Working with Diverse Volunteers

Review concepts related to communicating with diverse volunteers in this tutorial. Click "Welcome" to begin.


Thumbnail for [node:title][user:name]Welcome to the Working with Diverse Volunteers online course, presented to you by the Corporation for National and Community Service in conjunction with Hands On Network, an internationally recognized volunteer management resource organization that has developed a new generation of volunteer engagement techniques — tailored to today’s community service organization.

Volunteers can be your organization’s greatest asset as they significantly increase your capacity to serve the community. In this course, you will learn how to effectively enhance communications with persons of diverse backgrounds, thus helping you to lay a foundation critical for community building.

We hope this course will inspire you to actively engage diverse volunteers. For questions and/or to receive additional information or training, please contact Hands On Network at

Course Objectives

At the completion of this course, you should be able to:

  • Enhance communication with volunteers from diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds
  • Discuss with volunteers social and cultural issues that influence a community’s decision process
  • Apply the principles of diversity to improve innovation, creativity, and teamwork in your program
  • Creatively recruit a diverse set of volunteers to enhance your program

Let 's begin by looking at how we can lay the foundation for understanding diversity....

Laying the Foundation

Inviting community members to participate in all stages of programming is the first step toward building deeper relationships within your program. Volunteers can play a key role in making your program more effective and relevant.


In this section, you will learn to:

  • Define diversity and culture
  • Alter or adapt current practices to reflect the diverse service community

Let's begin discussing diversity and culture, and their implications for your volunteer program...

Defining Diversity and Culture

What is diversity?
Diversity is the unique set of qualities that separate people as individuals, such as race, gender, religion, physical and mental abilities, work and learning styles, geographic locations, economic status, sexual orientation, and many other traits.

What is culture?
Culture is the sum total of values, attitudes, behaviors, and symbols that are transmitted within groups and communicated to successive generations, to provide a cognitive map for actions and interpreting reality. Culture is a significant lens that influences the way people think, perceive, and act.

Benefits of Recruiting Diverse Volunteers

There are six key ways your organization and your program can benefit from the practice of involving a diverse volunteer base:

  1. It opens up a larger pool of potential volunteers and donors.
  2. Volunteers with different backgrounds, cultures, and career fields bring a variety of skills to your organization.
  3. Various groups to which your volunteers do outreach may relate better to different groups of volunteers.
  4. Your organization may have a specific commitment to involving all sectors of your community or to facilitating interaction between different sectors.
  5. It improves the cultural competence of the organization and its staff.
  6. There will be an increased enrichment of the organization's programs.

Although there may be some additional costs involved in adapting or adjusting an organization's volunteer program to attract diverse volunteers, the organization will greatly benefit in the long run.

Benefits to Volunteers

Recruiting diverse volunteers can prove to be a win/win situation — as beneficial to your volunteers as to your program. For example:

  • Volunteering serves as an opportunity to learn more about your organization and the community where they serve.
  • Volunteering allows an opportunity to make new friends and to work with a variety of people as well as their peers.
  • Volunteers from any English-speaking background could strengthen their skills with another language. Also, those with a non-English speaking background can have the chance to improve their English-language skills.

In the next section, you will experience two activities designed to explore some common themes and assumptions about diversity.

Diversity Activities

The following activities will help you explore definitions of culture and diversity:

  • Common Themes of Diversity
  • Diversity Island

Common Themes of Diversity

The term diversity can mean different things to different people. How do people view diversity? What common themes of diversity come to mind? The purpose of the following activity is to brainstorm different aspects of diversity.

Describing Diversity: Think about what "diversity" means to you. What words come to mind that describe "diversity"? Take a moment to write down your answers on a piece of paper or capture them electronically.

Some common themes of diversity might include:

  • Educational background
  • Socioeconomic background
  • Marital status
  • Political affiliation
  • Physical features
  • Cultural interests
  • Mental/social disabilities
  • Food and eating habits
  • Work habits
  • Age
  • Name

How many of these common themes were on your list?

Diversity Island

Spend a few minutes thinking of where the common themes of diversity listed here would be placed on what we will call Diversity Island. Use the following steps to identify and place diversity themes in this activity:

1. Characteristics that you can easily identify when you meet someone should be placed in the island. These "obvious" characteristics could be anything from a person’s marital status (wedding ring) or religious affiliation (Hijab, a head scarf).

2. When you first meet someone, however, there are some characteristics you may not be able to identify. These "hidden" characteristics can range from their political affiliation, age, or even their name. These non-identifiable characteristics are placed outside the island, in the water.

