Top 10 Strategies for Retaining Volunteers that Actually Work

Posted by Michelle Sawyer on Apr 15, 2020 10:32:00 AM

Supporter acquisition, whether its donors or volunteers, may take up most of your nonprofit’s resources, but your work shouldn’t stop there!  After acquiring volunteers, how do you ensure that you’re also retaining them?

Provide a Great Experience

One of the most surefire ways to encourage volunteers to help out again and again is by providing the best volunteer experience possible. 

You may find yourself thinking, “but the tasks I need help with are small, menial and in no way FUN. There’s just no way to make it a great experience.” – This is the wrong attitude!

A great volunteer experience has less to do with the actual tasks at hand, and a whole lot more to do with factors that you can control!  

So, what makes a great volunteer experience?

1. Make a Good First Impression

If you spend a lot of time and resources recruiting volunteers that never come back, there’s a good chance that you’re blowing the first impression. That, or you failed to make an impression at all! Nailing first impressions can seem cliché these days, but it’s extremely important for new volunteers who are likely feeling apprehensive about what to expect when they first arrive.

Onboarding or training sessions for new volunteers is a must! Some training sessions require in-depth, hands-on training and can last several hours, but even short introductions can do the trick! As a rule of thumb, make sure that every new volunteer receives at least:

 A warm welcome

Some background information about your nonprofit

A task description & explanation of how their time helps your cause

 A tour of the facility or grounds where they’ll be working

 An introduction to a staff member that they can go to for help

 A handout that sums it all up in case they forget!

2. Always Be a Positive Representative

Have you ever gone out of your way to help someone who didn’t acknowledge you? Then, when they finally did, it was only to tell you what to do? Sounds cold, but it’s sad how many times I’ve received this treatment while volunteering! Volunteers who receive this treatment are bound to feel awkward, devalued and unappreciated.

Whenever a volunteer arrives, you and your staff should go into customer service mode! Even if you have a million other things to get done yourself, the least you can do is shoot volunteers a genuine smile and say, “Hey, great to see you again” or “Thanks for helping us out today!”. 

As you’ve probably guessed, being a positive representative boils down to a bit of a personal character check. Ask yourself:

 When you interact with volunteers, does your demeanor exude positivity, excitement and passion?

 Are you patient and respectful when volunteers voice concerns or complaints?

 Are you in the moment when you talk with volunteers or is your mind somewhere else?

 Do you genuinely care about your volunteers as individuals?

If not, your volunteers can tell and they’ll think twice about coming back!

3. Make Their Effort Worth Their Time

If you think about it, there are few things a person can give that are more valuable than their time. Even if a volunteer is only showing up to fulfill a requirement, that doesn’t make their time any less valuable!

To make a volunteer shift worthwhile, you’ll first want to make sure that your volunteers have all the tools that they’ll need before they arrive – or else they’ll spend far too long standing around waiting. Your volunteer certainly didn’t clear their schedule to stand around!

On the flip side, make sure there is actually enough work for each volunteer to do before they show up. Always have a plan B in case you over-book a shift by accident, and give extra volunteers the option of helping out in another way.

Another thing you can do is to try to match volunteers with meaningful tasks that they have specific skills for already or that you think they’ll actually enjoy. When you give people ways to contribute that they personally enjoy or feel that they’re qualified to do, it’s much more likely that their experience will be a positive one.

4. Be Flexible

Your supporters have busy lives outside of your organization, just like you do! Be as considerate as possible when creating volunteer tasks and allow volunteers to create their own volunteering shifts that fit their lifestyle.

Some people feel more comfortable knowing that a particular volunteer opportunity has no long-term commitment. Make it easy for volunteers to commit to helping in small ways.  If you have a variety of opportunities available, you can have some that are shorter-term than others or less labor intensive.  By doing this you’re giving your volunteers more incentive to come back!

Being flexible can be hard and may seem like you’re giving away too much control. But try it out little by little, and you may find that your volunteers are even more likely to come back!

