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Top 10 Strategies for Retaining Volunteers that Actually Work

Similar to donor acquisition, volunteer acquisition likely takes up a lot of your nonprofit’s resources. But once you have brought new volunteers to your organization, you must also consider what efforts need to be put in place to retain them.

Volunteer retention gives your nonprofit access to reliable and skilled support to help keep your projects and programs moving. One surefire way to keep volunteers involved with your organization is to provide the best 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.” But this couldn’t be further from the truth!

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, including your training process and appreciation strategy. In this guide, we’ll cover the top ten volunteer retention strategies that will make the most impact on your efforts, including how to: 

  1. Make a Good First Impression
  2. Be a Positive Representative
  3. Make The Effort Worth Your Volunteers’ Time
  4. Stay Flexible
  5. Fuel Your Volunteers’ Passion
  6. Get to Know Volunteers Personally
  7. Request Advice from Similar Organizations
  8. Give Volunteers a Professional Boost
  9. Put Yourself in Your Volunteers’ Shoes
  10. Show Appreciation

So, what makes a great volunteer experience that encourages them to stick around for the long term? The strategic planning and thoughtful considerations you use to design the volunteer experience go a long way. Let’s dive in!

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 not making the most of your first impression. When a volunteer is first introduced to your organization, they should walk away with a positive and memorable impression.

Nailing first impressions can seem cliché, but it’s extremely important for new volunteers who may feel apprehensive about what to expect when they first arrive.

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

  • A warm welcome
  • Some background information about your nonprofit
  • A task description and explanation of how their work helps your cause
  • A tour of the facility or grounds where they’ll be working
  • An introduction to a staff member who they can go to for help
  • A handout that sums it all up if they need a reminder

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 members and friends about their excellent onboarding experience, helping to promote your program through word-of-mouth!

2. 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 volunteers receive this kind of treatment. Volunteers who receive this treatment are bound to feel awkward, devalued, and unappreciated.

When a volunteer arrives, you and your staff should be friendly and approachable even if you have a million other things to get done, giving your volunteers a genuine smile and saying, “Great to see you again” or “Thanks for helping us out today!” goes a long way! 

Ultimately, being a positive representative boils down to having the right attitude. Ask 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?

As a busy volunteer coordinator, it’s only natural that your mind will be pulled in a million different directions throughout the day, and you won’t always be able to exude positivity. That’s where your nonprofit’s team members can step up and help foster a positive culture. 

According to Double the Donation’s volunteer management guide, it’s important to not leave volunteers to fend for themselves and have a supervisor they can go to for help present throughout the experience. Ensure your staff members have the proper training necessary to act as a reliable and friendly resource for volunteers to turn to. 

3. Make The Effort Worth Your Volunteers’ Time

There are few things a person can give that are more valuable than their time. Even if a volunteer is initially showing up to fulfill a requirement, their time should still be appreciated all the same!!

To make a volunteer’s shift worthwhile, you’ll first want to make sure that you are providing all the tools and instructions they’ll need before arriving. This will prevent them from having to wait for help before they can get started. It is also important to make sure there is 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.

Be sure to match volunteers with meaningful tasks that align with their skill sets or that you think they’ll actually have fun with. When you give people ways to contribute that they personally enjoy or feel that they’re qualified to do, they’re much more likely to have a positive experience.

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. 

When volunteers have access to meaningful, engaging assignments that align with their talents, they’ll be much more willing to continue attending your volunteer events. 

4. Stay Flexible

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

Some people feel more comfortable knowing that a particular volunteer opportunity has no long-term commitment. If you have a variety of opportunities available, offer some that are short-term or less labor-intensive. 

You might even transform certain aspects of your volunteer program into digital opportunities. This allows volunteers who live further away or have transportation or mobility restrictions to still participate in your program. For instance, you might offer opportunities for volunteers to help input information into your online database, operate a virtual helpline, or draft emails to send to prospective and current donors. 

5. Fuel Your Volunteers’ Passion

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. 

Volunteers want to know that the time they donate to your nonprofit directly impacts the lives of others—and it does! Help current and potential volunteers connect with your mission by keeping them informed about your nonprofit’s impact and successes. Always remind them what’s at stake and how their contributions make a difference. 

InitLive’s volunteer engagement guide offers several steps you can take to show volunteers their impact, including:

  • Highlighting your volunteer program’s effectiveness using your training sessions and volunteer handbook
  • Starting each volunteer opportunity with a quick recap of how the activities fit into your overall mission
  • Using volunteer hour tracking tools to share accurate volunteer impact updates

Some of your volunteers might have started participating in your program to fulfill a requirement or keep a friend company. But fostering passion for your mission will keep them 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

No one likes to be treated like just another face in a crowd. If you see your volunteers as just another set of hands to make your life easier, it’s time to take a step back and change your perspective. Here are three quick things you can do to add value back into your relationships with your volunteers:

  1. Get to know volunteers. Ask your volunteers questions to get to know them better as individuals. Use your volunteer surveys to not only learn about their skills and interests, but also their availability and other preferences that will help you communicate with them more effectively. 
  2. Reference volunteers’ 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 something like, “We appreciated your help at our annual fall festival! Here are a few upcoming opportunities we thought you might be interested in.” 
  3. Ask for volunteer feedback. Nothing is more valuable for improving your volunteer program than feedback directly from volunteers. When asking your volunteers to provide feedback, you can then implement their recommendations to create a better experience for future opportunities. 

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 mission!

7. Request Advice from Similar Organizations

Being a volunteer coordinator can often feel stressful. Your team members look to you for guidance, but you might feel like you don’t always have the right answers. 

If you’re looking for advice to help improve your volunteer retention strategies, it’s ok to search outside of your organization for help. Consider asking fellow nonprofit administrators from other organizations what they’re doing to keep their volunteers coming back. 

Try inviting other nonprofit volunteer coordinators to have open discussions on retention strategies. By collaborating with other nonprofits, everyone involved can become even more successful!

8. Give Volunteers a Professional Boost

Some people volunteer to support a cause, others might volunteer because they have to fulfill a requirement. Regardless of the reason, if you provide volunteers with an experience that can give them a professional leg up, you’ve just become an irresistible and irreplaceable career development resource!

Did you know that there are several things that you can do to positively impact a volunteer’s career and future? These career-development opportunities include:

  • 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. 
  • 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. Some of your volunteers contribute more of their time than others. Offer these experienced supporters the opportunity to take their engagement to the next level by becoming peer leaders. These individuals can grow their leadership skills by directing a small group of volunteers during an opportunity 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 career benefits. 

9. Put Yourself in Your Volunteers’ Shoes

Engaging in volunteer opportunities on your own will help you better empathize with your volunteers and give you a better idea of how to provide the best experience possible.

You might recall some of your own volunteering experiences that have led you to say, “I can’t wait to participate again,” 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 particularly enthusiastic afterward.

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.

10. Show Appreciation

You may be surprised at how many volunteers feel unappreciated or like their time didn’t make a difference. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple yet heartfelt “Thank you” to show them 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
  • A free luncheon or dinner
  • Social media shoutouts
  • Thank-you letters from your staff or community members
  • A virtual appreciation event, such as a happy hour or trivia game

Adopt a combination of these ideas to continuously show volunteers your gratitude so that they never feel taken for granted or neglected. 

Following a thorough and well-developed plan for volunteer management will allow you to reach more supporters, offer more engaging opportunities, and keep them invested in your work. You can then build a strong foundation of support for any future events and programs.