The vast majority of literature on volunteerism assumes that people giving their time to nonprofit organizations are doing so because they want to. Of course, in most cases this is true. However, the information does not necessarily apply to individuals, as Energize Inc. terms them, who are “voluntolds” — for whom volunteering is mandated and not a choice. This includes students needing to meet high school and/or college requirements; those recruited by employee volunteer programs; and individuals or dered to put in community service time either as a condition to receive assistance or as court-ordered punishment.

Energize Inc. links to a great resource on this topic published by Volunteer Canada titled Volunteering and Mandatory Community Service: Choice — Incentive — Coercion — Obligation: Implications for Volunteer Program Management. We’ll be presenting some of its highlights here.

A Trend Toward Mandatory “Volunteerism”

Volunteer Canada points out that mandatory service is growing not only in Canada, but in the United States as well. The group also argues that, in a time when budgets are tight, it may make sense to use this volunteer stream. However, the group advises that adjustments might need to be made to accommodate it, since the volunteer management paradigm nonprofits normally use may not hold up in this case. For example, a voluntold’s motivation is not the same as a true volunteer’s. Likewise, someone mandated to volunteer may not be familiar with your mission, have very little previous work experience, and generally is only scheduled to be part of your volunteer program for a limited time. The article also cites observations from sponsors of a workfare agency in California, which pinpoints some potential challenges with voluntolds, including “issues of behavioral/physical health, language/culture, education/aptitude, and social compatibility.”

On Your Terms

The white paper outlines that volunteer opportunities should always be based on an analysis of your organization’s needs. Although there may be an unspoken pressure to help with the court system or aid students seeking volunteer experience, Volunteer Canada warns against accepting volunteers “just because they are there.” Inappropriate workers of any sort can drain agency resources instead of contributing to your goals. However, don’t turn workers away if they can fill current needs. Additionally, don’t rule out the creation of new, short-term volunteer opportunities, again as long as they fit your organization’s goals.

Volunteer Canada suggests taking a proactive approach. Instead of being reactive to requests, take a look at the mandatory volunteer programs in your area and determine which ones may be most compatible with your agency. Then research their programs. Be sure to ask about:

  • the number of hours mandated and the timeframe for fulfilling those goals.
  • the availability of the potential volunteers. Does it mesh with your current volunteer opportunities?
  • reporting requirements. Is the time spent on paperwork worth it?
  • the skills of prospective workers. Are they sufficient for the tasks you have to offer? Or can they be trained in a reasonable time, given the length of service required?


In the case of voluntolds, there are additional factors to consider before agreeing to bring them onboard. For example, are there safety risks? Be sure to ask the referring party for as much background about the volunteer as s/he is able to give. New screening tools or documents may need to be developed to fill in any holes in the information already available to you. Also, be realistic about your expectations. Since s/he is probably not motivated to be there, will a voluntold’s possible negative attitude and/or lack of enthusiasm affect the work done? A normal interview, in which a volunteer coordinator seeks to find what a traditional volunteer would like to do may not be effective in this situation; instead, focus on skills the mandatory volunteer has or what s/he is willing to do.

The approach toward or ientation might also take on a different tone. Highlights may need to include a stress on what constitutes proper dress and acceptable behavior as it relates to both staff and clients. As opposed to traditional volunteers, the consequences of not showing up for assigned shifts or completing assigned duties takes on a new importance as well. Depending on the situation, your training procedures may need to be revisited, too — for both the volunteers and the staff who will be appointed to work with and/or manage them.

As mentioned above, supervision guidelines may often need to be revised. Without the motivation of a true volunteer, voluntolds may require a much higher level of supervision and stricter policies on corrective action. On the flip side, of course, make sure to reward mandated volunteers when it is merited. Customary recognition practices such as small tokens, though, are likely to be meaningless to someone required to contribute his or her time. However, be sure to praise good work, promote to a new position when the opportunity presents itself, be prompt in reporting hours worked, and, if appropriate, offer to write a letter of recommendation that may be submitted along with future resumes.

Volunteer Canada brings up an excellent point regarding program evaluation: just as other aspects of your volunteer management program are altered to fit the demands of working with compulsory volunteers, your standards of success as it relates to voluntolds will most likely need to be different than the measuring sticks used for traditional volunteers.

The Value of Mandatory Volunteers

From the perspective of nonprofits, individuals mandated to perform community service can help fill gaps, and many are available to put in time during hard-to-fill daytime slots. Those serving compulsory volunteer time can also realize benefits from their efforts. If treated with the same respect afforded a traditional volunteer, many participants’ initial attitudes about volunteering change over the course of their stay. They can gain skills, develop newfound confidence, witness the effects of their contributions, and take a positive impression of your organization and its mission back out into the community. Some individuals elect to stay on even when their required service time is over.

Volunteer Canada provides this final word of advice: “When done right, mandatory service holds the potential to inject a vast amount of much-needed and cost-effective labour into the non-profit sector. Ill-conceived and delivered ineffectively, it has the potential to drain resources from the sector for a questionable return and damage possibly the most important human resource currently available to the sector: ‘true’ volunteers.”

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