6 Tips to Retain Volunteers

Volunteers are superheroes! They are your advocates, champions, ambassadors, and worker bees. They fill many roles in different capacities, bringing diverse skills as board members, committee leads, exhibit guides, ushers, admins, and more. It’s imperative that you recruit a strong volunteer base and, more important, retain volunteers by valuing their time, effort, and skills.  

Volunteer motives vary, but generally, people who get involved do so for one (or more) of the following reasons: 

  • They want to contribute to a cause in which they believe 
  • They feel they need to fulfill business and/or social expectations 
  • They are motivated by the power of change 
  • They want to have a sense of ownership and control that they cannot find in a work situation 
  • They want to learn new skills 
  • They enjoy the feeling of receiving gratitude

According to the United States Census Bureau, more than 60.7 million people volunteered for a nonprofit organization in 2021, contributing $122.9 billion in economic value. Participation was even higher during the height of the COVID pandemic: 125 million American volunteered. People do want to get involved when and where they’re needed. Organizations should help potential volunteers find the right opportunity and offer a program that keeps them motivated and engaged. If you’re ready to make a plan to retain your volunteers, start with these six tips.

1. Value Their Time

Volunteers are generously donating their time and energy to your mission. Avoid wasting their efforts by creating unnecessary work. When designating tasks, be respectful and ensure you assign each volunteer wisely. Volunteers who don’t feel valued will quickly lose interest. 

Pro Tip: Schedule regular volunteer meetings. They are essential to open lines of communication. Create an agenda, attend the meeting, and be mindful of distractions. Encourage productive discussions, but don’t go too far off track. Never schedule or conduct meetings without a full agenda, and ensure the content is both relevant and critical.  If a meeting is deemed unnecessary, cancel it to make every minute count with your volunteers. 

2. Utilize Their Strengths

Volunteers feel valued when they can use their expertise for a good cause. Allow them to leverage their strengths to better your organization, with tasks that are challenging and stimulating. Not all volunteers want to exercise their occupational expertise; some prefer to diversify. This can get tricky but do your best to understand their skill set so you can make more fulfilling assignments.

Pro Tip: Ask volunteers their preferences rather than assuming you know where they’d fit best. If a volunteer is an accountant, suggest their designation be in the finance department. If they are a certified diver, offer an assignment on the dive team. However, if the volunteer would rather work in an exhibit, allow them to go through any certification programs and assign them to that area. A happy volunteer is a loyal volunteer.  

3. Ask for Their Feedback

Listen to what your volunteers say. Volunteers who feel ignored won’t be volunteers for long. Ask their opinions, listen to their suggestions, and always follow up. When a volunteer approaches you with an idea, take an interest and ask questions. If it can be accommodated, let them know when and how it will be put into effect. However, if it’s one that is not actionable, follow up with a timely explanation. Understand what the volunteer wants, learn what their expectations are, and communicate regularly. The level of your volunteers’ engagement reflects your ability to listen to their wants, needs, and suggestions.   

Pro Tip: Create a comment box. Some people are not comfortable giving constructive feedback in a group setting or during one-on-one meetings. The comment box is an anonymous way for a volunteer to raise concerns without singling themselves out, and it will guarantee honest feedback.  

4. Offer Tools and Support

Volunteers deserve the utmost respect. Provide them with the resources and tools they need to be successful. Adopt a CRM system, such as Blackbaud Raiser’s Edge NXT + Rosterfy, to allow volunteers to seamlessly manage their experience with your organization, including:

  • Onboarding
  • Scheduling
  • Training

Recognize that volunteers have busy lives outside of your organization, and it’s your job to understand their commitments. Conduct quarterly performance evaluations to show you support them and want to see them succeed. Respect them enough to spend time discussing their work and consider increasing their responsibility when appropriate. Managing information in one system will allow you to produce important data, such as reporting, to ensure all necessary information is available for building a more efficient program.

Pro Tip: Ask others in the organization to rate each volunteer’s performance and share this information during reviews. Peer-to-peer feedback is extremely effective, offering valuable insights. Enter this information into your volunteer management software to share it each quarter, highlighting both areas of support and opportunities for improvement.

5. Show Your Appreciation

Treat your volunteers like major donors. They give their time, energy, and sometimes monetary donations. Show your appreciation with daily stewardship. Volunteers are diverse, and each one deserves personalized interaction—this will, in turn, strengthen your relationship with each volunteer

Pro Tip: Host a volunteer appreciation party. If the budget permits, allow guests. Add a theme and encourage all staff to attend. Require employees who regularly work with volunteers to participate in a creative appreciation exercise. For example, each department can perform skits to display their appreciation for your volunteers. If there’s no budget for an event, each department could record a video message about why volunteers are valuable. Consolidate the messages and play the video during a routine volunteer meeting. The important part is to show your appreciation as much as possible.   

6. Create a Volunteer Engagement Policy

Remember that volunteers are donors (of time, talent, and often financial support), but not all donors are volunteers. It is a special relationship. Your volunteers are valuable to advancing your mission. Document this important role and codify the goals for both the volunteer and the organization. Ideally, you should have a volunteer engagement policy developed by management, key (active) volunteers, and leadership.

If you do not have a volunteer engagement policy, take the first step by planning a brainstorming session and, when completed, implement your policy immediately. Authors Barbara L. Ciconte and Jeanne Jacob propose TheVolunteer Bill of Rights in Fundraising Basics: A Complete Guide. Its fundamental ideas can help you develop a policy that honors and guides your volunteers and those who manage them.

Every volunteer deserves these rights:

  • To be treated as a coworker, not just as free help
  • To a suitable assignment, with consideration for personal preference, temperament, life experience, education and employment background 
  • To know as much about an organization as possible: its policies, its people, its programs 
  • To train for the job, with thoughtfully planned and effectively presented training 
  • To receive continuing education on the job, including information about new developments and training for greater responsibility 
  • To sound guidance and direction by someone who is experienced, well-informed, patient, thoughtful and has the time to give guidance 
  • To a place to work—an orderly, designated place, conducive to work and worthy of the job to be done 
  • To qualify for promotion and a variety of experiences through advancement to assignments of more responsibility, through transfer from one activity to another, through special assignments 
  • To be heard, to have a part in planning, to feel free to make suggestions, to have respect shown for an honest opinion 
  • To receive recognition, in the form of promotion and awards, through day-by-day expressions of appreciation, and by being treated as a coworker  

Your volunteers want to make a difference. Allow them to grow, and, together, your collected efforts can create change that supports your mission. And don’t forget to have fun with your volunteers—they are phenomenal people who share your same desire for success.