Kill the Pizza Party

7 Practical Ways to Motivate Your Volunteers


Pick from seven proven tactics to provide a compelling volunteer experience so together you can move your mission forward.


By Tim Schuster


Whether you lead an after-school program or a large non-profit or a political campaign, we need all the help we can get.

The truth is that non-profit organizations and churches and movements are built on on the backs of unpaid labor.

We know we aren’t winning when volunteers feel like they are doing staff leaders a favor, rather than contributing to the mission of the organization.

Promising a pizza party for reaching a goal or logging a certain number of volunteer hours is unimaginative and hokey.

But questions remain:

  • What inspires people to action?

  • How can we motivate volunteers?

  • How do we activate volunteers to do what they signed up to do?

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to motivating volunteers. Individuals have unique needs, personalities, experiences, and gift mixes. That means our job is to match the tactic with individual personalities. We can do this by testing a variety of strategies and tactics in order to find the match.

That is why we’ve assembled this list, so you can match each volunteer with the tactic that motivates them.

1) A story that includes public praise

Tell a story that makes your volunteer the hero. What did he or she do that embodied the mission? How did you “catch them in the act” of greatness? What would your organization look like if this story was repeated hundreds or thousands of times each year.

Tell this story at an event, on the blog, by video, or over a podcast. Or all of the above.

Why it works

Some volunteers thrive on a public recognition. Here’s the thing: They won’t tell you this (that doesn’t appear humble). Our job as leaders of volunteers is to know that this is a motivator, and to see how this tactic resonates with those volunteers.

Over time, this will shape your culture because what gets celebrated gets repeated. Without a story, we don’t know what to celebrate.

What you can do today

Pick a volunteer you recently caught in action. Pick a medium (video, written, event, etc.). Tell their story to give them praise and shape the culture. Watch the other volunteers take notice.

2) Private, written notes of appreciation

Who doesn’t love getting mail? A handwritten note is a lost art form in our culture. Expressing your gratitude with ink-on-paper is easy, efficient, genuine, and meaningful. It’s a sure-bet when it comes to inspiring (most) volunteers.

Why it works

In our hyper-digitized world, this is possibly the most genuine way to express appreciation. Appreciation = value = respect = motivation. Your note will feel extra special when it arrives in your mailbox, standing out amongst a pile of bills and solicitations.

What you can do today

Go to the store. Buy a 10 pack of thank you notes. Send handwritten notes to volunteers who need to hear from you. A few minutes each day will begin to shape your culture.

3) A toolbox of resources and frameworks

Give your volunteers a packet (digital, physical, or both) that they can consult as they move forward on their volunteer journey. But here’s the key: Make it available, but not required. Nothing says we want you to be successful and enjoy your experience than the gift of the right tool for the job.

Why it works

The adult-learning specialists teach us that adults are on a need-to-know, need-to-grow basis. Like putting together Ikea furniture, we like to give it a try - and when needed, consult the instruction manual or pick up the phone to ask for help. Giving your volunteers a toolbox of resources empowers people to do a good job, when it’s needed. And that’s motivating because it communicates that we are on their side and want them to experience success.

What you can do today

Put together a pack of learning resources for beginning, intermediate, and advanced volunteers. Start small and add to it over time. A great place to start: Think about the tools and resources you use with your job. Create a version for your volunteers.

4) Access to leaders and decision-makers

A one-on-one meeting with a decision-maker, such as an Executive Director or Senior Pastor, isn’t for everyone. But there are a segment of people who thrive on this! A simple 30 minute conversation with a leader can fuel some volunteers for months.

Why it works

This works because meetings with leaders confers status, and status drives behavior. When a volunteer can says, “I met with the Executive Director,” they have the comfort of knowing they are “in the know.” They feel included and important - and for some volunteers that is a huge win.

What you can do today

Choose a volunteer who would desire this kind of access. Think about the volunteer who likes to ask about leadership decisions. They will say things like, “What is ____ thinking about ___?” This is the person who will thrive on access to a leader. Then, make yourself available for 20-30 minutes - or ask your senior leaders to make themselves available for a few slots each week.

5) Opportunities to provide input, expertise, and ideas

Some people want to be the decision-maker, but more people are simply interested in having their input and perspectives considered. When you make a volunteer feel heard and considered, you are validating their expertise and perspective. Of course, no need to implement every idea - we’re simply talking about creating environments of healthy input.

Why it works

When people feel heard, they feel validated. Validation is a motivator because they feel included in the decision-making, even if their ideas weren’t implemented. It also shows the confidence of the leaders to hear and consider perspectives from volunteers. Chances are you’ll hear good ideas, too.

What you can do today

Schedule a strategy session or focus group with the title: “Ask the experts (yes, that you).” Facilitate a simple conversation about what each volunteer is hearing and experiencing. Write it up and send it out to the group with a note of appreciation.

6) Personal and professional development

Volunteers are getting something from their experience that is unfulfilled in other areas of life. The best volunteers are thirsty to try to things and grow their capacity to contribute. Some readers will think, “What if they grow and develop, but leave for another experience?” But the astute and intentional leaders will gladly take this over

Yes, the risk is that leaders will grow and develop, only to leave for another organization. The alternative, however, is that they don’t grow and develop, and stay with your organization. When we become developmentally minded with our volunteers, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Why it works

When a volunteer gets the sense that an organization cares about their growth and development, it makes your culture even more attractive to prospective volunteers who desire personal growth. These people are often intrinsically motivated, and the virtuous cycle continues.

What you can do today

There are a lot of personal and professional growth platforms out there. Find them.

Lynda and Udemy are a good place to start. Then, say this: “As a volunteer, you get access to these resources. Some of these will help you contribute as a volunteer, while other resources and growth experiences will help in other areas of your life. Another perk of volunteering with us! We’re grateful for your support, time, and energy!”

7) Low structure, high expectations

Recruiting and attracting gifted and talented people is the ideal - and when we do that, we need to stay out of their way. Yes, there are volunteers who are craving opportunities to do a job, and do it well. Imagine the high-capacity volunteer who is micro-managed in their day job. You can provide that creative outlet for them. Give them a challenge, co-create the goal, and get out of their way.

Why it works

Low structure and high expectations will attract and motivate the kind of volunteers that will make your job easier - as well as help fuel your mission. Your organization wil develop a reputation as a great place to volunteer. Beware, however, you may need to fire a volunteer once and awhile. This signals you are serious about volunteering is a privilege and that it’s not for everyone.

What you can do today

Find one requirement or policy (spoken or unspoken) that you have for your volunteers - and then cut it. Not sure what that is? Ask your volunteers, “What is one barrier that could be removed that would make your volunteer experience better?” Then, facilitate a meeting to co-create big goals and expectations. Then - get out of the way and watch them soar.

Find a Match

You are now equipped with seven tactics for motivating volunteers. Do the work of matching tactic with personality - and be comforted in knowing that the time and energy you save in the long run will be worth it.

And, then, kill the pizza party.


Tim Schuster is Founder of Popup Think Tank where they build communities around non-profit founders and small business entrepreneurs. He also works with Thrivent Financial where he and his teammates design, test, and launch social businesses. He lives in North Minneapolis with his family.



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