Even Small Acts of Appreciation: Retaining Volunteers

L.J. Bailey
6 min readApr 25, 2019

Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.”
~Elizabeth Andrew

Studies of American volunteerism show that Elizabeth Andrew was on the mark with her statement. Although the prime child-rearing and career years are ages 35 to 44, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is the age group that volunteers the most, even more than those of retirement age do.

What causes people to volunteer and what keeps them volunteering even in their busiest times? Most nonprofits are familiar with the portrait of a new volunteer who begins their service enthusiastic and committed to a number of projects before “mysteriously” ghosting. Some nonprofits point to issues with our culture at large, citing an increase in selfishness or a decrease in free time. but these ideas are all open for debate. A better way to frame this examination of volunteerism is exploring how to retain new and existing volunteers. While it is impossible for one organization to change what they perceive as an overall cultural deficit (again, very open to debate), it can change itself internally and use best practices to stop volunteer turnover rates.

Communicate Impact

Volunteers who are not close to the mission may not see the importance of their work. People who volunteer want to make a difference, and what better way to show them the fruits of their labor than communicating impact? Statistics help. Photos and videos are even better. One way to think about this is to consider volunteers as donors. They’re not offering money; they’re offering their time. They’re also offering you their connections and free publicity. Just as a portfolio may show a potential donor how their money will be used, so too might a volunteer portfolio communicate the impact volunteers’ time has. A photo or video doesn’t need to be professionally produced to demonstrate the impact volunteers’ work has. The bottom line is people need to see that their time sacrifice is leading to positive results.

Engaging Tasks and Responsibilities

Another key aspect of engagement is the capacity in which volunteers serve. Cleaning toilets or picking up coffee for the office could be important work, but chances are these activities will not do much to develop a lasting sense of commitment in the volunteer. Engage volunteer staff in meaningful work that serves the target population as closely as possible. This doesn’t mean that every volunteer will be placed in direct service roles, but it does give them a chance to see how the organization works and think about what ways they might wish to serve.

A good way to gauge what volunteers might be looking for and how best to engage them is to go to the source. A simple electronic survey can collect data on why current volunteers came to the organization, what keeps them there, and what changes they might want to see in how volunteers are recruited and utilized. It’s important to know what people are expecting to either deliver on that expectation or address and prepare them for the difference between that and reality.

Acknowledgment and Appreciation

Just like paid employees, volunteers need to feel respected and appreciated. Larger nonprofits may have an easier time budgeting and executing large-scale volunteer events through their coordinators, but what about small nonprofits? Whether it is a potluck luncheon at a park district shelter in the summer, achievement buttons, or a feature on the organization’s blog, make sure the staff acknowledges volunteers’ hard work. Remember that these people are donating their time to help make your organization work. Treat their time as a donation, thank the volunteers for their commitment, and honor their achievements. Also, never underestimate the power of a simple “thank you.”

Meaningful Training

Many volunteer positions, as expected, require training. The problem is that not everyone is a good teacher. I have personally sat through day-long PowerPoint presentations that offered no opportunities for practice or interaction with staff or fellow volunteers. Essentially, the training involved someone reading off PowerPoint slides to us, an experience that is not rewarding and is not reflective of best practices in teaching. I guarantee that I would have found more use in following someone in the field as they worked versus six hours of droning. Everything doesn’t have to be exciting at all times, but multiple days of droning won’t properly train or retain your volunteers.

Many larger organizations are offering all online training, and this misses out on the social aspect of volunteerism. Meaningful relationships keep volunteers, but how can this happen when training is conducted entirely online?

No-Cost Training

I know nonprofits are strapped for cash. However, if you can avoid asking volunteers to pay for their training and materials, please do so. Conventional wisdom may be that requiring volunteers to pay not only defrays some of the costs of onboarding but also assures only serious candidates will try to be volunteers. There will be opportunities later on to make a donation appeal to volunteers in a tasteful, understated way. Demanding people pay for training can make recruiting difficult and may inadvertently disqualify some excellent candidates from diverse backgrounds.

Offer Opportunities

Another idea to retain volunteers is to offer training opportunities to develop new or current skillsets. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a lot of your organization’s money. Think about the volunteers you currently have and what you know about their backgrounds (if you don’t know about backgrounds — find out!). Do any of them have a skill or knowledge they could share with other volunteers? Do you have connections that may be willing to sponsor someone’s participation in a training that costs money? Volunteers appreciate when an organization invests in them in return. Offering recommendations for outstanding volunteers as they look for jobs is another way to honor and retain current volunteers. The name of the game is networking. Are you offering your volunteers opportunities to network with other volunteers? Are you offering your volunteers mentors who can serve as informed liaisons between the organization and its volunteers?

Time Constraints

Americans are either working more hours than ever or have more free time than ever before, depending on the study you read, the method of data collection, and the interpretation of the data. Regardless, it seems safe to assume that Americans are very busy and constantly rushing around to fit in all their chores and obligations every day. A nonprofit must offer complete transparency about the hours expected and be flexible when volunteers have conflicts or have to reduce participation hours for a time. Making volunteers feel guilty when they have to work instead of running the volunteer expo booth will probably ensure that they don’t offer as much time or that they ghost the organization.

Nonprofits vary in their budgets and personnel, and larger groups may be able to offer free tote bags, pens, and other swag. Smaller groups can look to established volunteers and existing structures to help retain volunteers. Quality training, transparency in requirements, acknowledgment and appreciation, and engagement all work together to recruit and retain the best volunteers.

These are just a few ideas I have pulled together from years of volunteer experience. I’d be interested in hearing from you. What strategies do you use to recruit and retain volunteers? Is there anything you do that is not listed above? If you have volunteer experience, what suggestions can you think of to improve volunteer recruitment and retention?

Originally published at https://baileylaurajean.com on April 25, 2019.