November 27, 2011

What’s in a Word? Do we Engage Volunteers or do we Recruit Them?

Posted in Best Practice, Language at 4:54 am by Sue Hine

I did not intend a follow-on from last weeks’ post, but there has been a flurry of exchanges on the electronic networks in recent days.  We are back into navel-gazing on language and the way we use words.

Yes, it is important to understand meanings and why we use particular words more than others.  But what are the subtle differences between engaging volunteers and recruiting them?  Aren’t we being a bit specious here?

Let’s start with the original statement:

“….. volunteers are ‘engaged’ rather than recruited. This terminology distinguishes between employing people in paid and unpaid activities.”

The on-line responses went in different directions, covering the following ground:

  1. ‘Engaging’ is a more nurturing term, and it also gives a message to paid staff about the ‘engagement’ of volunteers.
  2. Getting the wording right helps ensures structured support and guidelines to those who co-ordinate or manage volunteer services.
  3. It’s both/and, isn’t it?  There is a formal process to follow in ‘recruiting’ volunteers, and ‘engaging’ volunteers is ongoing, a two-way relationship.
  4. Well really, ‘engaging’ is a more attractive word than ‘recruiting’, more enticing for volunteers.
  5. ‘Engagement’ can mean different things to different people: something done up front in the process in the process of ‘recruiting’; or it might be the formal act of making an appointment.
  6. Come on, get real – the words can be used interchangeably.

My initial response:

Hmmm…. So volunteers really need to be distinguished from paid staff.  Therefore they are to be treated differently, implying they are a lesser breed of workers.  I thought we had dealt to this misconception.  We need structured support and guidelines, do we?  Which go as far as telling us what words to use?

My rational takes:

I am not sure there would be whole-hearted support for ‘engagement’ in terms of ‘nurturing’.  Managers and leaders of volunteers need to do more than be kind and caring, and their organisations would certainly expect more.

But I do like the idea of engagement as a mutually supportive relationship, building on work tasks, respect for and recognition of skills, and appreciation for each contribution to the organisation.  That’s the whole “spirit and culture” of volunteering, isn’t it?

My reflective conclusion:

Yes there is a degree of inter-changeability between ‘recruiting’ and ‘engaging’ volunteers.  A disciple of Human Resource Management will apply ‘recruitment’, and ultimately a volunteer (or paid staff) may be ‘engaged’ in working for the organisation.  If steeped in a community development approach of collective purpose and common interests, attracting volunteers will be an ‘engagement’ process, though I might have to organise a ‘recruitment’ policy and programme.   And if I am hiring paid staff I would like to think this could be a process of ‘engagement’ too – in the best interests of the organisation.

The argumentation on this topic might seem like splitting hairs, yet it is always good to figure out what we mean, and to mean what we say.


  1. dontcoast said,

    First you recruit a volunteer. They’re interested. They show up.

    Then you engage them in your organization. They contribute. They feel appreciated. They spread the word, and come back. Maybe with a friend.

    Recruit/Engage = two different but equally important aspects of the process


  2. Sue Hine said,

    I like this! Simple, eh?


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