Using Volunteers for Project Planning


Welcome to Using Volunteers for Project Planning, presented to you by the Corporation for National and Community Service in conjunction with Hands On Network! Hands On Network, an internationally recognized volunteer management resource organization, has developed a new generation of volunteer engagement techniques — tailored to today’s community service organization.

In this course, you will learn how to perform a community needs assessment, select a project, solidify financial and logistical plans, map the project, and detail the project plan so that you can implement a high-impact, well-managed project. We hope that your projects will be so successful that they keep volunteers coming back, while simultaneously increasing your program’s ability to deliver services.

We hope you thoroughly enjoy this course! For questions and/or to receive additional information or training, please contact Hands On Network at

Course Objectives

This course was developed for national service programs to learn how to plan and implement high-impact, well-managed projects. The content in this course is organized into action-oriented sections that will help you work with the community to meet needs, effectively plan and manage projects, and develop a framework for projects.

Upon completion of this course, you will be able to:

  • Work with the community to identify the community issues/needs
  • Discover avenues for finding a project
  • Plan a high-impact service project
  • Secure human, financial, and educational resources
  • Finalize the project plan


Focus on Your Community


In this section, we will explore:

  • the importance of conducting a community needs assessment,
  • ideas for identifying the needs in your community, and
  • ways to identify volunteer projects in your community


Community Needs Assessment

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Your national service program may already focus service efforts on a particular issue, such as homelessness. However, community needs assessment is still an important part of designing any service project.

Focus On Community

Assessing community needs can be as simple as taking a walk through your neighborhood or as complex as surveying the entire city. The important thing is to focus on the community when identifying what is needed. By working together with community members, you will build community awareness and help ensure community buy-in and support for your service efforts.

Programs can use a variety of methods to assess community needs. You should select one that fits the program’s capacity and the scope of the volunteer effort. For a one-day project, you may want to choose an assessment technique that is less time-consuming. If you are committing to a long-term project, you will want to conduct an in-depth assessment to ensure that you are effectively utilizing your resources.

Click to download ideas for conducting a service project community needs assessment: PDF iconProject_Planning_Comm_Needs_Assessment.pdf

Identifying Potential Projects

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]In addition to using the findings from your completed community needs assessment, your national service program may have projects or partnerships with specific community service organizations (CSOs) already in mind. You can discover and develop potential volunteer projects through these methods:

Request for Projects (RFP)
Putting out an RFP can be a great way to solicit projects for large-scale service events. This will help streamline project development processes by outlining all details of the potential project up front.

Make Targeted Requests
Most projects have parameters such as timeframes, types of volunteers, issue areas impacted, or geography that will help narrow down project possibilities. As a result, not all CSOs will be able to host all projects. Therefore, it is best to make personal, targeted requests to partners who are known to meet your project’s parameters.

Respond to Volunteer Interests
Volunteers may express interests in particular types of volunteer tasks, such as painting, reading with children, or affecting particular issue areas (e.g., hunger, homelessness or HIV/AIDS).

At the end of the assessment process, you will probably have a long list of community issues, needs, and potential projects. Working with staff, community members, and others, you can then determine which ones will be the focus of your service efforts.

Focus On Community - Knowledge Check

Decide on a Project


In this section we will explore:

  • narrowing project possibilities, and
  • four steps to selecting the right service project


Narrowing Your Scope

In your community needs assessment, you identified a community issue on which you want to focus. Next, you will need to narrow the scope so you can plan and develop a service project that will be both effective and manageable. Consider the following steps:

Step One: Research the Issue: The first step in narrowing your focus is to learn more about the issue or issues you identified in the community needs assessment. You need to find some statistics about the issue in your community, the background and underlying causes, and some ideas for projects to address the need.

Research what groups—nonprofits, religious groups, neighborhood associations, etc.—are already working around this area. Are they meeting all the needs? If so, you may want to focus your efforts on another issue. However, it is more likely that they would be an ideal partner for your project.

