Creating volunteer roles

After you've planned and designed your volunteer program – the goals, target audience, proposed activities, a budget and program timeline – you can start creating the volunteer roles you will need to deliver your program.

Designing volunteer roles involves mapping out what tasks you expect volunteers to do, what responsibilities they will hold in their role and what qualities and capabilities you would like them to bring to the role.

Designing roles at a high level first (before you write them up as position descriptions) allows you to consider the breadth of roles you will need to deliver your program and the different ways that volunteers could get involved. This helps to build flexibility into your roles and introduce diversity into the kinds of people you welcome into your organisation. With more flexibility and diversity you will be able to tap into a much wider pool of prospective volunteers.

Some volunteer programs will lend themselves to the design of a general, one-size-fits-all volunteer role. Others may need more specific roles for different aspects of the program. The sort of volunteer roles you need will depend entirely on the type of volunteer program your organisation delivers and the capacity of your organisation to offer flexible, volunteer-friendly opportunities.

Why are volunteers different?

A key difference between roles for volunteer and roles for paid employees is how much choice or flexibility you build into the role.

Roles for paid employees are mainly focused on an organisation's goals and needs. Employees are expected to adapt to the requirements. They must meet selection criteria and there may be little flexibility in how, when and where they undertake the duties of the role.

Volunteer roles should focus on balancing the needs of the organisation with those of its volunteers. In this way, volunteer roles need to be fairly broad in scope or, alternatively, may need some tweaking for the different kinds of volunteers who would like to be involved. This is also what makes volunteering a popular activity for a wide range of people.

Tips for designing volunteer roles

While there are different ways to design a volunteer role, the outcome is always similar – you want to come up with realistic, discrete roles that ensure you can deliver the objectives of your volunteer program and meet the needs of a broad range of volunteers.

Things to consider when designing roles

Start by listing the different kinds of roles that you may need to conduct your volunteer program and sketch out your ideas for how each role would be structured. Things to consider in the design of a role include:

  • What are the core tasks or duties?
  • What the main responsibilities?
  • Are there any mandatory requirements (like a driver's licence, food handling certificate, working with children check)?
  • What skill or experience is needed (and is this mandatory or just nice to have)?
  • What personal qualities or interests would be helpful in the role?
  • What time commitment is required – both duration of the role (ongoing/project/one-off) and hours per week/month?
  • Will orientation and training be needed (and/or provided)?
  • What benefits come with the role e.g. meals or drinks provided, free parking, uniform, expenses reimbursed?

Once you've sketched out each role's design ask others in your organisation (or networks) for their feedback or suggestions. When you've refined the broad design of each role you can then write them up as formal position descriptions.

Build in flexibility and diversity

Some organisations design their volunteer roles around the core tasks and activities of the volunteering program. Then they write their position descriptions and recruit to fill those roles. Sometimes, you might have a specific skills gap in your organisation that you are trying to address.

Whatever your approach, try to design roles with enough flexibility to accommodate a wide range of volunteers and their needs. For example, could a number of people do the same role if there were differences in:

  • Their availability (one-off, periodic, ongoing or a specific timeframe)
  • When they could work (day or evening, weekday or weekend, weekly or monthly)
  • Where they could work (on site, from home, via the internet or remotely)
  • Their skills (specific skills or general skills)
  • Training they needed (specific training or no training)
  • Supervision they needed (with or without supervision)
  • How they wanted to get involved (alone, in teams or in groups)
  • Their circumstances (young person or student, culturally or linguistically diverse, have a disability, unemployed).

Use the above criteria to check how much flexibility you've built into your roles.

Giving volunteers room to develop in their roles (rather than expecting them to meet selection criteria like they would if applying for a job) helps attract a wider variety of prospective volunteers and increases the chances of retaining volunteers for longer periods.

Ask real people

Don't just guess what would work for volunteers – ask different people. Talk to as many relevant people as possible to get ideas and input as you design your roles. Current volunteers, prospective volunteers, customers and clients, paid staff and others in your network can give useful feedback to help you shape and define your volunteer roles.

Give (relevant) people an outline of any volunteer roles that you design and ask them for feedback.

Don't just focus on the tasks

While knowing what tasks a volunteer needs to complete is important, don't just make this the focus of the role. Other things like personal attributes, interests, broad capabilities (like creativity, flexibility and honesty) and skills mean that one type of role could potentially be filled by range of volunteers from different backgrounds.

Focusing less on the tasks and more on personal attributes and skills will also give volunteers the flexibility to do a job in their own particular way. This helps open up your volunteer program to a much wider range of prospective volunteers.

Don't write the position description first

While it's tempting to simply recycle another organisation's position description for a similar role that you are designing, try to avoid this approach.

It doesn't take long to sketch a blueprint for a volunteer role – even if it's just some dot points or a brainstorm on a whiteboard.

Once you've sketched out a rough blueprint for your volunteer roles, then you can document them as formal position descriptions. See our tips on Writing position descriptions.

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