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12 min read

Is your volunteer application process costing you time and money?

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Recruiting volunteers isn’t rocket science but it does involve effort and good decision making from your organization to be successful.


With sector trends indicating a growing number of nonprofits entering the scene over the years, competition to recruit volunteers within several regions has increased. The 2019 Sector in Brief reported a 4.5% increase in nonprofits from 1.48 million to 1.56 million, in the Unites States, between 2006 and 2016. Is your organization armed with a recruitment strategy to compete in your market?

Two critical decisions that can contribute to your recruitment success include which communication channels (e.g., social media) to utilize to reach your potential volunteer audience and which application method (e.g., online form) to employ for volunteers to action their interest to get involved.

It’s important to note that most people who are interested in volunteering will research their options online. In fact, VolunteerMatch and Sterling Volunteers’ 2020 Industry Insights report (refer to page 16) identified that 47% of the 10,000 volunteers surveyed find opportunities via volunteer websites, apps or on social media. By comparison, only 15% of organizations are promoting their program and roles through such online methods. This discrepancy between volunteer and organization behavior is a gap that could use some closing. Organizations need to action a change, by communicating volunteer opportunities via the channels in which their potential volunteers are hanging out, if improved volunteer recruitment is a goal.

By the same token, the method in which you have a volunteer apply - a.k.a. your chosen CTA (Call to Action) - is equally vital. The CTA is the next step, or desired action, you’d like that volunteer to take to express interest or apply.

Which application method or CTA are you using?

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The desired goal of the application process is to have both the volunteer and volunteer services team members move through the process efficiently and securely to arrive at a decision of acceptance. The confidential information volunteers provide should be secured centrally and accessible to only those who have been granted authorization. Making the process for volunteer services team members and volunteers as frictionless as possible is ideal. Avoiding application abandonment from your potential volunteers will make your recruitment efforts more successful, by adapting your process to the volunteer’s needs, behaviors, and communication style.

Let’s examine the five commonly used application methods and how the method you choose can hinder or help you and your volunteers in terms of the level of time, money, and risk involved.

  1. Paper


    Paper is an offline recruitment method that does not support the 90% of volunteers who prefer digital communications over paper (refer to page 25 of the 2020 Industry Insights report).

    Time & Money:

    • The recruitment process is lengthened, starting with the volunteer using their time to receive and submit the application form in-person or by mail.
    • Once received, data entry of the volunteer’s application responses into a spreadsheet can be a common next step you would take. This can be time-consuming. Read our blog about the nine compelling reasons to ditch the spreadsheet. Even if you don’t do any data entry and you simply file the form away, you’ll spend some time sifting through files the next time you need to contact your volunteer.
    • Corresponding with the volunteer regarding acceptance or onboarding steps tends to take place via phone, mail or in person given that the volunteer applying via paper has a higher likelihood of not using newer forms of communication.

    Risk Management:

    You have been entrusted with the volunteer’s personal and confidential information and now have the responsibility of properly securing and protecting that paper document. Consider:

    • How many hands does that paper application pass through before landing on the correct staff member’s desk to review? This increases the risk for accidental loss, theft, and exposure of the confidential info.
    • As the form travels to the correct destination, how securely is the information being concealed? If the application were mailed in it should remain concealed in the envelope until arriving at the correct destination; however, if it were dropped off unconcealed by the volunteer, staff in possession are now responsible for the data and should secure it until it is handed to the appropriate staff member.
    • How securely are you storing or disposing of that paper form? If you must keep the paper document on file, store it in a locked filing cabinet to which only authorized staff members have access. For disposal, it’s best to cross-shred the document instead of placing a form in an open recycling bin which offers easy access to the confidential data.
    • Adhering to the principle of data minimization is most difficult with a paper application form. This principle (law in the UK and the European Union, one of the ten Privacy Principles in Australia, and growing in acceptance everywhere) states that we should only collect information at the time we need to collect it and we should dispose of it as soon as we no longer need it. For example, if you collect emergency contact details on a paper application form when someone applies, it can be argued that you are collecting it before you need it. This person might not actually become a volunteer. And once a volunteer retires from your organization, you no longer need that information, but it is still sitting on that paper application. This is just one example of how paper applications do not adhere to the principle of data minimization.