Step Two: Partner with a Local Community Service Organization (CSO): Once you know what groups in your community are working in a particular issue area, you can approach them about partnering for a project. They may already be one of your program partners, in which case you should have a good understanding of how your organizations will work together and the resources that each brings to the project. If they are a new partner, determine if they are a good fit for your program by reviewing their mission, the resources they offer to their partners, and the services they offer the community.

Step Three: Conduct a Site Visit: Schedule a time to visit the project site with at least one representative from your CSO partner. If possible, visit with key stakeholders and decision makers such as the volunteer coordinator and/or site maintenance staff.

During the visit, ask questions that help you understand what the agency’s greatest needs are and the ways that ongoing or one-time volunteer support can have the greatest impact. While touring the site to review potential projects, keep in mind the elements of a successful project.

During the site visit, you can explore ways to expand the project. Walk around the project site and view all areas that might not initially seem to be feasible project task areas. Be sure that you manage the expectations of the CSO contact person: Help him/her to see both the possibilities and limitations of working on the prospective project. Be clear about budget and time constraints. Do not “over promise” as you develop the project. Promising more than you can deliver can hinder your ability to develop the best possible project. Be realistic in what you can deliver.

Step Four: Decide on a Project: Once you have assessed the needs of the community, researched the issue, contacted CSO partners, and visited the prospective service site, it’s time to decide on the project. Great variety exists among the many types of volunteer projects, so it is important to define your scope. The scope will dictate how large or small the project is, the intended impact, the duration, and the general theme of the project.

Tips for Selecting a Project

When selecting a project, pay close attention to:

  • Required time/days to complete the project.
  • Overall project scope: Can the project be scaled up or down as needed?
  • Diversity: Can a broad spectrum of community members participate?
  • Overall cost of producing the project.
  • Weather impact: What happens in case of inclement weather?
  • Accessibility to building and facilities.
  • Amount and type of skilled labor needed.

One-time or Ongoing?

In addition, you should decide whether to plan a one-time special-event project, an ongoing series of projects, or a combination. A one-day event could be a large project involving hundreds of people or it could be small group of volunteers working together on a service project for a day. Ongoing projects engage volunteers on a consistent basis, providing the opportunity for them to go beyond a one-time experience to more sustained community engagement over time.

Map the Project


In this section we will:

  • examine the importance of creating task lists and position descriptions for volunteers, and
  • explore all the necessary components of a successful volunteer project


Tasks Lists & Position Descriptions

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]As you narrow the scope of your project and determine what you are going to do, you will need to formulate ideas for how you can achieve your goals. In order to have a successful service project, you have to plan well. You need to prepare for every detail — from the number of volunteers to the method of reflection. Map your project so that you work effectively, meet your goals, and make an impact on the community.

Task Lists

Part of the planning process is determining the tasks involved in completing the project. Consider what you want to accomplish and the tasks needed. Then, create a comprehensive list of the assignments and the number of volunteers needed for each task. If there are multiple goals, prioritize them according to each task’s importance. This list will guide you as you recruit volunteers and plan the details of the day.

Volunteer Position Descriptions

You may want to develop volunteer position descriptions for the tasks you outlined. The volunteer position description can be a very useful tool. It outlines responsibilities, support, and benefits of specific volunteer tasks and volunteer opportunities. It also strengthens your recruitment efforts because it defines the assignment, skills, abilities, and interests necessary to perform all tasks successfully. A volunteer position description should include the following components:

Title – Provide a descriptive title that gives the volunteer a sense of identity. This will also help program staff and other volunteers understand the assigned role.

Purpose/Objective – Use no more than two sentences to describe the specific purpose and function of the task. If possible, state the purpose in relation to the nonprofit’s mission and goals.

Location – Describe where the person will be working.

Key Responsibilities – List the primary objectives of the task. Clearly define what the volunteer is expected to do as part of this assignment.

