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How to recruit and retain volunteers for your professional organization

By: Lynn Orser, MSN, RN, CCRN, PCCN, NPD-BC

Communication, respect, and appreciation are key.


  • The benefits of joining a professional nursing organization include having a voice about issues that impact healthcare, networking, and professional development.
  • Successful organizations must have a network of volunteers to plan and execute activities.
  • Professional organizations that use the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses Healthy Work Environment Standards can engage and retain volunteers.

Professional nursing organizations—global, national, local, and specialty—are dedicated to advancing the profession and committed to the personal and professional development of their members. When nurses unite, they have a stronger voice on issues that affect healthcare and the profession.

Successful organizations need a network of volunteers to organize and plan its activities. Using the framework of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses Healthy Work Environment Standards can help you engage and retain volunteers. (See Strategies to engage volunteers.)

Strategies to engage volunteers

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses Healthy Work Environment (HWE) Framework guides nurses’ work. Consider using it to guide your professional organization’s work.

Standard Standard as applied to nurses’ work Standard as applied to professional organizations’ work
Authentic leadership

Nurse leaders must fully embrace the imperative of a healthy work environment, authentically live it, and engage others in its achievement.

• Develop a mission, vision, and strategic plan.
• Establish clear expectations for volunteers.
• Share leadership responsibilities as a group. • Mentor new volunteers.
• Hold your members, including the board of directors, accountable to HWE standards.

Skilled communication

Nurses must be as proficient in communication skills as they are in clinical skills.

• Establish communication norms.
• Respect volunteers.

True collaboration

Nurses must be relentless in pursuing and fostering true collaboration.

• Have a shared vision.
• Offer onboarding and mentoring to new volunteers.
• Step up to help other volunteers when they have conflicting priorities.

Effective decision-making

Nurses must be valued and committed partners in making policy, directing and evaluating clinical care, and leading organizational operations.

• Consider all options before making a decision.
• Develop a realistic strategic plan.
• Run effective meetings.

Appropriate staffing

Staffing must ensure an effective match be- tween patient needs and nurse competencies.

• Appoint the right person for the right position.
• Recruit new volunteers and organization officers.
• Develop succession plans that include onboarding processes and mentoring.

Meaningful recognition

Nurses must be recognized and must recognize others for the value each brings to the work of the organization.

• Recognize your volunteers.
• Say thank-you for a job well done.
• Recognize organizational activities are voluntary.

Mission, vision, goals

Understanding the purpose of your organization and the needs of your members will help you recruit volunteers. Does your organization have a stated mission and vision? Does it have goals and objectives for the work it’s doing? If you can’t state your organization’s goals and objectives, you may have difficulty recruiting volunteers. If your local chapter of a national organization doesn’t have a mission and vision, look to your national organization for guidance.

Regularly review your organization’s mission, vision, and goals to ensure the work you’re doing reflects them and supports your members’ needs.

Job descriptions

Matching individual volunteer skills and interests with specific positions and tasks will increase volunteer satisfaction. Do you have volunteer job descriptions? If not, take the time to create them and regularly review them. These descriptions help facilitate volunteer recruiting and onboarding. Remember, it’s acceptable to leave open positions if you don’t have a volunteer who’s the right fit.

Respect your volunteers’ time

Establish clear goals for volunteers’ work and accurate time commitments for tasks, activities, or roles. Your volunteers are choosing to spend their time working for your organization, so you must appreciate their time limitations and other commitments. Consider commute time and work schedules when planning your organization’s meetings and events. Is a live meeting necessary or can you meet virtually? Take into account volunteers’ feelings and values when planning events and projects. For example, if your volunteers value community service, plan a community event based on their input. Remember, volunteer work should be fun.


Work with volunteers to develop communication norms, including the best modes of communication (email, texting, private social media groups), when each should be used, and an acceptable timeframe for responding to communication. Hold each other accountable for the communication norms, and develop written policies, strategies, and budgets that are available for members and volunteers to reference.


