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Top 10 volunteer retention strategies that actually work

February 28, 2020
With effective volunteer retention strategies, you can retain volunteers such as these supporters painting the side of a building together.

You’ve put in the hard work to acquire new volunteers to help increase your nonprofit organization’s impact. Now it’s time to consider what efforts you can put in place to retain and strengthen relationships with them.

In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of retaining volunteers, then dive into the top 10 strategies that will make the most impact on your efforts. Let’s get started.

Volunteer retention essentials  

What is volunteer retention?

Volunteer retention is the rate at which volunteers continue to work with your organization. It can be calculated on a year-over-year basis or even from one volunteer opportunity to the next, depending on your needs and the scale of your operations. 

To find your organization’s current volunteer retention rate for the year, divide the number of volunteers who are currently working with your organization by the number of active volunteers you had at the beginning of the year. Then, multiply the number by 100 to get your percentage. 

Why is volunteer retention important?

When volunteers stay with your organization long-term, you won’t need to allocate as much time recruiting and training new volunteers as you’ll already have a reliable team at the ready. Over time, you can also look forward to a variety of other benefits, such as:

  • Volunteers becoming donors: Many nonprofits often see their volunteers and donors as two distinct groups of supporters. However, your passionate volunteers can become reliable donors, just like engaged donors can join your volunteer program. 
  • Mentorship opportunities: When you have a reliable team of volunteers with years of service under their belts, you can rely on them to mentor and train your new volunteers. Experienced volunteers can provide new volunteers with tips and a warm welcome into your supporter community. 
  • Reliability: When you have a reliable base of trusted volunteers, you can depend on them to show up for their scheduled shifts and answer any last-minute calls asking for help. 

The larger and more dedicated your network of volunteers is, the more opportunities your nonprofit will have to grow, thrive, and fulfill its purpose.  

10 strategies to boost volunteer retention

1. Make a good first impression.

If you spend time and resources recruiting volunteers who you only see once, there’s a good chance that you could be making more out of your first impression. 

A great first impression starts with hosting engaging, effective volunteer onboarding and training sessions. Some volunteer roles and responsibilities require hours of in-depth, hands-on training, but oftentimes, short introductions do the trick. Make sure that every new volunteer receives:

  • A warm welcome. Encourage staff to stop by new volunteer onboarding sessions to say hello and give a brief explanation about their role at your nonprofit. Be sure to introduce new volunteers to a designated staff member they can go to for help. 
  • Some background information about your nonprofit. Stick to the most essential parts of your nonprofit’s work. Focus on your purpose and where your volunteer program fits into your efforts. 
  • A task description and explanation of how their work helps your cause. Have outlined task descriptions at the ready so volunteers come away from their first day knowing what’s expected of them. 
  • A tour of the facility or grounds where they’ll be working. Introduce volunteers to their new environment with a tour, and plan to have a few of your staff members greet them.
  • A handout that sums it all up if they need a reminder. To make sure your volunteers have all of the essentials down, provide a handout that covers everything they need to know about volunteering with your organization. 

A high-quality training experience can also make it easier to recruit new volunteers, contributing to a self-perpetuating cycle. Your new volunteers will talk to their family and friends about their excellent onboarding experience, promoting your program through word-of-mouth.

2. Be a positive representative.

Around volunteers, you and your staff should be friendly and approachable, even at your organization's busiest times. Throughout the entire volunteer experience, create a positive work environment where volunteers feel supported. 

Ensure you have the right attitude by asking yourself:

  • When you interact with volunteers, does your demeanor convey positivity, excitement, and passion?
  • Are you patient and respectful when volunteers voice their feedback or questions?
  • Are you in the moment when you talk with volunteers or is your mind somewhere else?
  • How can you show that you genuinely care about your volunteers as individuals?

To remind your team to foster positivity, send out staff-wide emails ahead of time with a reminder to engage volunteers in conversation and thank them for dedicating their time to your nonprofit. 

3. Make the effort worth your volunteers’ time.

To make a volunteer’s shift worthwhile, provide all the tools and instructions they’ll need before arriving so they can jump in right away. Make sure there’s enough work for each volunteer, and always have a plan B in case you overbook a shift.

When scheduling your volunteers, try balancing the more mundane but necessary tasks alongside more dynamic tasks that align with their skill sets. For example, you might schedule volunteers to spend the first half of their shift helping write and mail donation requests, then schedule them to work in your community garden for the second half. When you give people ways to contribute that they personally enjoy, they’re much more likely to have a positive experience.

Finally, send volunteers a survey before they participate in their first opportunity to ask about their interests and skills. Then, use your volunteer management software solution to store your volunteers’ personal information and preferences in robust volunteer profiles and streamline the shift-matching process with these details. 

4. Stay flexible.

To accommodate your volunteers’ pre-existing time constraints, make your volunteer schedule available far in advance. This gives volunteers time to check when they’re scheduled, confirm their commitments, and let their supervisor know if they’ll need to be rescheduled. 

Some people feel more comfortable knowing that a particular volunteer opportunity has no long-term commitment. Consider offering some short-term, digital, or less labor-intensive opportunities. For instance, you might offer opportunities for volunteers to help input information into your online database, operate a virtual helpline, or draft donor thank-you emails. 

