Retention – Keeping Valuable Volunteers

A great volunteer is an asset to an agency. The National Points of Light Foundation reports that approximately 6 million volunteers are active in American nonprofit organizations, yearly contributing a total of more than 15 billion volunteer hours. They are the dependable rock-solid force that we want to keep in our agency. Retaining those volunteers is an art form. But exactly what does it take to keep volunteers? Let’s look at some factors that will reduce turnover.

The Interview –Searching for expertise

It is crucial to gather information from a newly recruited volunteer. Find out not only his/her current skills and past experiences, but also what skills they wish to develop through volunteer activities. This is a valuable means of evaluating the tasks that should be assigned to maximize retention. A number of years ago a new volunteer noted on his application that he had skills in “data processing”. During the interview it was revealed that he knew a lot more than data processing! He had recently retired as head of technology at a major Indiana manufacturer and understood online data systems, web site interface, purchasing, and much more. His skills might never have been utilized if we had not asked the right questions. Since then we’ve given him more challenging tasks. He loves that he is utilizing his skills in a meaningful way. Not only has he assisted our agency, but he’s been a great resource to a number of other nonprofit agencies on software and hardware consulting. He has even done the installations and trained the staff. What a gift!

Orientation- Investing in the volunteervolunteer retention

What is your orientation process for volunteers?  If you have one for new agency employees- modify it for new volunteers. Might the prospect have the opportunity to shadow another volunteer prior to beginning their service? Who will walk the volunteer through the offices and introduce him/her to staff members? Will there be training on the phone system, and the printer? Don’t forget the break room and let them know where the coffee pot is located! Make them feel welcome!

Skill Development – Volunteer Training

Some volunteers want to bring their expertise to your group, whether it is their marketing background, computer experience, or people skills. Others may volunteer to enhance certain skills or maintain ones they already possess. Still others come with the desire to learn something new. Offering opportunities to learn new skills is an important factor for service.  Volunteer jobs can be designed in hierarchical levels, allowing a volunteer to advance over time and acquire a higher “status.” With each level, an organization can allow for increases in self-direction and decision making. Not only will the added responsibilities make the volunteer feel “promoted” but he or she will also feel more engaged. Volunteer coordinators may also want to reward well-proven volunteers by allowing them to serve as a trainer or mentor to new recruits.

Personal Growth

Many volunteers come to an organization hoping to expand their horizons. A number of volunteers will use their experience acquired by volunteering like a sort of internship in hopes to securing a new job or to help them advance in their careers. Others will use their volunteering to aid them in making career or educational choices.

Another group may simply want to use their volunteer service as a way to cultivate new interests. Volunteers enjoy challenging tasks and look for opportunities to step up to the next level. If this sense of challenge is lacking, volunteers will not generally continue service with an organization. Make sure to give your volunteers a mix of interesting, more challenging activities along with more “routine” assignments.

Contact with Clients- Face-to- face with those we help

A number of volunteers want to work directly with clients. It can be rewarding to see the face of those who they serve, and a simple “thank you” from a client can be the motivation to continue their service. Make sure that you volunteer knows the mission of your agency, the importance of confidentiality and how their service makes a difference.

Recognition of Service- Letting them know the they have made a difference

Volunteers need to be recognized for their service. An important part of volunteer retention is recognizing and appreciating the time and effort volunteers bring to your organization. Recognition can be a big morale booster. Volunteers who stay are ones who feel they are making a significant impact. DON’T wait for a formal occasion to say “thank you. You’re doing a great job!” DO remember their birthdays and don’t forget National Volunteer Week (April 10-16, 2016).  Sometimes the smallest of recognition means the most. Our volunteer tax preparers look forward to a gift bag with “Payday Candy Bars” that we distribute during mid-March. It’s an inexpensive and fun way to thank them for their service and give them an update on the progress of the tax program in mid-season. Other agencies like a more formal once-a-year volunteer appreciation night to award certificates, etc.


Even though volunteers are not compensated monetarily, your organization should definitely consider rewarding them in other ways. Make sure that they have all the tools to get their job done and consider giving them their own desks or workspaces.


Remember that it’s not what volunteers can do for you that keeps them coming back, it’s what you can do for them. Many volunteer retention factors are under the direct control of the organization and a small investment is worth the effort to keep a volunteer. Remember, word of mouth travels fast. A volunteer who has a great volunteer experience will tell their friends about how the organization is great. With a minimal effort an agency will see an increase in volunteer involvement and retention and continue building a great volunteer team.

jeanWritten by Jean Joley,
Executive Director of Volunteer Center
for PCNRC.

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