Proper training creates a positive environment for volunteers and improves retention. Develop an onboarding program, designate an organization member with the appropriate skills to facilitate it, and create reference materials and how-to guides that volunteers can refer to as they execute their roles.

Other onboarding strategies include transition processes and meetings so that new volunteers have the opportunity to work with seasoned volunteers to learn the expectations of their new positions. Consider assigning a mentor or buddy to each volunteer. Establish mentor expectations, such as how frequently to touch base with the new volunteer.

Professional organization benefits

Sharing the benefits of membership in your organization may encourage volunteering.


• Many organizations offer educational programming and continuing nursing education.

Annual conventions or conferences

• Annual conferences provide networking and educational opportunities. Membership may include registration fee discounts.


• Networking with other nurses and healthcare professionals can help you advance your career and provide opportunities to share experiences.


• Many national organizations offer specialty certifications, and chapters offer activities that support certification.

Products and resources

• Members may receive newsletters or journals and discounts on educational programs and products sold by the organization.

Career assistance

• Some organizations have career centers with job listings and career advice.
• Volunteer activities can provide leadership experience.
• Some organizations have mentorship programs.


• Most organizations have websites with pages that the general public can access but also restricted members-only pages.

Recognize your volunteers

People like to be recognized for their contributions. Recognition can come in many forms, but it should be meaningful to the individual. Verbal thank-yous or announcements at events, mailed thank-you notes, or a planned volunteer event are all ways you can show your appreciation. If possible, provide free food to volunteers at events.


Design a recruitment message and create an elevator speech (30 to 60 seconds long) that promotes your organization and the benefits of belonging. (See Professional organization benefits.) Take advantage of social media platforms, email, and word of mouth to spread the news that you’re looking for volunteers. Recruit people who want to be part of your team; don’t just fill seats. Ask your colleagues and other volunteers if they know someone who might be interested.

Many people like to be asked to volunteer. Approach nurses who frequently attend your organization’s events and ask if they’d be interested in volunteering some time. If you identify a potential volunteer, ask them personally and invite them to join you at a meeting or event.

If you ask someone to volunteer and they say no, that doesn’t mean never. They may not have time right now or they may not have an interest in the open position. Continue touching base and raising awareness of your organization and volunteer opportunities. In addition, ask them what they might be interested in doing for the organization. (See Micro-volunteering.)


Micro-volunteering refers to volunteering in small bursts of time and in places convenient for the individual. It may be easier to find people to take on short-term tasks rather than commit to organize and execute an entire event or project.

Consider the work of your organization and brainstorm how to break it down into bite-sized chunks that take no more than 30 minutes to complete, such as:

  • sending email invitations to an event
  • creating social media posts to promote the event
  • signing in registrants at the event.

You’ll still need to assign a leader to provide guidance for these micro-volunteering tasks. However, a volunteer may more likely step forward to lead a project knowing a team of people will help complete the work.

You may be able to build on micro-volunteer engagement to find people to commit to a long-term positions or tasks.

Securing a network

Organizations need to secure a network of volunteers to plan and execute activities. Recruiting and retaining volunteers requires good communication, pairing the right person with the right job, providing training and onboarding, respecting volunteers’ time, and acknowledging their efforts.

Lynn Orser is a nurse educator at Hartford Healthcare St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a board member of the South Central Connecticut Chapter of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, and a founding member of the Connecticut Association of Nurses for Professional Development Affiliate.


American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. AACN Standards for Establishing and Sustaining Healthy Work Environments. 2016. aacn.org/~/media/aacn-website/nursing-excellence/standards/hwestandards.pdf

Greggs-McQuilkin D. Why join a professional nursing organization? Nursing. 2005;35:19.

VolunteerHub. Our 8 favorite ways to engage and retain volunteers. volunteerhub.com/blog/retain-volunteers-Engagement

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