Consider two nonprofits: an environmental organization in the heart of a downtown district and a history museum on a city’s outskirts in a community with older residents. By virtue of its mission and location, the environmental nonprofit will likely have an easier time recruiting young volunteers.

Although the museum could also try to attract younger people, the demographic of its volunteers may be harder to change than other factors, such as the organization’s culture, says Mark Hager, an associate professor of nonprofit studies at Arizona State University. “There’s an assumption that managers can always create strategies to be able to conquer issues, and I think many problems or issues they face are beyond the ability to manage them,” he says.

Hager and Jeffrey Brudney, a professor of urban affairs at Cleveland State University, decided to divide factors that could affect volunteer recruitment into two categories. “Nature” factors, which are more difficult to change, included the organization’s size and typical age of volunteers; “nurture” factors, which might be more easily changed, included volunteer management practices and organizational culture. To find out which factors had the biggest effects on recruitment, they analyzed volunteerrelated survey data gathered from 1,361 US charities.

On the nature side, younger volunteers were linked to fewer recruitment problems. This came as a surprise, because a previous study using the same survey data suggested that young volunteers were harder to retain. But the factors that make young volunteers prone to leave an organization, such as a desire to explore new experiences, might make them easier to recruit in the first place, Hager says.

Among the nurture factors, organizations whose staff members were trained to work with volunteers and had more welcoming attitudes had fewer recruitment problems. Other practices, however, such as screening and matching volunteers with the right jobs and recognizing volunteers’ accomplishments, had little effect—even though previous research found they were important for retaining volunteers. “Why people are motivated to volunteer is different from what keeps them volunteering once they’re with an organization,” says Karen Smith, a volunteer management researcher at the Victoria University of Wellington.

But the nature-nurture framework could help organizations decide which issues to tackle first, suggests Nathan Dietz, associate director for research and evaluation at the Corporation for National and Community Service, which partly funded the study. Making cultural changes, such as improving staff’s attitudes toward volunteers, isn’t necessarily expensive, he says: The organization just needs to make those issues a priority, and “this analysis shows that that will pay dividends.”

Mark A. Hager and Jeffrey L. Brudney, “Problems Recruiting Volunteers: Nature Versus Nurture,” Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 22, 2011.

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