5. Fuel your volunteers’ passion.

Volunteers want to know that the time they donate to your nonprofit directly impacts the lives of others. Here are a few steps you can take to engage volunteers and demonstrate the impact they’re making at your nonprofit: 

  • Highlight your volunteer program’s effectiveness. In training sessions, highlight past projects volunteers have completed, what your volunteers are currently doing, and any metrics you have about your volunteers’ work.
  • Start each volunteer opportunity with a quick recap of how the activities fit into your overall purpose. When first assigning them to a new responsibility, give a rundown of what the task is, what they need to do to succeed, and how it helps your organization fulfill its purpose. 
  • Use volunteer hour tracking tools. Track volunteer hours both for your own records and to help out anyone who needs to volunteer for a specific number of hours. When volunteers cross certain hour thresholds, let them know and celebrate what they’ve accomplished in the time spent with your organization.

Fostering passion for your cause will keep volunteers engaged in your program over the long haul. If you can spark that passion, you’ll be well on your way to boosting volunteer retention. 

6. Get to know volunteers personally.

Your volunteers are passionate individuals who bring their own unique experiences to your nonprofit organization. To add value back into your relationships with your volunteers and discover their perspectives, try:

  1. Sending out surveys. Use surveys to learn about volunteers’ skills and interests, their availability, and any other preferences that will help you communicate with them more effectively. You can also ask for program feedback to get suggestions for improvement. 
  2. Referencing their engagement histories. Use your volunteer management software to track volunteer participation over time. Then, reference each volunteer’s engagement history in your communications with them. For example, when sharing new volunteer opportunities, you might say, “We appreciated your help at our annual fall festival! Here are a few upcoming opportunities we thought you might be interested in.” 

Building relationships is one of the most important aspects of the volunteer management process. Let your volunteers know that you want to get to know them, and they’ll begin to care more about what you care about: your purpose. 

7. Request advice from similar organizations.

Being a volunteer coordinator comes with a lot of responsibility. If you’re looking for advice to help improve your volunteer retention strategies, it’s okay to search outside of your organization for help. Consider inviting fellow nonprofit administrators from other organizations to have open discussions on retention strategies. 

You can also look to top nonprofit resources and even take courses to improve your leadership, communication, and conflict management skills. There is a wide world of webinars, podcasts, conferences, and courses that your team’s leadership can invest in to learn more about how to run every aspect of your organization, including your volunteer program.  

8. Give volunteers a professional boost.

If you provide volunteers with an experience that gives them a professional leg up, you’ll become an irreplaceable career development resource. To do so, try:

  • Offering a valuable training experience that enhances volunteers’ skills. This might include hard skills like coding, carpentry, or graphic design, or soft skills such as public speaking and project management. Survey your volunteers to learn what skills they’re interested in improving. 
  • Acting as a reference for volunteers. Many volunteers would appreciate having a character reference from a volunteer coordinator when applying for jobs or internships. You can even endorse volunteers for relevant skills on LinkedIn.
  • Providing dedicated volunteers with leadership opportunities. Offer experienced volunteers the opportunity to take their engagement to the next level by becoming peer leaders. They can grow their leadership skills by directing a small group of volunteers or helping out with your training process.

By supporting your volunteers’ personal and professional growth, you’ll show them that staying involved with your cause can provide long-lasting benefits

9. Put yourself in your volunteers’ shoes.

To consistently improve, continually reassess and determine how to create a more positive experience for volunteers. To understand what a day in the life of a volunteer looks like, try having your staff work occasionally alongside volunteers. 

This approach helps your team gain hands-on experience with your volunteer program to make practical changes. Plus, encouraging your staff to join your volunteers can provide an opportunity to forge relationships. 

10. Show appreciation.

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple “thank you” to show volunteers that you value their contributions. Here are a few volunteer appreciation ideas to show volunteers your gratitude: 

  • Free merchandise such as a t-shirt, mug, hat, or water bottle. Does your nonprofit have any extra merchandise on hand? Send out items for free as a thank-you or use them as prizes to motivate volunteers. 
  • A free luncheon or dinner. This can be part of a thank-you celebration or as part of your welcome strategy to get new volunteers acquainted with each other and your staff. 
  • Social media shoutouts. Publicly recognize volunteers on social media, tagging the volunteer’s own profile. Just be sure to get their permission beforehand and ask for a quote about their personal connection to your cause. 
  • Thank-you letters from your staff or community members. Handwritten cards always feel more heartfelt than a boilerplate email. Show your volunteers you care by getting your staff together to sign thank-you cards celebrating all their hard work. 
  • A virtual appreciation event, such as a happy hour or trivia game. Set aside an hour or two in the evening and invite volunteers to join an online meeting where they can play games, chat, and feel appreciated.  

Adopt a combination of these ideas to continuously show volunteers your gratitude so that they always feel their contributions are valued. 

Securing long-term support with a positive volunteer experience

Volunteer retention is an ongoing process you’ll need to keep an eye on. To boost your nonprofit’s volunteer retention rates, evaluate the current setup of your volunteer program. Consider your needs, then implement several strategies to create a positive experience for your wide range of diverse volunteers. 

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    Volunteer Management
  • Volunteerism
  • Nonprofits
  • Digital communications & marketing
  • Employee volunteering