One of the Most Difficult Jobs in the World: Volunteer Engagement

Nicole R. Smith
5 min readOct 24, 2022
Collage of pictures of various professions that showcase what a volunteer manager does: Air traffic control, referee, firefighter, magician, juggler, mentor, customer service, conductor

Leaders of volunteers, volunteer engagement managers, volunteer coordinators….they go by many names and many titles, but are all critical to the non-profit sector. A lucky few have had a direct path into this work…however most fell into the profession. They come from backgrounds in marketing, teaching, social work, accounting, graphic design, promotions, and IT just to name a few.

Leaders of volunteers often manage more people than their HR colleagues (sometimes upwards of thousands of volunteers) yet they are overlooked for promotions for several reasons, including because they “don’t have paid direct reports”.

They have to be mindful of how they refer to themselves when people ask “What do you do for work?” because if they introuce themselves as a Volunteer Manager, people often think they work for free.

Volunteer Managers are nothing less than magicians as they often have to make miracles happen on little to no budget or staff support. They spend a great portion of their job persuading leaders in the organization that the generous souls they manage are worth the organization’s investment. More often than they would like, they have to convince colleagues that volunteers ARE worth the time and effort; and by the way, no….they can’t just snap their fingers and volunteers will just magically appear from the back closet for an unplanned, last minute volunteer request…but I digress.

When they are not advocating for their volunteers with leadership, they are convincing people to give of their most precious commodity, their time, FOR FREE to an organization who, often, secretly undervalues or doesn’t prioritize them.

Leaders of volunteers manage hundreds of passionate personalities; some who are so passionate they are not afraid of telling their volunteer manager how to do their job, why they are doing it wrong, and are often reminded “just how lucky they are” that people choose to donate their time to them. If you don’t believe me, hear some of the outlandish stories on my podcast “From the Suggestion Box: Navigating Feedback the Good, the Bad and the Say WHAAT?”

Volunteer coordinators are educators and trainers in that they make sure volunteers have vital information they need in order to best serve the organization they are volunteering for.

Volunteer Managers are phenomenal listeners, which makes them great matchmakers as they have to make sure they set volunteers up for success by matching their skills and passions with the roles at the organization that will work best. Not to mention they are highly organized.

I equate what managers of volunteers do very closely to the teaching profession. The difference is EVERYONE knows teachers are underpaid and deserve much more respect, fiancial support and credit than they receive. On the other hand, people have NO IDEA what leaders of volunteers do. The profession is so under the radar that you RARELY ever hear about it; frankly unless you know someone who directly works in the field, chances are you are completely unaware of how valuable a leader of volunteers is. Weird to me, becuase this position is so incredibly VITAL to any non-profit organization. People will hear a lot about what the volunteers do and how wonderful they are, but when was the last time you heard about the person, who organized, trained, motivated, directed, encouraged and guided the volunteers so they were equipped to give the best service possible. Dare I say, never?

It’s ok though. This blog isn’t about making people feel sorry for leaders of volunteers because they are essentially unseen. Most actually prefer not to be in the spotlight anyway so it kind of works out. I do however, want the general public to recognize and RESPECT the work they do, as they would an educator. You know, so when they say, “I am a volunteer manager” there is a nod of respect instead of a glassed over look that is often followed up by “oh that sounds nice!” or my personal favorite, “Oh anyone can do that job. So long as you have been a volunteer, how hard can it be?” I challenge anyone who makes that remark to take the Certified Volunteer Administrator (CVA) exam, then ask that question again.

Leaders of volunteers wear many hats, and that is what is so unique and special about the profession and frankly what I love most about it. Because we come from so many backgrounds, we don’t have to be an expert on every area of volunteer engagement. We can lean on our colleague who was a designer for advice on the annual report we are creating, or the colleague who used to plan weddings to help with our appreciation event.

We can lean on our colleague who is a whiz with numbers to help make a compelling case to our executive team, or our colleague who was in social work on how to be more patient and speak to people in ways that resonate with them.

It is fitting that this year’s theme for Internatioal Volunteer Manager Day is “Many Backgrounds, One Profession, Stroger Together.” With it just around the corner on November 5th, consider showing the person who leads volunteers in your organization some love. Send a handwritten note, give them a phone call, send them some flowers, give them this journal created SPECIFICALLY for those who lead volunteers to encourage them: 101 Affirmations for Volunteer Administrators (available in English and Spanish). Whatever you, don’t let the day pass without acknowledging in some way the importance of the work they do and the impact it has on the organization.

I conclude with this; the next time you meet someone who says they lead, manage, coordinate and/or direct volunteers, please nod with respect, recognize that is isn’t an easy job and tell that person, “Thank you for all you do.”

Nicole R. Smith Sitting in a chair cross-legged wearing a gray dress, holding an orange purse on her lap, leaning on it and smiling into the camera.

Nicole (@nicolersmithnet) is a Panamanian-American, workforce development specialist, dancer, motivational speaker and published author of Game On! Relentlessly Pursue Your Dreams and the 101 Affirmations Journal Series. She attended Oral Roberts University on a Division I full-ride track scholarship. After graduating, she founded Step It Up! Inc., a non-profit dance organization. Her experience in sports and entertainment, radio, TV, the performing arts and social services has spanned nearly 20 years covering the Chicago, Houston, Miami and Orlando markets. She has danced and cheered for four Professional and Semi-Professional sports teams, has prepared more than 800 interns to enter the workforce and has inspired crowds upwards of 2000. She received the Emerging Leaders ALIVE Impact Award for Volunteer Administrators, was listed as one of WLRN’s “Local Women Who Inspire You” , was selected as one of Legacy Miami’s MOST PROMINENT AND INFLUENTIAL BLACK WOMEN IN BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY OF 2019 and awarded the Amplifying Voices awards from United Latinas. She sits on the Board of the Association of Leaders In Volunteer Management and Ageless Chic Magazine.



Nicole R. Smith

Nicole is a Panamanian-American, single mom, workforce development specialist, published author, dancer, and motivational speaker. Her experience spans 20 yrs.