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 skill sets as board members, committee leads, exhibit guides, ushers, admins, and more. It’s imperative that you recruit a strong volunteer base and, more importantly, retain their commitment them by valuing their time, effort, and skills.  

According to Fundraising Basics: A Complete Guide by Barbara L. Ciconte and Jeanne Jacob, volunteer motives vary, but generally people get involved for one of more of the following reasons: 

  • They want to contribute to a cause in which they believe. 
  • The feel they need to fulfill business and/or social expectations. 
  • They are motivated by a desire for 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 want to have fun and enjoy what they are about to do.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, volunteer rates have been declining over the past decade. Reportedly, between 2014-2015 over 62 million people volunteered for a non-profit organization which is down .4% from 2013-2014. Organizations can’t afford to lose volunteer momentum.  

Building a robust volunteer base is important for your organization’s longterm success.

Here are some general guidelines to help you create a program that keeps your volunteers motivated and engaged: 

1. Value their time

Volunteers are donating their time and energy to your mission. Don’t waste their time by creating unnecessary work. When assigning tasks, be respectful and make sure to use each volunteer wisely. Volunteers that don’t feel valued will quickly lose interest. 

Pro Tip: Volunteer meetings are important to support open lines of communication. Create an agenda, stay for the meeting, and be mindful of distractions. Encourage working meetings, but don’t go too far off track. Never schedule or conduct meetings without a full agenda, and ensure the content is relevant and critical. If a meeting is deemed not necessary, cancel it to make every minute count with your volunteers. 

2. Utilize their strengths

Volunteers enjoy using their expertise for a good cause. Allow them to apply their strengths to better your organization, and ensure the task is challenging and stimulating. Not all volunteers want to exercise their occupational expertise, some would prefer to diversify their actions. This can get tricky, but do your best to utilize their skillset while ensuring that each task or assigned department is fulfilling. 

Pro Tip: If a volunteer is an accountant, suggest their designation be in the finance department, or if they are a certified diver, assign them to 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. Listen to 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, listen and ask questions. If it can be accommodated, let them know when it’s 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 their concern(s) 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. They have busy lives outside of your organization, and it’s your job to understand their commitments. Conducting quarterly performance evaluations will show them you support their efforts and want to see them succeed. Respect them enough to spend time talking about their work and increase their responsibly (when appropriate).   

Pro Tip: Ask their peers to rate their performance and share this information during their review. Peer-to-peer feedback is extremely effective, and it will offer insight 

5. Show your appreciation

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

Pro Tip: Host a volunteer appreciation party, and if the budget permits, allow guests. Add a theme and encourage all staff to attend. Require employees that 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, but not all donors are volunteers. Your volunteers serve a dual purpose to your nonprofit and are incredibly valuable to the advancement of your mission. Ideally, you should have a volunteer engagement policy that’s developed by management, key (active) volunteers, and leadership. If you do not have a volunteer engagement policy, take the first step today by planning a brainstorming session and, once completed, implement it immediately. Ciconte and Jacob propose The Volunteer Bill of Rights in their book, and it can help you develop a policy and guide you through the stewardship process:

  • The right to be treated as a co-worker, not just as free help. 
  • The right to a suitable assignment, with consideration for personal preference, temperament, life experience, education and employment background. 
  • The right to know as much about an organization as possible: its policies, its people, its programs. 
  • The right to train for the job, thoughtfully planned and effectively presented training. 
  • The right to continuing education on the job, including information about new developments and training for greater responsibility. 
  • The right to sound guidance and direction by someone who is experienced, well-informed, patient, thoughtful and has the time to give guidance. 
  • The right to a place to work-an orderly, designated place, conducive to work and worthy of the job to be done. 
  • The right to promotion and a variety of experiences through advancement to assignments of more responsibility, through transfer from one activity to another, through special assignments. 
  • The right to heard-to have a part in planning, to feel free to make suggestions, to have respect shown for an honest opinion. 
  • The right to 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 work will create change that supports your mission. And don’t forget to have fun with your volunteers—they are phenomenal people that share your same desire for success.