    Paper should be the application method of last resort and reserved for certain use cases, such as a volunteer who does not use computers. The document should always remain concealed until reaching the appropriate staff member to open and review. Storing the document should be handled by using a locked filing cabinet that only certain staff are authorized to access. A secure disposal method such as cross shredding should be used when you no longer need the document in your possession.

  2. PHONE


    A phone call is an offline recruitment method. With 47% of volunteers finding volunteer opportunities online (refer to page 16 of the 2020 Industry Insights report), asking a volunteer to action the step of expressing interest or applying in an offline manner contradicts and disrupts the workflow.

    Time & Money:

    • The recruitment process is lengthened, as a volunteer and the volunteer services team open themselves up to spending time playing telephone tag. This invites friction into the process and increases the rate of application abandonment.
    • If phone is being used by the organization to pre-screen interested candidates, consider just putting an online form right on your website that asks your pre-screening questions. This approach reduces the time spent on this step. Phone conversations can last longer than it takes you to review a volunteer’s responses when a well-constructed online interest or application form is used.
    • Whether your volume of potential volunteer inquires is low or high, the phone invites the potential of spending unnecessary amounts of your valuable time conversing with unqualified volunteers that could have otherwise been put to good use in your program elsewhere.
    • While on the phone with the volunteer, some organizations will start recording the volunteer’s information into a spreadsheet. Data entry is now being introduced into your process, which eats up time (among other issues)!

    Risk Management:

    • When speaking on the phone with a volunteer candidate, are you writing some of their information on paper (e.g., contact info, references, etc.)? If so, you are now responsible for that piece of confidential information. Refer to the risk management comments in the above section on Paper, for things to be aware of in terms of securing and disposing of this paper document.
    • If you are inputting data from your phone conversation into a spreadsheet, some risks that are introduced include:
      • Maintaining data accuracy is challenging as manual intervention is involved
      • Accidental data modification
      • Multiple versions of the information if different users create different spreadsheets
      • The options to control data access are limited
      • Where a spreadsheet is password-protected, access to data may be lost temporarily if the password is lost or purposefully altered by another staff member where passwords are being shared.

    For more thoughts on recording volunteer data in a spreadsheet, read our blog on the nine compelling reasons to ditch your spreadsheet.


    Review how well you’re marketing your program via the communication channels you use (e.g., your organization’s website). If you’re doing a good job of showcasing what you have to offer by answering the common questions of your prospective volunteers, there should be little need for the intermediary step of calling you before applying. Make it so that a volunteer can go right to expressing interest or applying via an online form because you’ve already sold them on getting involved! Reduce your number of steps involved and you reduce the amount of friction in the process. A win-win for all parties.

  3. EMAIL


    It’s a heavily utilized online communication method with 85% of the US population being active email users, per PitchFunnel’s blog on Email Usage Statistics in 2021.

    Time & Money:

    • Having volunteers email you to either ask program questions, express interest, or send you their attached PDF application form comes with issues noted in the above sections. You end up spending time answering questions that could be answered on your website or have received application data on a volunteer via email, that you are very likely to now transfer into a spreadsheet. Ditching the step of data entry into a spreadsheet is highly attainable! Read our blog about the nine compelling reasons to ditch the spreadsheet.
    • An advantage email does have over phone and paper methods is that it’s a quick, online communication method which continues the flow in an online fashion, which is the method the volunteer had likely found your organization (e.g., a visit to your website).

    Risk Management:

    Inviting confidential data into your email inbox places the onus on you to protect it. Consider:

    • If you keep the application data in your inbox to review/assess for program fit and forego moving the data into a centralized tool, your team cannot access some of the info they likely need. If you retire/resign, your organization then loses that application history as it becomes lost in your inbox, which is not a data management tool or should not be used in such a way.
    • Are you using a shared email account that many people access at your organization (e.g., volunteer@xx.com) to review applications or manage your program? Shared logins/passwords come with a slew of issues such as possibly losing ownership of the account if another staff member alters login credentials or being more vulnerable to a data breach where data is accessed inappropriately by someone with access to the shared email account.
    • Emails are prone to common cyber-attacks when information exchange is unencrypted.
    • It’s easier with email for you to accidentally share the volunteer’s info with an unintended recipient. Have you ever accidentally sent an email to the wrong person? It’s so easy to do and is considered a data breach if you did this with a volunteer’s application emailed to you.
    • If you print out the email or attached PDF application, you are now subject to properly storing and disposing of that paper document. Refer to the risk management comments in the Paper section for tips.


