Cultivating Volunteers

In the garden and at your nonprofit.

Volunteers are vital to a healthy organization. They can extend your outreach and staff capacity and increase the impact of your mission. Tend to your volunteer corps as you would your garden and watch it flourish and grow!

For this Indiana Dunes-dweller that means daily forays to explore the sights and sounds of my home garden.

Each day offers something new and I'm always eager to see what Mother Nature has in store for me. The wildflower show begins in April with our native Hepatica. Its delicate flowers are as beautiful as they are fleeting. Painted in shades of pink and purple, the blossoms fade just as the oak leaves begin to unfurl. But the floral parade continues. Sand phlox and violets are followed by Lupine, puccoon, wild roses, prickly pear cactus, goat's rue, milkweeds, blazing star, Asters, and too many more to mention.

Earlier this week, on my morning walkabout, something caught my eye—a flash of white, peeking-up amongst the leaves of wild columbine and wood betony. It was an unexpected surprise: our beautiful native bloodroot. I didn’t plant it in this particular spot. It was a volunteer. 

three white flowers, one fully open, the others in bud

The Garden Volunteer
In gardening terms, a volunteer is a plant that grows on its own, rather than being deliberately planted.

Volunteers often grow from seeds that float in on the wind, are dropped by birds, or even deposited by insects. They can arise nearly anywhere—even the cracks of a sidewalk or compost pile. Some will vanish in a fortnight. Others may persist for a season or two or maybe longer. But if the conditions are suitable, a volunteer can flourish and spread. My little bloodroot seemed poised to do just that.

Cultivate your volunteers as you would your garden ...

As I contemplated my white-petaled visitor, I was struck by the similarities between native garden volunteers and nonprofit volunteers.

It’s often easy to recruit volunteers, but the challenge is to create a situation in which they can thrive. The best organizations—like the best gardeners—have a knack for this. One volunteer becomes several become many, through positive experiences and success stories that create interest and build awareness.

Here are some tips to help build or improve the volunteer program at your nonprofit.

Sailor volunteers her time while in Malaysia.

What's the Motivation

Each volunteer comes to your organization with unique interests and the ability to help in distinct ways. Understanding their motivation is key. Capture this information on volunteer applications or informal conversations so you can appropriately match volunteers with the work at-hand. This will help ensure success and encourage long-term relationships.

Training and Feedback are Key

Good training and feedback are vital to a robust volunteer ecosystem. Take time for orientation and training by staff and more seasoned volunteers. Keep open lines of communication about how things are going and make adjustments if necessary. Help volunteers feel empowered to do their jobs and know how they contribute to your mission. 

closeup view of a man wearing a yellow hard-hat and applying yellow paint with a brush
a group of women stuff Christmas stockings

Build Community

Volunteering unites like-minded individuals in a common effort and builds bonds that can last a lifetime—both between people and with the organization. It's fun to connect while working on a project and feel part of a team and a larger effort. The best volunteer programs allow ample time for both work and socialization.

Tell a Story

Storytelling can be an important tool to both engage new volunteers and recognize volunteer accomplishments. Think about times when your volunteers have made a difference and communicate that message—in person, via social media, and through email and printed materials. Make sure to capture the energy and use photos and video to help tell the story.

A US Navy sailor holds to Dr. Seuss books up to show school children
closeup of frosted cupcakes

Show Your Appreciation

Volunteers give freely of their time and expertise to support your cause. Recognize their contributions in ways that make them feel valued and special. This doesn't have to be expensive. Be creative and personal. And remember, recognition isn't a one-time event. It should continue throughout a volunteer's engagement life-cycle.

The investment in your volunteer garden will reap rewards for many years to come. With the right engagement techniques and careful cultivation, volunteers will return, grow, and spread to build a healthy organization that benefits everyone!

a large and diverse group of people jumping in the air
Bonnie Hawksworth, non-profit leader and fundraising and engagement expert.

Bonnie Hawksworth

Bonnie Hawksworth is a fundraising professional, nonprofit leader, and avid nature lover based in the Indiana Dunes. For nearly twenty years Bonnie has been helping nonprofit groups exceed their most ambitious goals.

Ready to take your nonprofit to the next level? Contact Bonnie at

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