BC Association of Community Response Networks

Recruiting and Retaining Volunteers: A Practice in Relationship Building


Our volunteers are the heart of every community response network (CRN). They are caring, committed, and incredibly creative people who find the best ways to connect with and support the community. We’ve profiled an outstanding community volunteer in every E-Connector edition since 2017. (Access our archive to get caught up!)

Recruiting and then retaining volunteers is a standing priority for many non-profits, including our local CRNs. Brenda Gardiner, the Better at Home and CRN Coordinator in Quesnel has seemingly found the secret. (We also profiled Brenda as one of our volunteers of the month in March 2020. Go to page 5 to read her story.)

At the time of writing, Brenda’s volunteer roster was 113-strong. “I have 80 people who are steady volunteers. Out of the 80, 45 of them are my ‘superstars’, the ones who are able to commit the most time supporting the over 550 seniors we have as clients,” she says.

Her volunteers support seniors in a variety of ways, including providing friendly visits, transportation to appointments, grocery shopping, snow removal, yard work, and small home repairs. The seniors, they range in age from 56 to 96 years.

So how does Brenda do it?

Observe The Environment

In the beginning, Brenda noticed a lot of foot traffic coming in and out of the Better At Home office in downtown Quesnel. She started her job with Better at Home nine years ago and has been coordinating the Quesnel CRN for the last five. “My first week on the job, I was sitting in my office answering phone calls for senior intakes,” she explains. “I learned that everyone I talked to had to come to the office eventually.”

She also learned that the people she talked to also had to always walk past her workspace when they came in.

She had to figure out how to stop people, and then to engage them in a conversation.

Draw on Your Own Strengths

As an artist and a self-professed junk collector, Brenda tapped into her own talents to create a physical space for people to pause, quite strategically, in front of her office.

“I found a beautiful second-hand wicker chair, painted it, decorated it with flowers, and made a garden pick sign that said: ‘Volunteers Needed!’”, she says. “It caught people’s eyes at first, and eventually they started taking a seat to ask me how they could get involved.”

Prior to Better at Home and coordinating the Quesnel CRN, Brenda successfully worked in sales for several years: “I know how to connect with strangers, build relationships, and grow teams.”

Get to Know People and What Motivates Them

The main reason why Brenda has been so successful with recruiting long-term volunteers is she takes time to personally walk every person through the application process and the training. She gets to know each person very well and what is important to them. She is also highly organized.

“Once the application and criminal record checks are done, I find out why the person wants to volunteer,” she says. “This is the key.”

For some of her volunteers, their reasons for volunteering were prompted by the passing of a grandparent who they miss dearly, and volunteering was a way to honour their memory. For other volunteers, they are retired and want to be part of a great program that helps others. “There are lots of reasons,” she adds. “It’s about getting to know the person and figuring out what they are great at. The fact that we train people also gives us a competitive advantage.”

Set Expectations and Move Quickly

Brenda is direct and transparent about who the volunteers will be working with, paying attention to personalities to ensure compatibility. “I give each volunteer a clear profile of the people they are helping so there are no surprises when they meet each other,” she explains. “I also go over reporting and how important reporting is to us. The volunteers and the reports they produce act as the eyes and ears of the community. These are the only two sources of information that can tell me if there is abuse or neglect anywhere that we need to address.”

Stay in Touch, Stay Visible

Once “in the wild”, Brenda continues to stay connected with each volunteer, observing closely what captures their interest. “I pay attention to the other person’s cues throughout all of my conversations with them,” she says. “If there is a topic or idea that lights up the other person’s eyes, this tells me something about what is important to them. I do this in everyday life too.”

Visibility is also essential, and Brenda has done this by, first, taking advantage of downtown Quesnel’s foot traffic to get the word out on Better At Home and the CRN, and second, by building an honest relationship with every person she meets, sharing a little about herself and then learning a little more about the other person with each conversation.

“A lot of it is about having people see me, and helping others get to know me,” she continues. “Your office could be tucked away and out of sight, but if people know you, they will seek you out. And people here know that I’m the one who makes art, wears flip-flops in the winter, and sports sparkly tutus to work! They also know they can come to me with anything.”

(Volunteers regularly drop by Brenda’s office, even during our conversation. And, true to her principles, she made time to talk to them, ensuring they had what they needed.)

“If you take the time to build an authentic relationship with someone, they will go to the moon for you,” Brenda says.

Do you recruit volunteers? What are some of your learnings and tips?

If you are a team looking to recruit volunteers, what are some of the questions you have?

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(Header Photo: Microsoft 365 Stock Photos)