Topic: Retail Sales

Volunteer Selling Skills: Getting Them To To Sell In Your Stores

By Bob Phibbs

volunteers selling gift shopI am a conductor, did you know that? I founded a chorus that ultimately was a resident company of the 1100 seat Carpenter Center in Long Beach. It took a lot of volunteers to put on a show from the set designers, ushers, costume designers and the singers themselves.

One of my pet peeves was someone saying to me, "You have to remember, we're all volunteers."

Like that meant there could be no standards or goals; I had to settle.

I didn't - if they were out of tune, they had to fix it. If they didn't practice they were called on it. And if they didn't understand that performing in a concert hall was a privledge and sold tickets to the show, they were gone.

I love volunteers but it is important to have standards.

I spoke at a couple of hospital gift show conventions over the years and found similiarities between my chorus and their organizations.

Finding a volunteer workforce can be daunting for anyone who runs a non-profit gift shop or store. Training volunteers to sell can be even harder.

Fortunately, the process doesn't have to be as difficult as you may think.

There are many non-profits and hospital gift stores who operate efficiently with a staff made up almost totally of volunteers. If you're wondering how to get your volunteers to work well for you, to increase their selling skills and boost your business, here are a few key ingredients you can add to the way you interact with your volunteer staff and build your team.

Establish The Vision

Every successful business, non-profit or not, must have a vision. It’s the “why we do what we do each day.” Each volunteer should not only be made aware of the vision, but they should be encouraged to tie in to the vision.

For example, if you operate a hospital gift shop, your vision might be "anticipating the needs of patients, families, visitors, and staff by providing excellent customer service through merchandise and service." Let your staff know that the vision is your goal. When you build a rapport with your staff and establish their trust, they will want to work toward your vision with you.


Volunteers whether they work in the non-profit gift store, the library, museum shop or as docents want to know that they are valued and respected. Let yours know on a regular basis that they are vital to you and your store. Continually focusing on each volunteer's positive traits and on those traits all working together to form your team will help them see themselves as an important part of your store.


While it is often drummed into your ears to “remember volunteers are not paid staff,” it is important to run your gift store with a clear set of standards for attendance and performance expectations. Again, think of singers in a chorus, they have to be in tune, practice their music and attend rehearsals or the entire group suffers.

Volunteers must know what the expectations are as a part of your team. Once your volunteers understand the vision and want to work toward the vision with you because of the relationship you have established with them, they should be quick to adhere to your expectations and will probably surpass them on a regular basis. If they don’t, don’t put up with them. You wouldn’t if they were paid; volunteering isn’t a “get out of jail” card.


Merchandise at a non-profit gift store often is expected to “just sell itself.” But just like a retail store, when someone shows desire for an item worth more than a few dollars, a volunteer who understands selling can help them justify the purchase. The more merchandise they sell, the better they can give back to the non-profit.

Teach them a simple greeting, “Good morning, feel free to look around and I’ll be right back.” Teach them to connect a feature, the facts of a product with a benefit the customer will get from purchasing it. Point out one additional item at the register. Those are three parts from the Five Parts to a Successful Sale that will get them selling.


Nothing feels as good as knowing your work is appreciated. This is especially true for those in volunteer positions because they aren’t expecting anything in return. You are striving for excellence, and excellent volunteers are valuable to your store. Even something as simple as establishing a "Selling Volunteer Of The Month" will give them pride and a desire to increase their selling skills to achieve even higher goals in the future.

Letting Go

One of the worst things you may ever have to do is to let one of your volunteers go. Sometimes, when performance expectations are not being met, selling skills are not up to par or other problems occur, volunteers have to be let go. This is a part of being a leader.

It is important that your volunteer staff understands that if problems arise that require you to let one of them go, you will. Knowing that their position has required expectations that will be upheld will give them a healthy respect for you and will cause them to work harder.

In Summary

Managing volunteers can be a rewarding experience when it is handled the right way. You have the opportunity to work with a group of people who are doing a job not because they need the money, but because they love it. Give them a reason to love it even more and increase their selling skills in the process. It's a win-win!

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