Qualifications – Clearly list education, experience, knowledge, skills, and age requirements. Also note if the opportunity is accessible to people with disabilities. If a background check is required, it should be indicated here.

Time Commitment – Note the length of the assignment, hours per week, and/or other special requirements.

Training/Support Provided – Define the nature and length of all general and position-specific training required for the completion of the task. Also list resources and other support available to the volunteer.

Benefits – Describe benefits available to the volunteer, such as lunch, T-shirt, or professional development opportunities.

Volunteer Supervisor and Contact Information – List the staff person or volunteer task leader who will be working most directly with the volunteers assigned to this particular task. Make sure to include the task leader’s contact information.

Download the following worksheets to help plan your project:

Project Task List.pdf


The Project Map

An important part of the project development process is determining the resources you need to complete the project, including human, material and financial, and educational.

Human Resources

You have already created a task list; now, determine the number of volunteers you need to complete these tasks. Establishing volunteer needs can be a challenge. Consider these variables:

  • Volunteer skill levels — Is the work appropriate for beginners or do you need more skilled volunteers?
  • Volunteer age — What is the age limit for the project?
  • Duration of project — What is the time commitment required?
  • Availability of supplies — Will you have enough supplies so that every volunteer has the necessary tools to be occupied throughout the project?
  • Physical space available to perform the work — How large is the service site? How many people can comfortably work there?

Material & Financial Resources

In addition to assessing your volunteer needs, you will also need to address your tangible resource needs. Determine what supplies, materials, goods, and services you need in order to complete your project. With your project partners, strategize about the types and amounts of resources that are needed.

Make your list as comprehensive as possible, including resources for every aspect of the project from nametags and refreshments for volunteers to tools and restroom facilities. You will be able to work with your project partners as well as your national service program partners to secure many of the resources at no cost. In addition, think about businesses, community members, and other organizations in the community. What resources can they offer to help you carry out the project? Consider things such as supplies, meeting space for volunteer orientation, printing of marketing materials, and consulting/professional services.

While in-kind contributions will help you complete the project, some items will require financial resources. As you list the supplies and materials needed for the project, note the ones that you will need to pay for. How many financial resources will you need to cover these expenses?

Educational Resources

You will need to consider how you will orient and train the volunteers working on the project. In order for your volunteers to be an effective part of the project, they need to understand the issue that the project addresses and the impact it will make on the community. Volunteer orientation can be conducted prior to the project or included as part of the events on the actual day of service. Orientation should include a brief overview of the CSO’s mission and services and how volunteer support is contributing to that mission.

To incorporate service learning into the project, discuss the community issue that is being addressed by the agency and/or the project. A brief history of the issue, current statistics, current events related to the issue area (e.g., legislation activity), and other civic engagement opportunities linked to this issue (advocacy training, future service projects) are all extremely helpful in educating volunteers. Orientation should also include an outline of the project and what volunteers will be doing during the project, so that everyone knows what to expect and what is expected of them.

The orientation and education portion of the project has many positive impacts on volunteers. It allows them to:

  • See the impact they are having on the agency and its clients.
  • Feel a greater part of a whole, when they see all the services the agency provides.
  • Better understand the critical needs of the community.
  • Better understand how to effect change within the issue area being addressed.

In addition to orientation, you may need to train volunteers for the work they will be doing. You may recruit volunteers who already have the necessary skills; however, many volunteers will need some instruction. If volunteers are prepared for the project, they will feel more comfortable with the work, the project will run more smoothly, and your team is more likely to achieve its goals for the project.

Plan for what resources you need in order to orient and train the volunteers to the project. Consider these things:

  • Time — When will you conduct the orientation and training? How much time will you need? Will you need to conduct more than one training session?
  • Location — Will orientation and training be held at the service site or another location? Do you need a large space, chairs, tables, electricity?
  • Facilitators — Can staff lead orientation and training or will you need another trainer with project-specific skills? Is on-site training required and, if so, who will lead it? In addition, you will need someone from the partner agency to speak to volunteers about the mission of the CSO, challenges they are facing, how the project will impact the organization, and how volunteers can become involved on an on-going basis.
  • Instructional materials — Will you need printed materials, a PowerPoint presentation, or on-line training?