    Convert to using an online form for your program. You’re practically already there by having your PDF form downloadable online and/or using email as the mode of communication. You just need to combine those two approaches by creating your application questions in the format of an online form. See the next two sections to learn the differences between two types of online forms.

  4. ONLINE FORM - NO VMS (Volunteer Management Solution)


    An online recruitment method, available 24/7/365, supports the 90% of volunteers who prefer digital communications over paper (refer to page 25 of the 2020 Industry Insights report.

    Time & Money:

    • This is an improvement in time saving for a volunteer services team, but one critical problem typically remains; the use of multiple disconnected systems to manage your volunteer program. You may be using a form builder tool to create your application along with other separate tools to manage additional components in your program (e.g., online training, communications of a newsletter, time logging, scheduling and more). Each of these involve time to move from one tool to the next and some/all may have a fee. Using disconnected tools can lead to data integrity and duplication issues.
    • It can be common practice that when the volunteer completes your form and you get an email with the responses, that you next spend time manually transferring that info into a spreadsheet.

    Risk Management:

    • If you receive the responses for the online form in your email inbox, please refer to the risk management comments in the Email section.
    • If you transfer the data to a spreadsheet, read our blog on the nine compelling reasons to ditch the spreadsheet which covers risk considerations and more.
    • If you print the email with the form responses, you are now responsible for protecting that paper document with confidential information. Refer to the risk management comments in the Paper section for tips.


    If you’ve gone so far as to create some automations into your recruitment process with the use of an online form, take it one step further to receive incremental benefits of time and cost savings as well as further mitigating your organization’s risks by exploring software designed with volunteer services teams in mind - a VMS (Volunteer Management Solution). Read on to consider an even better way than you are already operating.

  5. ONLINE FORM - USING A VMS (Volunteer Management Solution)


    An online recruitment method, available 24/7/365, supports the 90% of volunteers who prefer digital communications over paper (refer to page 25 of the 2020 Industry Insights report).

    Time & Money:

    • 64% of non-profit CFO’s say that adopting newer cloud technology methods would cut operational costs by about 20%, according to "The Business Value of Cloud Computing" published by CFO Publishing LLC. Use of a VMS can provide cost savings because the organization can consolidate the number of tools/systems in use into a robust all-in-one system to operate its program.
    • Expedites the recruitment process for both the volunteer and volunteer services team members. The volunteer already found you online so continuing the process online is more streamlined compared to moving them into an offline method.
    • Data from the application form feeds directly into your VMS; therefore, no data entry is necessary!
    • Mandatory program policies and agreements can be accepted by a volunteer upfront in the application process so you’re only using your time to review candidates who are the best suited and most interested.
    • Additionally, automated and customized messaging can communicate to the new applicant the next steps in your recruitment process, such as background checks, documents/agreements, e-learning, booking an interview with you, etc.

    Risk Management:

    • 80% of nonprofits do not have a cyber-attack policy in place, as stated in NTEN’s 2018 report on State of Nonprofit Cybersecurity. Using a VMS that is cybersecure, and demonstrates it through certifications such as ISO 27001, helps mitigate your risk
    • Only Administrators with controlled VMS access can see applicant information. Therefore, assuring confidentiality of volunteer data
    • Privacy and related regulatory compliance are enhanced
    • Dedicated storage and communication infrastructure for continual service availability
    • End-of-life data disposal is secure
    • A VMS comes with support services
    • …and many more ways the data a volunteer has entrusted you with is protected!


    Explore your volunteer management software options at www.volunteersoftwarecomparisons.com.

Are you seeking a better way to save time, money and mitigate risk? Learn about Better Impact's Top-Rated Volunteer Management Solution 
Volunteer Impact.


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