Idea 23: Build relationships.

Volunteering in a literacy organization involves multiple relationships: volunteer to supervisor, volunteer to organization, volunteer to other volunteers, and, for tutors, volunteer to learner. Research (Volunteer Canada, 2010) has indicated that organizations can create a more rewarding volunteer experience by getting to know volunteer better, including what individuals are looking to achieve by volunteering. Volunteers are seeking reciprocal relationships where both volunteer and organization benefit. As Harrow et al note (2005), a sense of community is important.

Empowering can enhance the relationship with volunteers. It is accomplished through decision sharing and increasing responsibility. It reinforces the volunteer’s role as a part of the organization and increases volunteer satisfaction and retention.

Voices from the field:

  • Ensure that your volunteers feel special and valued. This can be done by spending time getting to know them – what is unique and special about them.
  • Create a community that they belong to with other volunteers and make it fun to be a part of it.
  • We have found that volunteers who make meaningful connections with one or two students on a regular basis get the most satisfaction. It seems to be more rewarding than simply circulating among many students each week. Relationships, and one where the tutor sees progress, brings them back and erases down times and less positive experiences.
  • Ongoing support by program manager is provided.
  • Our volunteer tutor coordinator has done an amazing job creating a community of volunteer tutors in our adult tutoring program. She has tutor gatherings where volunteers come together to share ideas, experiences and wisdom (and of course to share food) and to have access to trainings. Tutors who are not matched with a learner become part of the group even when they are not active. I know in the past some volunteers have taken tutor training and then had to wait for a long time to get matched. Some have withdrawn their willingness to help in frustration. Since starting tutor gatherings (a few years ago) and creating a community, that is not the case. We have heard comments of appreciation from those who feel ‘a part’ before they start with a learner.
  • Creating a community of volunteers creates strength and sustainability and volunteers feel valued.
  • As a substitute teacher I often felt that I was working on isolation and was not able to share ideas and experiences with others in my line of work. In our program the tutor gatherings give tutors a chance to learn from and share with each other in a way that is informal and positive. I try to take these opportunities to tell tutors just how much their time means to our program.
  • When a learner is given the chance to work one on one with a tutor they tend to feel more comfortable working on their areas they struggle in. Often learners have had a very poor experience in school and have felt that they were never listened to. This opportunity gives them a chance to be heard. Because our program follows the learner goals the learner can take control of their growth and will often feel more motivated to work hard.

To learn more:

Graff, L. (2005). Best of all: the quick reference guide to effective volunteer involvement. Dundas, Ont.: Linda Graff & Associates.
» Includes a section on supervision, with information on identifying ‘appropriateness’ in volunteer relationships and boundaries.

Lynch, R. (2009 ) Volunteer retention and feelings of connection. Retrieved from
» Volunteer retention is enhanced when a good relationship exists between volunteers and staff. This article lists inadvertent actions that reduce volunteers’ connections with organizations. It then suggests ways to create a positive sense of connection.

Ontario Volunteer Centre Network and Volunteer Canada. (n.d.) Have we thanked the volunteers? Involving volunteers effectively: recognition and motivation: fact sheet no. 13. Retrieved from
» The ideas in this recognition checklist focus on developing a thoughtful relationship including good communication and the opportunity to grow.

Last updated: June 28, 2012