By: Jeremy Gillbanks On: June 8, 2021 In: Leadership Comments: 0

The similarities between hiring great employees and hiring great volunteers.

This article was also posted on LinkedIn here:

The Unintended Benefits for Volunteers

  • Leadership skills learned while volunteering are useful in a professional context.
  • A positive workplace culture is critical to employee attraction – especially when you’re recruiting volunteers.
  • A supportive workplace culture fosters retention – especially when you can’t pay people more to stay.
  • Frequent repetitive communication is key. Aligning the vision and mission among the members leads to improved volunteerism and effective delegation.
  • Simple positive feedback is great recognition. Volunteers appreciate relevant, specific, timely, and constructive advice.

The Similarities Between Volunteers and Employees

Staff members are a crucial element of companies, as employing the right people at the right time (or the wrong people at the wrong time) can make or break a business. These key people can be on any rung of the corporate ladder, from lower-level employees to executives and the board.

The methods of attraction and retention generally fall into two categories: financial compensation and culture.

Within financial compensation, there is:

  • Salary
  • Spot bonuses
  • Hiring bonuses
  • Employee referral bonuses

Meanwhile, culture consists of:

  • Mission and vision alignment
  • Recognition of employees
  • Future job prospects and opportunities, both internal and external
  • Training and upskilling
  • Flexibility in hours and requirements
  • Positive work environment

What can you do if you don’t have financial compensation to offer?

Focus on culture.

This is the world of people who volunteer at local community sporting clubs.


Sporting clubs can be more nascent than companies, and the loss of key volunteers can strike a death knell. Key volunteers are coaches, administrators, cultural leaders, equipment maintainers, and others with delegated roles.

The value of community volunteers is immense. Volunteers receive personal fulfilment, meaning, and a sense of achievement. Australians contribute over $17 billion in volunteer hours annually [1]. However, the number of volunteers is declining year on year [2].

How Do We Attract People to Help?

Observing the landscape of your potential employees or volunteers requires a significant investment in time. The question I posed to myself and others at my local rowing club was: “What are people looking for?” Thankfully, over the last two years, 100 people responded to our survey about why they joined our club. The top two reasons were, broadly speaking:

  1. Make friends.
  2. Get fit.

Left unsaid was the desire to join a tribe of like-minded people.

Knowing these reasons, we aim to position ourselves on social media as a team that trains, competes, and builds connections for our primary age group, 18 – 25. The positive by-product of our positioning is that our members are our best recruiters. Similarly, in workplaces with a positive culture, employees are the best recruiters for both clients and future team members. A culture that rewards teamwork and a positive attitude is something that our members share with their friends.

As the club president, I spend a lot of time speaking in person with as many members as possible. This allows me to hear directly from members before large problems erupt. More importantly, it enables me to repeatedly and emphatically communicate a vision of community to all members. I believe that sharing this vision with members is crucial to those members sharing the vision with their friends both within and outside our rowing club and attracting them as new members or volunteers.

Once recruited, new volunteers will do an enormous amount of unpaid work for their club, but this comes with conditions.

How Do We Retain the Volunteers We Have Recruited?

A common stereotype is that people, and not just young people, don’t like to work or help out. They are always trying to find the easy way out.

In my time, I have found this to be resoundingly false.

The positive attitude of young people cannot be understated. However, to ensure their engagement, they must be given autonomy over their tasks and the time to develop mastery. The tasks delegated to them must also be meaningful and clearly tied back to a shared vision. When this happens, the volunteer receives a clear sense of achievement upon successful completion of the task. Constraints, when tied back to a shared vision, have led to many surprises involving creativity in coaching, fundraising, and communication with club members.

Autonomy in task completion also means that volunteers’ opinions will be shared with their leaders. I have found that, after asking for a volunteer’s opinion, I work to change what I can when a problem arises. This has formed mutual trust. However, when other suggestions should not be adopted, being quickly honest about why the suggestion is inappropriate is key to maintaining trust. Responding to members’ feedback rapidly and transparently leads to their feeling valued by the club and, consequently, improves their retention.

Responding to members’ feedback

In my first year, I faced a difficult moment with volunteer coaches. I had been working with John (not their real name) on coaching a variety of members in a consistently positive manner. Unfortunately, John’s working relationship with many members continued to deteriorate. At the end of the year, several volunteers threatened, “I will not return to rowing next year if John is still here”. This led to a difficult yet crucial conversation with John, who had been a key stakeholder in our club for several years. John was informed of the volunteers’ feedback and was asked to not return.

Adding context for a bigger picture

Within rowing clubs, there are always passionate discussions on fundraising and what new boats will be purchased or retired – a boat buying plan. Ask 10 people in a rowing club what the next boat purchase should be and you will receive 10 different answers. Given the controversy that this can cause, it is important to immediately address the goals regarding asset turnover, identify the relevant club stakeholders (especially those who are not on the club committee), and encourage creative solutions that will receive widespread support. I have found that quickly addressing points of controversy and keeping key club influencers informed has led to a smoother experience.

How do we recognise volunteers for their work?

With regular conversations between coaches and committee members, I always try to find something that the other person has done well, whether I directly observed it or whether another person relayed it to me. Volunteers always appreciate positive informal feedback. Informal feedback received from members via a simple “how do you think things are going” can be surprisingly enlightening and remind the members that their opinions matter.

When speaking with volunteers, I attempt to find out what career progression the volunteer is working toward. At a university-based club, common answers revolve around rowing coaching, marketing, engineering, accounting, event management, and others. If possible, I recommend these people for specific positions within the club with the aim of helping them develop real on-the-job training. Regular feedback in this case is critical and can be time-consuming. Typically, a year will end with a reference from me for a future job application.


Volunteer sporting clubs have a lot to learn from the professionalism of businesses to deliver effective programs to their members. Easily overlooked are the benefits that businesses can derive from sporting clubs. This article outlines a method of using culture as a bargaining tool. While people join clubs for fun, difficult work must be undertaken to create and maintain a strong supportive culture that ensures the longevity of the club. This is often the unique selling proposition that will encourage people to join your club instead of staying home.


  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Volunteers. 2019; Available from:
  2. Huntley, R. What Will Happen To Australia If We’re All Too Busy To Volunteer – ABC Everyday. 2019; Available from: