How to Inspire, Recruit, & Retain with Great Volunteer Stories

NOTE: This article was originally published on January 19th, 2024 by Civic Champs. It has been reposted in April 2024 in honor of Volunteer Appreciation Month.

I remember the first time I volunteered in my community. Or, I should say, my new community.

When the pandemic hit, I made the tough decision to trade in my fast-paced, Washington DC lifestyle in exchange for a work-from-home, suburban experience in Rochester, New York. I knew I wanted to get involved in my new community, so I signed up for local volunteer alerts and waited for one to spark my interest. Fast forward to Thanksgiving of 2021, I received an email asking for help distributing boxes of nonperishables to local food banks.

As it turned out, residual effects of the pandemic made their traditional distribution channel impossible and they needed people willing to do the heavy lifting of boxes from trucks and into the kitchens. I had been a college athlete, so I signed myself up! Afterall, how hard could it be?

I showed up on that frosty Thursday morning ready to work. I was introduced to the group of 50 adults, college kids and high school athletes that I’d be working with and we quickly came up with a plan for distributing the boxes assembly-line style.

The boxes were heavier than I had anticipated! But the closeness of our assembly line made for the quick and easy distribution of hundreds of boxes to four different food banks in just a few short hours. Our team was so well-organized that we even had a built-in “switch” time when everyone would change positions to give rest to the opposite sides of our bodies. 

My arms and abdominals ached for several days, but my sore muscles were 100% worth the sense of accomplishment. We had worked as a team to make Thanksgiving a reality for hundreds of families in my community. And while I am just one small set of hands, my involvement as a part of the bigger system was integral to the overall success of the day.

This is my story. But, I suspect you have your own. And the tens – or hundreds, or maybe even thousands – of volunteers that stand at the heart of your organization have their own as well…

It’s Time To Think Outside-Of-The-Box

As nonprofit professionals, we often think of nonprofit storytelling as the practice of capturing the perspectives and experiences of program beneficiaries and using them to raise funds. And while no one can deny that their stories are a compelling way to humanize your nonprofit’s mission, their experiences do not paint the full picture of the incredible impact you are having.

Today, I challenge you to think outside of the traditional nonprofit storytelling box, and explore how volunteer stories can benefit your organization. Volunteer stories come from a variety of perspectives, which in turn allows for them to connect with several segments of your audience. In this post, we’ll explore the types of volunteer stories you can collect, how to use these stories to enhance volunteer recruitment and bolster retention, followed by 10 conversation starters that promise to spark great stories.

What Types of Stories Can Volunteers Tell?

    • Personal Transformation Stories: How has volunteering changed the perspective, skills, or outlook of your volunteer? Whether it was a life-changing moment that drove them to volunteer, or the heartwarming impacts they witnessed while doing so, personal transformation stories are the key to those “warm and fuzzy” moments audiences crave.

    • Impact Stories: What do your volunteers do, and why do those tasks matter? Keep in mind that some volunteer tasks are easy for outsiders to see a direct impact – like planting trees – while others, while still essential, might sit behind-the-scenes. This plethora of stories showcase the direct effect volunteer work has on the overall success of the nonprofit. 

    • Before-and-After: Do your volunteer projects have a clear before-and-after? There is a reason infomercials have been using this tactic for decades – a metamorphosis is an exceptionally compelling visual! Capture volunteer experiences about overcoming obstacles and achieving collective success like picking up trash at a park, building a home, or (like my story) stacking hundreds of boxes at a food pantry. 

    • Stories of Connection: Volunteers will donate 10 times more money over their lifetimes than non-volunteers to the cause they’re involved in. Why? Because of the connection they feel after dedicating their time and effort to your organization. Explore narratives that demonstrate the relationships built between your volunteers and your program beneficiaries, special event attendees, and your staff members. Have unexpected friendships bloomed? Tell us about it!