Download the following worksheets to help create your project plan:

Map the Project - Knowledge Check

Secure Necessary Resources


In this section, we will discuss:

  • methods of securing the resources needed for a successful volunteer project, and
  • a strategy for approaching a group or business about donating money, services, or in-kind goods


Recruiting Volunteers & Securing Funding

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Volunteers

To successfully complete your project, you will need volunteers. If you have too few participants, the project will likely go unfinished. If you have too many volunteers, some will have little to do and might feel that their time was ill spent. You have already created a task matrix and determined the number of volunteers you need to fill specific positions. Now it’s time to recruit them!

When recruiting volunteers, remember that the personal ask is always the most compelling! Consider using volunteers from a partner agency, or approach other groups such as unions, sororities/fraternities, civic organizations, teacher’s associations, or independent living homes. You can also display recruitment information through the internet, newspapers, local fairs, schools, community bulletin boards, restaurants, and other interesting places.

Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes: male or female, child or adult, those with disabilities or those without disabilities, various races, religions, sexual orientations, and income brackets. Not all volunteers look the same! Not all types of volunteering will appeal to all people, so have diverse volunteering opportunities available and target recruitment in ways that will appeal to different groups.

Funding, Products, and Services

You can obtain funding, products, and/or services for your project in several ways. Grants, gifts, and in-kind donations are great ways to get support from individuals, corporations, and community organizations. Contact businesses in your neighborhood or companies that already have a connection to your clients or mission.

Don't be afraid to get creative!

  • Businesses or churches can offer meeting space.
  • Colleges can offer research on the community.
  • Foundations can support the staff needed to oversee the project.
  • Neighborhood associations can help with community outreach.

Look around your community and identify a variety of sources that might meet your needs.

Remember Volunteer Orientation and Training: During the project mapping phase you planned your volunteer orientation and training and identified the resources you need. Look at the list of partners and potential partners and determine what resources they can offer for conducting orientation and training. Consider asking for meeting space, printing of materials, or experts to facilitate training. Don’t forget to include representatives from the CSO to share about the agency and the impact the project will have on the community.

Making the Ask

Develop a strategy for approaching a group or business about donating money, services, or in-kind goods:

  • Identify the correct people to contact and make a targeted request that appeals to their needs/wants.
  • Craft a case for support that expresses why the project is important, the impact it will create, your team’s ability to complete the project, and how the group/business can be a part of the effort.

Be specific about what you need, whether it is funds to purchase a certain item, three hours of consulting time on a particular topic, or contacts to other like-minded organizations that might want to be involved. Prepare your strategy and then ASK! Make connections that count!

Here are some tips:

  • Start with people you know (family, friends, neighbors, co-workers).
  • Ask people you know to engage their friends to support your project.
  • Partner with associations and institutions in your community. Businesses, nonprofits, community centers, colleges, and neighborhood associations can also help you recruit participants, secure donations, obtain meeting space, etc.
  • Talk personally with people to “sell” your project and get their support. Know what you need and ask people how they can contribute.
  • Publicize your project in local newspapers, websites, and newsletters.

You have planned your project and identified and secured the resources you need to complete it. As the day of the project approaches, it’s time to finalize your plans.

Finalize the Project Plan


In this section we will discuss the importance of:

  • identifying last-minute details as part of the project planning process, and
  • communicating with volunteers prior to their service


Confirming Project Details

In the weeks before the event, you will need to iron out any kinks and confirm that all aspects of the project are ready to go.

Address Questions and Concerns — If you do not think a project/task is feasible or if you have questions or concerns, be sure to discuss any changes that you feel need to be made with your team and partners.