3. For characteristics that are unclear (neither obvious nor unidentifiable), place them on the border of the island, near the water line. For example, religion can be unidentifiable. A person's marriage status may also be unidentifiable if someone is not wearing a conventional symbol such as a ring.

How would you qualify each of the following chacteristics or themes?

  1. WATER (Hidden)
  2. BORDER (Neither visible nor hidden)
  3. ISLAND (Visible)
  • gender
  • religion
  • hair color
  • ethnicity
  • skin tone
  • race
  • height
  • education

Take a moment to perform this activity now by assigning each theme to its place on Diversity Island.

Diversity Island Activity Results: Now that you've gone through the activity, let's look at some possible results.

When some people think of diversity, the first thing that comes to mind is gender; however, there are times when you can not tell someone’s gender when you first meet — it simply may not be obvious. Given this reality, "gender" is placed on the border of the island as "neither identifiable nor hidden" in every situation.

Also, you can’t tell someone’s ethnicity by their appearance. Skin color, hair type, and eye color are all identifiable — but not ethnicity. It is one theme of diveristy that is truly hidden.

WATER (Hidden)

  • ethnicity

BORDER (Neither visible nor hidden)

  • gender
  • religion
  • race
  • education

ISLAND (Visible)

  • skin tone
  • height
  • hair color

Diversity Activities Reflection

  • What did you learn about diversity characteristics?
  • What do these activites tell you about diversity?
  • What does diversity really mean, therefore?
  • Did what you chose initially surprise you?
  • What were your thoughts about some of your answers being "wrong"?


Deepening Your Understanding of Diversity

As a result of the diversity activities in the previous section of this course, we discovered that not all external characteristics can identify an individual's background. Now let us try another activity to help deepen our understanding.

See if you can match the U.S.-based proverbs on the left with the international proverbs listed on the right:

Proverbs Matching Activity
Out of sight, out of mind.He makes a wine cellar from one raisin. (Lebanon)
Too many cooks spoil the soup.Even a tiger will appear if you talk about him. (Korea)
God helps those who help themselves.Two captains sink the ship. (Japan)
Speak of the devil and he will appear.He who is not in sight, is not in the heart. (Tanzania)
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.God is a good worker, but he loves to be helped. (Spain)
He makes a mountain out of a mole hill.You can force a man to shut his eyes, but you can’t make him sleep. (Denmark)

Activity Reflection

  • How does this exercise apply to the practice of recruiting and managing volunteers?
  • How does it apply to your national service program specifically?

People from different backgrounds and cultures can hold similar values and beliefs. Although we may have many differences when we compare ourselves to other kinds of people, we also have many similarities. We may have different ways of speaking and different behavior patterns, but many of our most basic needs and interests are similar.

Preparing Your Organization for Diversity

Starting from the Inside Out

To prepare for changes in thought, your national service program should practice altering or adapting its procedures and practices to reflect changes within your community. Doing this is similar to establishing a new volunteer program.

Try establishing a “diversity creed” within your organization. A diversity creed can simply be your program's mission statement, including a commitment to diversity.

A few key elements that should be addressed are:

  • Recruit
  • Train
  • Retain


Aspects of recruiting diverse volunteers include:

  • Creating a community of committed volunteers and volunteer leaders who care about and understand your work.
  • Building a diverse volunteer base to confirm your commitment to social development, a healthy society, and the well-being of others.
  • Developing volunteer recruitment messages that identify the direct benefits to the personal development of a diverse volunteer population. Statements should demonstrate how the volunteer will learn new skills and/or explore and share their strengths or skills.
  • Developing a public statement of your organization's commitment to multiculturalism and diversity.
  • Creating opportunities for volunteers to serve on an inclusion committee to assess your organization's commitment to all aspects of diversity.
  • Providing a range of volunteer opportunities. For example: Virtual (or online) volunteering can serve as an excellent way to reach an entirely new community base who may otherwise feel unable to volunteer due to limitations of resources, time, transportation, or ability. This will not only expand your volunteer program, it will also strengthen your current volunteers’ commitment and passion.


Aspects of training diverse volunteers include:

  • Planning your volunteer training knowing that on-the-job support for inclusive practices will be key.
  • Defining your outcomes at the outset: Set the expectations and hold your volunteers accountable
  • Talking about your service mission — get them excited!
  • Communicating the importance of volunteer roles in relation to the community. Including interactive training methods and visual materials. This can especially help volunteers with limited English-language skills.
  • Asking in advance: If you are planning to serve food or beverages, ask ahead of time about any dietary restrictions.


