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Why Volunteers Stay

Volunteers have lots of choices of where spend their most valuable possession…their time. With nearly 2 million nonprofits in the United States, the possibilities seem endless! Driven by passion, or peers, or a host of other motivators, volunteers will explore a variety of options, and, if you are lucky enough, they will select your organization to share their time and talent. 

But how do you get them to stay?

Retention as the biggest “R”

Retention is one of the three “Rs” of volunteer management (Recruitment, Recognition, Retention), and as any good HR professional will tell you, retention should be top of the list. And for good reason: The higher your retention rate, the less you have to recruit! Lots has been written on tips and tricks to retain volunteers–search Volunteer Retention Strategies and you are bound to get a host of great strategies, lists and articles (here’s a good one) of what it takes to retain volunteers. On-boarding, placement, training, flexibility, etc. are all important components to volunteer retention.

But those instruments work only in a culture where retention is understood to be more than employing tools on a checklist. Building that culture is the first step. Fortunately, it is surprisingly simple.

A culture of retention boils down to only three key factors

But before you can do anything, first, recognize that sometimes it’s just out of your control. Sometimes volunteers leave simply because life changes. People move. Students graduate and get full-time jobs. Retirees return to work. Family situations change.  Life happens. Miss those volunteers, but don’t stress. Their retention is not a reflection on your organization. You may even consider excluding these volunteers in your computations, or at least footnoting those life factors. When I ran a mentor program, we had many college students who volunteered, but when they graduated, they typically moved away to full-time jobs, so could not continue. It was valuable to keep track of this data, but it was important to note that their leaving was not an indication of a poorly run program or inept volunteer management.

Some volunteers leave for reasons beyond the organization.  For everyone else, I suggest retention boils down to feeling valued.

1. Volunteers stay when they feel they are contributing

Volunteers want to do something valuable. They don’t want to waste their time. Do not be a “make-work” organization: Genuinely use their help! Helping will be different for different individuals, which is perfect, allowing you to tackle a wide-range of tasks at your organization!

Volunteers know when they are not needed, when their gifts are not being utilized, when their time is not valued. That does not mean you can’t have volunteers stuff envelopes or sweep the floors, it just means listening to what brings them to volunteer and sharing how their assignments further your mission. 

Volunteers come to your organization because they want to help; they are motivated to contribute. Volunteers leave when they don’t feel like they are making a difference.  Be honest on what you need—or don’t need—and put them to work.

2. Volunteers stay when they are seen as individuals.

Volunteers also want to be noticed. Another one of those “R’s”: Recognition. Recognition means being seen.

It is more than the annual volunteer appreciation luncheon, the birthday list, or anniversary shout-outs (though I am not saying that genuine volunteer appreciation is unimportant!).  Recognition means each individual is noticed for who he/she/they are. It means paying attention. It’s noticing the small things and the big things with your volunteers. Shortly after I had started a position at a new agency, I sent an email to a volunteer who missed a volunteer shift.  She called me immediately to apologize, and she actually said, “No one has ever reached out to me before. I thought no one even noticed if I was there or not. I’ll never just not show up again!”

Rejoice with a volunteer celebrating her granddaughter’s graduation, cheer along when their alma mater’s team wins. Notice new haircuts, comment on good-looking shoes. Call out when someone does a good job, goes the extra mile, or stays beyond her shift. Listen when he tells you about being up all night at the ER with a sick child (even better, send him home to be with his family!) and offer condolences when a pet dies. Pay attention.

No one wants to be just a cog in the wheel, a number in a lineup. See your volunteers.

3. Volunteers stay because they know are valuable

It’s that easy:

  1. Realize that attrition is just going to happen.
  2. Give your volunteers something valuable to do: Don’t waste their time.
  3. Recognize that each volunteer is a remarkable individual, bringing unique gifts to further your organization’s mission.

Retention first

Though often listed as the last of the three “Rs,” I encourage you to make retention first on the list. Focus more on retention, and you will not have to focus so much on recruitment. Build a culture focused on retention, and you will naturally have a culture that is infused with recognition.

There are lots of places to volunteer, many may even have similar missions to yours. Build a culture that appreciates your volunteers for who they are and what they do, and they’ll stick around a very long time.

Though often listed as the last of the three “Rs,” I encourage you to make retention first on the list. Focus more on retention, and you will not have to focus so much on recruitment. Build a culture focused on retention, and you will naturally have a culture that is infused with recognition throughout.