Finalize the Task Matrix — If necessary, make additional visits to the service site in order to finalize the task matrix and to ensure that you are prepared to run a successful project. Be sure to stay in contact with your partners about details for the project.

Meet with Project Leaders — Meet with the staff and volunteers who will be leading the project to make sure everyone is comfortable with the scope of the project and understands the plan. Leaders should also be familiar with the layout of the site and emergency procedures. Utilize your leaders to delegate tasks within the groups.

Review the Schedule — Review the project schedule with the staff at the service site. Discuss the time the facility needs to be opened on the day of the event. If the facility isn’t usually open on that day, get the name and contact information for the person who will let you in.

Implement a PR and Media Plan (if necessary) — If PR and media attention are important to the project, begin working with communications contacts early so they can develop and implement a strategy to seek coverage for your project. You will want to make sure you’ve assigned a media spokesperson to be at the service site and that he/she is armed with media kits and talking points.

Review the Documentation — Review any documentation needed for the event, such as the project plan, the task lists, volunteer contact sheets, etc.

Confirm All Tools and Materials — Confirm that all tools and materials have been secured and are ready to be taken to the project site. Obtain any over-looked items. Make sure you’ve thought through all the cleaning supplies you might need. Extra work gloves and trash bags are always a good idea!

Review the Reflection Activity Plan — Confirm the plans for reflection you made during step three. Make sure that you have scheduled time for reflection and have the necessary information to lead an engaging, thought-provoking discussion about the issue or CSO. Be sure to include a challenge to be involved on an ongoing basis with the CSO.

Secure Food and Beverages — Confirm plans for ample refreshments at the project site. Don’t forget to plan for plates, napkins, cups, utensils, ice, etc.

Conduct Final Planning Meetings — Meet with your project leaders to ensure everyone is confident about all project details.

Create a Call List — Exchange cell phone numbers with all key contacts if you have not already done so. You may also want to secure walkie-talkies for the day of the project.

Make Final Calls — Make any final calls to project-specific contacts, such as landscapers, media contacts, etc.

Identify Bilingual Speakers (if necessary) — You want all volunteers to have a meaningful experience, so make sure you have the language capabilities to communicate with each volunteer.

Confirm Presence of VIPs (if any are attending the project) — Decide how you want to greet them and give them a tour of the site and the work taking place.

Reserve Materials for Project Stations — Make sure you will have table and chairs for a volunteer registration area at the service site so volunteers can sign in. You may also want to have a water/refreshment station, a first aid station, and/or a media desk. Make sure there will be ample trashcans and recycling bins with bin liners.

Pack a Project Kit — Pack a kit with materials you will need to facilitate the project: sign-in sheets, evaluations, pens, markers, tape, poster board, rope/bungee cords, paper, clipboards, and nametags. You will need these things for registration, to take notes, to make signs (directions to water, bathrooms, etc.), to hang banners, and to handle little details of the day. You may also want to bring handouts about the next volunteer opportunity.

Encourage Fun — Consider bringing a CD player to play music and create a fun, energizing atmosphere. One fun idea would be to have a local radio station broadcast live from the site, thus providing music and promotion for the event.

Check, Double-check, and Triple-check! — Don’t leave anything to chance. It’s better to confirm a detail twice than to assume someone else will do it. Ask your project leaders to review details. If someone agrees to be responsible for any materials, follow up with an e-mail. Stay in touch with partners/donors who are providing financial or in-kind resources to make sure you have everything you need before the day of the project.

Planning for Safety

Ensuring the safety of life and property is critical. By reviewing the project for possible hazards and educating volunteers about safety, program staff will reduce the chance of someone getting hurt. Review the safety/emergency plan with your project leaders. Know of all nearby emergency exits, first-aid kits, and/or automated external difibulators (AEDs). Assign a safety point person for the day of the event. Always have a first-aid kit on hand and a phone to call 911 if necessary.