Aspects of retaining diverse volunteers include:

  • Supporting, coaching, and mentoring your volunteers.
  • Performing internal audits to analyze the manner in which you recruit volunteers and the structure within your organization that may prevent diverse volunteers from feeling uncomfortable. For example: In a program working with teens on issues related to sexuality, teens may be more comfortable with a facilitator of the same gender. An organization devoted to helping persons with disabilities may want to recruit volunteers with disabilities.
  • Committing to a goal of helping volunteer leaders develop THEIR thinking and capacity.
  • Checking in with volunteers: Exploring their motivations for volunteering. Ask how things are going. Help them problem-solve.
  • Providing opportunities for volunteers to talk with, and learn from, each other.
  • Inviting volunteers to participate in all levels of program building.
  • Determining if there are different motivations for an at-risk audience in at-risk communities to become involved in volunteer programs. Economic factors may affect the ability to volunteer.
  • Maintaining respect for each volunteer as an individual, not as the representative of an entire group of people.
  • Rewarding volunteers: All volunteers, regardless of age, gender, physical ability, etc., respond positively to being rewarded for their work. For some volunteers, the best reward is public recognition; for others, it is more responsibility or the opportunity for training. You, or the supervisor of each volunteer, should identify what rewards will be valuable to volunteers.
  • Recognizing volunteers in their own communities: If you have recruited volunteers from different communities, recognize them there. For bilingual volunteers working with people who are not fluent or literate in English, recognition in the local newspaper may not be a big deal. However, recognition in a newsletter or specialty paper produced in their language, and read by their family and friends, may be very significant to them.
  • Obtaining overall volunteer feedback on their entire experience from recruitment to training.

A Note About Volunteer Leaders: A project or volunteer leader is a volunteer who takes charge of a project by coordinating it and taking accountability for its successful completion. When properly trained and supported a volunteer leader can strengthen your program and expand the work you are able to do in the community.


A 2001 study by Independent Sector revealed that 71% of people who were asked to volunteer did so. We often form preconceived notions about people, which can in turn affect our volunteer recruitment. An excellent volunteer may be overlooked due to our preconceptions. For example, persons with limited mobility may be overlooked due to a notion that "they will not be able to do heavy labor." More and more program managers are realizing that virtual volunteering offers the opportunity to tap into this unsolicited market.

The concepts in this section on Laying the Foundation help us to realize that we can’t really know people when we first meet them. In order to tap into the best in others — and ourselves — we have to learn through discussion, sharing, and letting our masks down.

Now let's look more closely at building our awareness and expanding our perceptions of diversity...

Building Awareness / Perceptions of Diversity

In order for us to build awareness and recognize how we perceive differences, we need to examine:

  • How we think about and view people
  • Where our thoughts come from
  • Where our thoughts can lead us


In this section on you will:

  • Identify your early awareness of difference
  • Assess your cultural competence


Early Memories of Difference

Think back to an early significant memory that you have of being "different." Try to get in touch with:

  • Who else was there?
  • What was the setting?
  • What happened?
  • How did you feel?
  • What message were you given about your difference?
  • What did you do?
  • Who could you tell?
  • Who did you tell?

For example: Consider this person's story...

"It was 1989, and I remember intensely preparing for the SATs. During that time, there was a large controversy concerning the SATs being biased and discriminatory to those in urban areas. Specifically, I remember one question that was raised as an example — the definition of galoshes. It was the first I'd heard that word... I didn't even know what galoshes were. It was then I realized how my urban upbringing was different from many others."

Activity Reflection

Capture or represent the early memory of difference you recall with a drawing. Consider sharing your drawing and your story with a friend or colleague.

Cultural Competence

In this section, we discuss cultural competence so first let us break down the definitions of cultural and competence.

Cultural implies the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, communication, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups.
Competence implies the capacity to function effectively.

What Is Cultural Competence?

Cultural competence is the willingness and ability of a system to value the importance of culture in the delivery of services to all segments of the population. Additionally, cross-cultural competence is the ability to think, feel, and act in ways that acknowledge, respect, and build on ethnic, (socio) cultural, and linguistic diversity.

Cultural Competence Continuum

There are six areas of cross-cultural competence. As you examine each area, think of some examples of how you, or a volunteer in your program, or a volunteer management practice that you've seen, falls along the continuum.

