CT Online’s Nonprofit News column is written especially for counselors to help demystify many of the areas associated with successful nonprofit programming.

The lifeblood of many clinical nonprofits is their ability to attract and maintain a certain level of clinical volunteers. Although some programs rely on clinical volunteers more than others, all programs can benefit from this very talented group.

People Hands Holding Colorful Word VolunteerClinical volunteers can come in many forms, the largest being clinical interns. Other sources include retired clinicians, clinicians who are seeking to gain more experience and collect hours toward licensure, and those who have a paying job but feel unable to meet all of their professional goals and desires through their place of employment.

But how does a program attract talented individuals without the ability to pay? To gain some insight, I spoke with many clinical volunteers from several programs and culled from personal experience here at Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm. (Note: Special thanks to all who sent me their thoughts or sat down to be interviewed for this article.)

The key to recruiting clinical volunteers can be to offer an experience that is unique and creative. Think about what sets your program apart from all the others. What is the hook that brings in not only clients but also clinical professionals? What does your program possess that no other or few other programs can claim? Is the atmosphere atypical in a good way? Do you have a reputation for nurturing clinicians? Perhaps you offer training that isn’t available elsewhere in the area?

Most programs that successfully recruit clinical volunteers (or volunteers in general) have an atmosphere that calls to people, whether because of the type of clientele the program sees, the treatment setting, the popularity of the program or some other tangible offering. There needs to some sort of payoff for your clinical volunteers, especially considering that they will need to maintain their own professional liability insurance. So be sure to find a way to make things beneficial for all involved.

When interviewing clinical volunteers, I heard the following themes:

  • “The program really cares about the community. It’s not about money; it’s about the people they serve.”
  • “They allow me to be myself. No pretense, just me.”
  • “They encourage me to be a better clinician, get more training and try new techniques that I’ve read about but never tried before. They seem to have a supervisor that knows everything about the field, so I am able to go outside of my comfort zone knowing that if I should ever start to go too far, [he or she] will be there to put on the brakes and teach me where the line is.”
  • “Nurture. That’s why I come back. They nurture not only our clients but our staff as well.”
  • “I’ve always wanted to try program development but was not sure how to start. I interviewed as a potential volunteer, and he asked me what my passion was. I told him development but also said that I had never done it. … Soon I was helping to develop a new program and found I loved it.”
  • “My day job uses canned, cookie-cutter-type approaches to everything, and then I heard about this program that customizes every treatment plan to fit every client. This was such a great concept to me that I had to get involved.”
  • “I love the environment and setting of this program. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen or worked for before, and they do it with the clients that I love working with. It almost feels like they designed this program just for me.”

Of course, simply being able to attract clinical professionals is one thing; getting the ones you need and desire is another. As a clinical director or supervisor, there are many things you can try to recruit the right folks.

After establishing relationships with even a few key programs, you may find that your program will become flooded with potential volunteers. Be sure to properly vet applicants, getting a clear understanding of any time limitations or treatment preferences they may have. The clearer you are about your needs as a program, the better. You will always get some folks who blindly apply without reading a description, but most will make the time to customize their applications to meet programming needs.

Some ideas for getting the best clinical volunteers:

  • Offer free training opportunities.
  • Provide a unique experiential environment that nurtures clinicians as well as clients.
  • Build a solid program with a great reputation in the community. Success can indeed attract some of the best and brightest.
  • Network with other programs, colleges and training sites. Becoming a preferred site with any of these services can provide a large referral base.
  • Offer extensive general volunteer opportunities. Sometimes general volunteers will know or have ties to dynamic professionals who haven’t heard of your program otherwise.
  • If a program has a “known” clinical professional, have that person offer regular training or supervision to clinical volunteers. Based on the comments of those I interviewed, the chance to work with a known professional can at times be one of the strongest draws to volunteers.
  • Become a certifying agency for the President’s Volunteer Service Award program (http://www.presidentialserviceawards.gov/). By becoming a certifying agency, you have a built-in way of acknowledging the hard work of your volunteers at a minimal cost.
  • Hire from your volunteer roster when possible. Although you should never make promises that a volunteer will be hired when a position opens, it can be wonderful for morale when volunteers see that they are at least being considered for paid positions as they become available.

In my personal experience, once you have a known nonprofit program with an atmosphere and reputation for nurturing your people — be they clients, staff or volunteers — you will find yourself with an ever-growing list of volunteers who can help you continue to improve program offerings.

My current position has given me the opportunity to oversee an ever-expanding therapeutic gardening program, an overflowing art-based therapy program and a thriving graduate internship and clinical volunteer program, all of which allows us to provide a record amount of free services to the community. Our results are far from the norm. If you are not currently trying this, now is the time to consider it.



Dr. Warren Corson III
Dr. Warren Corson III

“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at docwarren@docwarren.org.