Contingency Planning

Always plan for the worst-case scenario and analyze the possibilities of what could go wrong. Record the strategy to handle the problems. When you plan ahead for a problem, you can handle it with minimal disruption and cost. The key is to not only think about what to do before you need to do it, but to also know whom you need to contact and have their phone numbers readily available. Create contingency plans for weather (rain, extreme heat or cold, etc.) and other problems that can be anticipated.

What will you do if you have too many or too few volunteers for the project you planned? When you visited the service site, you made a list of all the potential projects. Later, you created a task list and prioritized the jobs to be done. If you have fewer volunteers than you anticipated, use this list to determine which tasks are the most important and can be finished by a small group so that the volunteers have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the project. If you have more volunteers than you planned for, look farther down the list for more tasks to be completed.

Communicating with Volunteers

Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Once you have begun recruiting volunteers, you may want to consider pre-registering volunteers. Pre-registration can be as simple as providing a contact name, number, and/or e-mail address where volunteers can sign up. If volunteers pre-register, you will be able to contact them about project details and also discuss with them the skills, supplies, or friends they might also bring to the project.

Before the Project

Prior to the event, check with volunteers and make sure that any special needs (medical or otherwise) have been addressed and/or met. Also, keep the commitments you make. People will not support you if you don’t provide information requested, address issues they bring up, and/or miss scheduled appointments. Try to have continual contact with your volunteers. Keeping volunteers motivated and excited about your project is the best guarantee for success!

The more contact you provide, the more engaged your volunteers will be, and the more motivated they will be when they arrive. Also, respond to people’s inquiries in a timely and thorough manner. Make sure to confirm project details with them. Contact volunteers with a phone call or e-mail that:

  • Introduces you (or another staff person, partner, or volunteer) as the project leader
  • Thanks them for volunteering
  • Provides the date and time of the project, service site address, directions, and parking information
  • Describes what will occur at the project
  • Lets volunteers know what to wear or not wear to the project
  • Encourages volunteers to bring supplies they may have
  • Tells volunteers whom to contact if they have a change in plans

At the Project

Designate an area for volunteers to check in. This will allow you to better manage volunteers that attend the project and effectively track their volunteer hours. Use a checklist to help you successfully manage volunteers and execute the service project. Here are a few helpful hints:

  • Arrive early to set up and greet volunteers.
  • Verify all materials and tasks are ready prior to volunteers arriving.
  • Welcome and register all volunteers.
  • Have volunteers sign waiver of liability.
  • Have nametags for all staff and volunteers.
  • Present brief organization/project overview, including the impact of the project.
  • Motivate and manage volunteers; make sure each volunteer has a task to complete. Manage the volunteers’ time for effective service.
  • Prioritize tasks; complete the most important jobs first.
  • At the half-way point, ask if there is too much or not enough to do. Have back-up projects available for extra work.
  • Monitor safety.
  • Don’t get wrapped up in doing the work; be available for answering questions and troubleshooting.
  • If possible, take photos.
  • Clean up.
  • Reflect and evaluate.
  • Thank volunteers and inform them of future volunteer opportunities.

Download a helpful form to use for sending project details to volunteers: VolunteerProjectInfoForm.pdf

Finalize the Project Plan - Knowledge Check


Careful planning is critical to the success of your service project. By working with the community instead of for the community, you will identify true needs and issues to address through service. Thorough research of the issue will lead you to community partners and a service project that can make a strong impact.

After mapping out the details and the resources needed for the project, you will be able to work with individuals, groups, and businesses to recruit volunteers and secure the other resources. Then, examine the tiny details that make a real difference to the project, gather for the service event, and work to change your community.

Upon completion of this course, you should be able to:

  • Work with the community to identify community needs
  • Discover avenues for finding a service project
  • Plan a high-impact service project
  • Secure human, financial, and educational resources
  • Finalize the project plan

We hope the information presented in this course has been helpful! For questions and/or to receive additional information or training, please contact Hands On Network at