3 Storytelling Strategies to Boost Volunteer Recruitment

Whether you’re just starting out or you have a regimented volunteer program in place, it’s always helpful to keep your doors open to new faces willing to provide their time and talents. Let’s explore 3 storytelling strategies to boost volunteer recruitment: 

    1. Create Compelling Content: Craft engaging narratives from volunteer stories for social media, blog posts, and website testimonials. Use videos and images to convey the things they most enjoy about volunteering for your organization. Displaying beautiful stories of those who have already walked the path could make a potential volunteer think, “If they can make a difference, so can I!”

Fox Tip: If you’re looking for an easy way to quickly drag and drop your stories to make beautiful content for Instagram Reels, TikTok, YouTube Shorts & Facebook Watch, check out these Canva Video Templates.

    1. Host an Open House: Organize an in person or virtual event where current volunteers can share their experiences. Invite potential volunteers to interact, ask questions, and learn firsthand about the difference they can make. Be sure to include the scope of the volunteer work and give people an easy way to sign up for announcements and reminders!

    1. Utilize Peer-to-Peer Outreach: Encourage current volunteers to share their stories with their networks. Give them tools to easily share their story on social media, and consider implementing referral programs that reward volunteers for successful recruitment. Remember – incentives are not just money! Civics Champs has a full list of rewards you can offer to volunteers.

3 Storytelling Strategies to Bolster Volunteer Retention 

Volunteer retention can be a challenging obstacle for nonprofits. However, constantly interviewing and training new volunteers is just not sustainable. Let’s explore how to bolster volunteer retention using 3 storytelling strategies:

    1. Recognition and Appreciation: You may be thinking it, but are you showing your appreciation? Regularly feature volunteer stories in newsletters, on social media, or during events to highlight their contributions. Not only are these engaging forms of content, celebrating volunteer milestones and achievements publicly shows how much your organization values their hard work. Start small by crafting a quarterly “Volunteer Spotlight” or showcasing stories for Volunteer Appreciation Week, which takes place every April.

    1. Create Feedback Loops: It is likely that your volunteers see aspects of your organization that you cannot! Survey your recurring volunteers regularly about their experiences and use their feedback to improve the volunteer program. Implementing changes based on their input, will make them feel heard, valued, and will boost their likelihood of contributing again in the future.

    1. Promote Community Building: Foster a sense of community by organizing fun social gatherings that do not involve your mission. Truly get to know your volunteers by inviting them to join your staff for something out of the ordinary, like: trivia night, bowling tournament, improv workshop, etc. Encourage year-round interaction between volunteers through forums, groups, or social media channels. The more connected they feel to your organization as a whole, the more likely they are to give their time and talents to your mission. 

10 Conversation Starters That Spark Volunteer Stories

Not quite sure where to start? No problem! Check out these 10 targeted questions that promise to spark compelling conversations with your volunteers. 

    1. Tell us about the first time you volunteered with (your organization).
    2. How does volunteering with (your organization) make you feel?
    3. Tell us about one experience you’ve had while volunteering for (your organization) that you’ll never forget.
    4. How has your life been impacted by volunteering with (your organization)?
    5. What’s the most rewarding part about volunteering for (your organization)?
    6. What would you say to someone who’s thinking about volunteering for (your organization)?
    7. What was it about (your organization) that inspired you to become a volunteer?
    8. What is one thing you learned – that you wouldn’t have known otherwise – if it weren’t for your time volunteering with (your organization)?
    9. How does (your organization) make our community a better place?
    10. There are a lot of nonprofits out there — what is so special to you about (your organization)?

                    While every question will not work for every need, they should get the wheels turning as you create your next storytelling campaign! If you’re looking for more interview-style questions to spark great conversations, check out these 20 Storytelling Interview Questions to Capture Great Stories. Best of luck capturing and sharing your volunteer stories!

                    carly euler memoryfox

                    About the Author

                    Carly Euler
                    Marketing Manager, MemoryFox

                    Carly comes from the nonprofit world ready to elevate the hundreds of nonprofits in the MemoryFox community. She currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Wily Network’s Young Professionals Association, and has previously held positions at the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, the Code of Support Foundation, Kenya Lacrosse Association, and the BOMA Project, where she has specialized in marketing, communications, and fundraising. Storytelling has been an integral part of each role.