How To Expand Your Volunteer Base

Discovery pic

Community service projects need volunteers. How to get more of them? The answer might seem obvious:

  • Approach a potential recruit and make the “ask” or
  • Create a list of available volunteer slots, distribute it widely, and wait for people to self-select for a given project.

But wait a minute: How do you know that someone might be interested in a given project? The answer: Discovery.

At this point, a few definitions:

  • Matching: Finding the appropriate person for a given task
  • Discovery: Deep learning about the person, their abilities, interests, motivations, apart from task assignments

According to Sue Mallory and Brad Smith, matching and discovery are two quite different tasks, and discovery must come first. The discovery process helps a person answer this question: “What is my unique set of gifts and interests?” The biggest mistake a recruiter can make is to skip over this discovery process in favor of matching. Of course, some recruiters may be so intuitive that they can successfully guess another person’s interests and gifts without having to ask.  Yet it never hurts to ask!

In The Equipping Church Handbook[1], Mallory and Smith explain how discovery, knowing your people apart from recruitment, can help you expand your volunteer base exponentially.

Where to start: The discovery interview, a one-to-one interview to discover the abilities, interests, gifts, motivations, temperament, skills and life experiences of your potential volunteers. This is the discovery interview. Take prolific notes, or use a pre-fabricated form to capture information. Some congregations use volunteer database software for its members, which is fine as long as you show proper concern for confidentiality regarding personal issues.

Best practice: Rather than conduct the interview yourself, recruit a team for that purpose. Anyone who is able to ask open-ended questions and practice reflective listening would qualify. Though would be helpful if your interviewer knew something about your programs, this is not central because we are about discovery, not matching.

Good Questions For a Discovery Interview

  1. Tell me about your family. Often experiences in our own families provide opportunities for ministry.
  2. What do you do (or have you done for your livelihood (career) or in your leisure time?
  3. What do you love doing?
  4. What do you dislike doing and hope never to have to do again?
  5. What are your dreams or concerns for your outreach team or your congregation?
  6. For the world?
  7. We seldom have the opportunity to share with others those things which we most enjoyed and felt we did well. Are there things you have accomplished that you are really proud of? I would like very much to hear about them.

In the discovery conversation, listen not only for positive factors, but reasons why this might not be a good time for the person to volunteer:

A person might be:

  • Exhausted from serving in other situations
  • Caught up in personal crisis
  • Experiencing a significant life transition

Any of these might be legitimate reasons for taking a sabbatical from volunteering.

Remember: The discovery interview is not primarily about filling slots. More often that not, discovery should place first, and should be detached from matching. This is the heart of an effective volunteer system.

[1] Sue Mallory and Brad Smith, The Equipping Church Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).

Photo:  Adaora Mbelu-Dania.  Discovered at


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