The Ideal Volunteer

ideal volunteer

We all want the ideal volunteer, but what do we look for in an applicant? I’ve found that there are three key elements that, all together, add up to that one amazing person we’re searching for.

Understand, people with only one element, and certainly combinations of two elements, can make good volunteers. For the ideal volunteer, though, you need all three.


Herb Kelleher, a co-founder of South-West Airlines, was attributed as saying “Hire for attitude, train for skills”. It’s a wise saying. If a person has a good work ethic, if they’re reliable, respectful and willing to learn, it’s easy to give them the specific skills that they will need to become an outstanding volunteer in your organization. If, on the other hand, you hire for skill you may find that you have highly skilled volunteers who don’t show up for shifts, or who do sloppy work, or who are disrespectful to clients, staff and other volunteers. And all the training in the world won’t change that!


Without passion, volunteers won’t bring their best to your organization. They have to really care about the cause, and believe in what you’re doing to help.  Without that, they will treat their volunteer time just as they would a job. They’ll do it, but they won’t bring their best. On the other hand, if a volunteer is passionate about the cause and your mission, not only will they bring all their skills and enthusiasm, they’ll bring new ideas. They may research the field in their off time so that they can make your organization even better. They will bring everything they have.


That ability and willingness to dedicate your skills to a cause for the long term. Committed volunteers show up shift after shift, year after year. There are some incredible volunteers (you probably know a few) who have volunteered for the same organization for decades. I knew a volunteer who was still mentoring youth when he was 97, after almost 50 years with the same organization!

Dabbler – Attitude and Passion:

If a person has both the attitude and the passion, they may be a great volunteer – for a while. Helping the cause is something that they like to do and it makes them feel like they’re making a difference.

However, without commitment they may drop it if something more interesting comes up. Or it may simply be that their life is in flux and they just can’t commit for a long period. Many university student volunteers are in that position. Again, they are good to have; they’re just not the ideal.

Faithful – Attitude and Commitment:

This is the most common volunteer segment. They’ve been with you for a while and they know that what you’re doing is important. They may have “wanted to give back to the community”, and you were the organization that was the most convenient for them. They may especially like the social aspect of volunteering.

Unfortunately, they don’t have a real passion for the cause, so they don’t bring those new ideas or extra enthusiasm that can propel the mission forward. Over time, it may have become little more than a habit for them. They’re good, dedicated people, but they aren’t your ideal volunteer.

Donor – Passion and Commitment:

Sometimes people really care; they want to help, but they lack the work ethic or have other attitude challenges. Other things may take priority for them, so they miss shifts. They may be a bit “old school” and not as respectful to women, people of colour or other marginalized populations within your client base, staff or among the other volunteers. Much as they want to help, they probably won’t make great volunteers.

These people, though, are where not-for profits can find their donors. That way, these people can feel good about supporting a cause they believe in by helping it financially instead.

Not all volunteers are “ideal” – and they don’t need to be.

I’m not at all saying that you should turn away an applicant that just has two, or even only one, of these elements (though if they don’t have any, you might think twice).  You can build a good volunteer program with people who only have one or two. In fact, I don’t know a single organization that has all or even most of their volunteer team made up of three-element volunteers.

But if you do find someone who has all three, grab hold and do whatever you can to make them happy. If they have all three of these elements, they are an ideal volunteer, and worth their weight in gold!

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