blanket approach, which also means that it requires a lot more time and effort.

On the next page, we'll look at two additional modes of recruitment.


Concentric Circle and Ambient Recruitment

concentric circles
Concentric circle recruitment moves out from the organizers, expanding through existing social connections.
Anthony Bradshaw/ Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Imagine throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the concentric rings expand out from the splash. This visual is the key to the concept of concentric circle recruitment, which is comparable to, say, enlisting your friend as your band's drummer as opposed to holding open auditions.

The central idea follows a basic line of reasoning: Who better to recruit as a volunteer than people who are already connected to you via some other relation. All an organizer has to do is move out in concentric circles through an existing framework of family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances.


If you need a volunteer to build your organization's Web page, then hey, why not recruit your brother's girlfriend? She's a freelance Web designer. Need someone to help distribute flyers? How about some people from your bridge club? Perhaps the most basic example would be a band turning to existing fan club members to help with an upcoming gig. Essentially, they're already recruited; they just need to be organized into a street team. Concentric circle recruitment then spreads out through the expanding web of connections that grows with each new volunteer: their family, their friends, their coworkers. Recruitment becomes self-sustaining.

Concentric circle recruitment tends to prove effective, thanks to personalized appeals to individuals who are already in close contact with the organization's volunteers, if not their actual volunteer work. Some may even be former recipients, such as a recovering addict who serves as a volunteer sponsor in an addiction program. The downside is that, since concentric circle recruitment tends to move through existing groups, it can lack the diversity and "fresh blood" that wider forms of recruitment attract.

The fourth recruitment method, ambient recruitment, generally depends on geographic or organizational communities, such as a neighborhood or school. The idea is to promote a community atmosphere that values volunteerism. Community-wide "help us keep our neighborhood clean" campaigns are an example of this, as are the volunteer efforts leveled by individual churches, schools and places of work.


Know Before You Recruit

beach clean-up
Volunteers attend the Teen Choice 2007 Beach Clean-Up in Santa Monica, Calif.
Michael Buckner/Staff/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Recruitment methods are merely tools. To properly use them, you have to know exactly what your volunteer needs are. This means clearly defining the goals, demands, risks and challenges of a given endeavor and defining the various volunteer roles required to carry it out. Again, organization separates armies from rabble and volunteer efforts from mere mobs of like-minded individuals.

Often, volunteer organizations will use several different recruitment efforts. For instance, a community clean-up volunteer group may collaborate with a local church to take advantage of ambient recruitment. Meanwhile, the organizers may turn to their friends for some key duties (concentric circle recruitment), target individuals with essential desirable skill sets and turn to warm-body recruitment for the rest of their volunteer needs.


According to the U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service, 26.2 percent of Americans aged 16 and older volunteered through organizations in 2007. This followed a 6 percent decline in total volunteers between 2005 and 2006. These statistics underline the regular fluctuations in volunteerism. Recruitment is vital not only to bring in new volunteers, but also to maintain the involvement of current volunteers.

Once established, a volunteering pool can prove a vital resource for future initiatives, especially if organizers maintain volunteer trust, interest and overall involvement through continued communication.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about volunteerism.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Rehnborg, Sarah Jane and Betsy Clubine. "Volunteer Recruitment: Tips from the Field." Charles A. Dana Center at U.T. Austin. (June 11, 2009)
  • McCurley, Steve. "Volunteer Recruitment Campaigns." CASAnet. 1995. (June 11, 2009)
  • "Volunteering 61 Million Strong; Need and Momentum Grow." Cooperation for National and Community Service. July 28, 2008. (June 11, 2009)