Go Above and Beyond

Even just a little bit of extra effort can really go a long way for retaining those valuable volunteers!

Try to accommodate each volunteer on an individual basis as much as possible. If someone is willing to volunteer with you, don’t shut the door in their face! You never know which relationships will flourish and benefit your organization the most. For example, if transportation is an issue for a certain volunteer, could you give them any tasks that they can do from home? Can your volunteer bring their child or best friends along? How will you accommodate volunteers with physical limitations?

5. Fuel Their Passion

Here’s one of my favorite quotes of all time:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

To me, this philosophy so greatly applies to nonprofits. Think about it…

If you really want to retain volunteers (or any type of supporter, for that matter), consider how much time you’re spending trying to fill positions vs. how much time you’re spending inspiring those around you about your mission. 

Help current and potential volunteers to connect more personally with your mission by keeping them informed of all the stories, details and successes in an engaging way. Always remind them what’s at stake and why their contributions are making a difference. Volunteers want to know that the time they spend directly impacts the lives of others in some way – and it does! Help them to see that!

6. Get Personal

In point number 2, I asked,”Do you genuinely care about your volunteers as individuals”?

If you see your volunteers as just another number, just another set of hands to make your life easier, then it’s time to take a step back and make some changes! Here are three quick things you can do to add value back into your relationships with your volunteers:

 Start a Conversation With Them.
 Listen to Them.
 Get to know them.

Relationships are so important. Let your volunteers know that you care about them and they’ll begin to care about what you care about (your mission!)

7. Get Advice from Others

Don’t be ashamed to ask your fellow nonprofit administrators from other organizations what they’re doing to keep their volunteers coming back. Invite nonprofit partners to have open discussions on volunteer retention strategies.

This might sound like you’re flirting with the enemy, but in all actuality, collaborating with other nonprofits helps everyone involved to be even more successful!

8. Give Volunteers a Boost

Some people volunteer to help others. Others volunteer because they have to. Regardless of the reason, if you provide volunteers with an experience that can give them a personal leg up, you’ve just become an irresistible and irreplaceable resource!

Ask your team to come up with some ways your organization can help volunteers learn new skills, boost their character or broaden their experiences. Did you know that there are several things that you can do to  impact a volunteer’s career and future? That you can improve their reputation in their social circles and in your community at large? If you’re running short on time,  look through these articles that will give you tons of meaningful ways to give back to those who are freely giving their time to you.

9. Volunteer More

Engaging in volunteer opportunities on your own will help you to better empathize with your own volunteers and will give you a better idea of how to make them feel great and encourage them to return.

You might already recall some of your own volunteering experiences that have led you to say either, “I can’t wait to go back”, or, “I’m never going back”! There are also those dangerous in-betweens; those unmemorable experiences that aren’t horrible, but don’t leave you feeling great afterwards. Why is that?

Make it a habit to reflect upon your own volunteering experiences, noting the pros and cons, your overall impression and your likelihood to volunteer for that event or organization in the future.

Remember that good old Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The more you volunteer, the better you’ll understand how your volunteers would like to be treated!

10. Show Appreciation

This is HUGE! Sometimes, it’s just as simple as a heartfelt, “Thank you”, but you may be surprised at how many volunteers feel unappreciated or like their time didn’t make a difference.  There are countless ways to thank your volunteers and they should be shown appreciation all the time! 

Most Importantly, Don’t Give Up!

Keep in mind that volunteers come and go; it’s just the nature of volunteer work!  People’s availability and priorities change and the best thing you can do is to continue to be flexible, to keep learning and to trying new things. I hope that these ten proven strategies have helped you and that by following them you’ll see a big difference in the number of volunteers who want to keep coming back to help your cause.  And, who knows, these efforts could also contribute to turning your volunteers into donors as well!   

Topics: Management, National Volunteer Week, Supporter engagement, Volunteer engagement, Volunteer management

Michelle Sawyer

Written by Michelle Sawyer

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