Areas of Cultural Competence
Destructiveness Negative end of the continuum indicated by:
  • Attitudes, policies, and practices destructive to other cultures
  • Purposeful destruction or dehumanization of other cultures
  • Assumption of cultural superiority; eradication of lesser cultures
  • Forced assimilation / segregation
Cultural incapacityIndicated by:
  • Unintentional cultural destructiveness
  • Biased system; low/no capacity to work with other groups/minorities
  • Ignorance or fear of other groups
  • Discriminatory practices; lowering of expectations and devaluing of groups
  • Belief in racial superiority of dominant group
Cultural blindnessThe midpoint of the continuum indicated by:
  • Philosophy of being unbiased; we are all the same
  • Belief that culture, class, or color makes no difference
  • Fixation on getting the numbers right
  • Going by the law
Pre-competenceShows a work in progress as indicated by:
  • Realization of weaknesses in working with other cultures
  • Implementation of training, assessment of needs, use of diversity criteria when hiring
  • Desire for inclusion, commitment to civil rights
  • Danger of false sense of accomplishment and “tokenism”
Competence Positive end of the scale indicated by:
  • Acceptance and respect for differences
  • Continual assessment regarding sensitivity to other cultures
  • Continual expansion of cultural knowledge and resources
  • Hiring of diverse and unbiased staff
ProficiencyDenotes mastery as indicated by:
  • Cultures held in high esteem
  • Constant development of new approaches
  • Seeks to add to knowledge base
  • Advocates for cultural competence with all systems and organizations
  • Cultural competency action research is conducted and disseminated
  • Advocates social responsibility to fight social discrimination and encourage social diversity in all forums

Everyone has prejudices, but it's how we act on them that determines where we find ourselves on this continuum. It's possible to move back and forth along the continuum as you encounter different situations that trigger your deeply held core values.

Impacts of the Continuum

Consider each term of the Cultural Competence Continuum more closely for its potential impact on your volunteer program:


Examples of cultural destructiveness include:

  • Ku Klux Klan; Aryan Nation
  • Slavery, holocausts, Japanese internment camps
  • Murders of James Bird and Matthew Shepherd


Incapacity is where an agency does not intentionally seek to be culturally destructive but lacks the capacity to help diverse clients or communities. Programs can act as agents of oppression by enforcing and maintaining stereotypes; agencies doing this are often characterized by ignorance and an unrealistic fear of diversity. The characteristics of cultural incapacity include:

  • Discriminatory hiring practices
  • Subtle messages to certain groups of people that they are not valued or welcome
  • Generally lower expectations of those in a minority


Blindness is where the system and its agencies provide services with the express philosophy of being unbiased. They function with the belief that color or culture makes no difference and that we are all the same. Culturally blind agencies are characterized by the belief that helping approaches traditionally used by the dominant culture are universally applicable; if the system worked as it should, all people — regardless of race or culture — would be serviced with equal effectiveness.

This view reflects a well intended liberal philosophy; however, the consequences of such a belief are to make services so ethnocentric as to render them virtually useless to all but the most assimilated people of diverse populations. Such services ignore cultural strengths, encourage assimilation, and blame the victims for their problems. Members of minority communities are viewed from the cultural deprivation model, which asserts that problems are the result of inadequate cultural resources. Outcome is usually measured by how closely the client approximates a middle class non-minority existence. Institutional racism or other bias restricts minority access to professional training, staff positions, and services.


The degree of cultural competence an agency achieves is not dependent on any one factor. Attitudes, policies, and practice are three major arenas where development can and must occur if an agency is to move toward cultural competence. Attitudes change to become less ethnocentric and biased. Policies change to become more flexible and culturally impartial. Practices become more congruent with the culture of the client from initial contact.

Positive movement along the continuum results from an aggregate of factors at various levels of an agency's structure. Every level of the agency (board members, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and consumers), can and must participate in the process. At each level the principles of valuing difference, self-assessment, understanding dynamics, building cultural knowledge, and adapting practice can be applied. As each level makes progress in implementing the principles, and as attitudes, policies, and practices change, the agency becomes more culturally competent.


Culturally competent agencies are characterized by acceptance and respect for difference, continuing self-assessment regarding culture, careful attention to the dynamics of difference, continuous expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, and a variety of adaptations to service models in order to better meet the needs of minority populations. The agency works to engage unbiased employees and volunteers, seeks advice and consultation from the minority community, and actively decides what it is capable of (or incapable of) providing to minority clients.


This point on the continuum is characterized by holding culture in high esteem. The agency seeks to add to the knowledge base of culturally competent practice by conducting research, developing new therapeutic approaches based on culture, and publishing and disseminating the results of demonstration projects. This agency engages staff and volunteers who are specialists in culturally competent practice. Such an agency advocates for cultural competence throughout the system and for improved relations between cultures throughout society.

Cultural Competence Continuum Reflection

  • Do you see examples of these impacts in your own program?
  • Where have you seen examples of each of these areas on the continuum in your professional life? In your personal life?



There are three vital ingredients to developing or accomplishing cultural competence:

  1. Attitudes must change to become less ethnocentric and biased.
  2. Policies must change to become more flexible and culturally impartial.
  3. Practices must become more congruent with cultures.

These vital ingredients are paramount to an organization's cultural competence.

Self-awareness is arguably the most important element in developing effective collaboration with culturally different groups. Cultural self-awareness is the bridge to learning about other cultures.

It is not possible to be truly sensitive to another culture until one is sensitive to his/her own, and to the impact that cultural customs, beliefs, values, and behaviors have.

Inclusive Recruitment

Recruiting volunteers from the communities in which you serve is among the first steps in creating a sustainable volunteer program. Building a strong inclusive volunteer climate can seem a bit challenging, but taking the time to create an effective volunteer recruitment plan will make the task easier. Once a plan is created, not only will you improve the likelihood of involving all members of the community, but you can develop a greater volunteer base with this new volunteer pool.


In this section you will:

  • Identify creative ways to recruit specific audiences


Recruitment Ideas

Reaching out to include a diverse set of volunteers in your program means thinking differently — and creatively — about how you recruit. Consider the following ideas:

  • Recruit at neighborhood agencies and community centers in diverse areas. Also use local publications geared toward a particular ethnicity to advertise and discover events in the community.
  • Offer stipends and/or career benefits when seeking individuals for specialized programs in high at-risk communities. This is especially significant for certain grant-sponsored programs for at-risk issues seeking a volunteer to assume key roles in implementing activities.
    Your program may benefit from offering stipends if you are targeting college interns, teachers during summer break, or volunteers from employee incentive programs requiring a greater degree of subject area knowledge and skills.
  • Partner with specific culturally-based associations in your area such as:
    Asian/Pacific Islander-based fraternal organizations; ASPIRA Association Inc., a national nonprofit dedicated to the leadership and empowerment of the Latino community; and your local Chamber of Commerce to identify culturally diverse businesses in your area.
  • Avoid being constrained by traditional views of volunteering; this can be one of the first barriers organizations must address. Today, roles can broadened by using audio or video applications that allow people to participate in meetings from their own homes or alternative venues.
  • Express your interest in diversity in your ads for volunteers. For example:
    "To expand our support throughout the Crown Heights area we are especially interested in recruiting individuals with knowledge and experience of different cultures and languages, with different abilities, and those from rural communities."
  • Make program materials available in other languages and use images that reflect diversity when advertising or otherwise marketing your program. Do they reflect the diversity you seek?
  • Connect with religious centers; they are important convening places that bring together cultural groups.
    Be aware of important religious/cultural holidays when scheduling volunteer orientation or other activities.
  • Engage your clients as volunteers.
  • Investigate local ESL programs or other types of courses that help acclimate individuals into the U.S.
  • Research the audience you are seeking to recruit. For example, what are likely to be their habits or free-time activities? Is this a retired person who spends a good portion of his/her mornings at the golf course? Is this an age group historically involved in civic engagement activities? Is the person very active in a religious organization?
    After you research your target audience, think about the implications for volunteer recruitment. For instance, if the potential volunteer spends the morning at the golf course, what does that tell you about his or her likely volunteering habits?
  • Change your language. The concept of "volunteering" does not exist in many cultures (or some socio-economic groups). Many do not call what they do "volunteering"; rather, it's just what they do to "help", to "serve," or to "be a part of things."

Capture Your Results: Based on the information you gather in your efforts to reach out to diverse populations in the community, create a database of your results and use it to develop community partnerships for your program.


The Value of Diverse Volunteers

Just as program participants should reflect the demographic make-up of your community, so should your volunteers. Equally important, if not more so, is that a diverse set of volunteers can assist programs in planning, designing, marketing, and implementing culturally relevant programs. They can also assist in increasing involvement and participation in programs. The quality of the programs and services you provide would be that much more enhanced with diverse volunteers.

Course Summary

Now that you have completed of this course, you should be able to:

  • Enhance communication with volunteers from diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds
  • Sensitively discuss with volunteers social and cultural issues that influence a community’s decision process
  • Apply the principles of diversity to improve innovation, creativity, and teamwork in your program
  • Creatively recruit a diverse set of volunteers to enhance your program

Congratulations for completing the Working with Diverse Volunteers e-course!

Please take a few minutes give us your feedback! Your feedback helps us to improve the training and technical assistance resources provided to the national service field. Click the following link to take the online survey: Feedback Survey

Acknowledgements: A large portion of the material in this course was developed or adapted by CHP International and the National Service Leadership Institute.

Additional Resources

For more information and tips on recruiting diverse volunteers, check out the following online resources: