Top 10 Volunteer Retention Strategies that Actually Work
You’ve put in the hard work to acquire new volunteers to help increase your nonprofit’s impact. Now it’s time to consider what efforts can be put in place to retain and strengthen relationships with 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 basics of retaining volunteers, then dive into the top ten strategies that will make the most impact on your efforts:
- Volunteer Retention Essentials
- 10 Volunteer Retention Strategies
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!
Volunteer Retention Essentials
Nonprofits seek to create positive social impacts, but even the most well-funded organizations simply cannot accomplish everything alone. This is where your volunteers come in: they help advance your initiatives, collect necessary funds, and even support your organization by overseeing day-to-day tasks.
To ensure your volunteer program has a solid foundation, let’s look at a few questions nonprofits often ask about retention and how it impacts their organization.
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, simply 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.
([# of current volunteers] / [# of volunteers at the beginning of the year]) x 100 = Volunteer Retention Rate
You can use this straightforward formula to determine your volunteer retention rate based on the month, quarter, or from one volunteer activity to another.
Why is volunteer retention important?
Just like with your donors, recruiting volunteers takes time and resources that your staff could dedicate toward fulfilling your organization’s purpose. When your 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.
Nonprofits that retain volunteers for multiple years 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 often become reliable donors, just like engaged donors can join your volunteer program.
- Mentorship opportunities. Volunteers will need to be trained before they can start helping your nonprofit. When you have a reliable team of volunteers with years of service under their belts, you can rely on them to mentor your new volunteers. Your experienced volunteers can offer tips and tricks they’ve picked up over time and provide new volunteers with a warm welcome into your supporter community.
- Reliability. Sometimes a volunteer will be scheduled to come in and end up being a no show. When you have a reliable base of trusted volunteers, you’ll likely have better response rates when you put out a last minute call asking for help covering the shift.
Remember that volunteers are a core part of your nonprofit’s community. The bigger, more active, and more dedicated that community is, the more opportunities your nonprofit will have to grow, thrive, and fulfill its purpose.
How can my nonprofit increase volunteer retention?
Volunteer retention is not a one-and-done project, but an ongoing process nonprofits will regularly need to keep an eye on. To boost your nonprofit’s volunteer retention rates, take a hard look at the current setup of your volunteer program, what your nonprofit needs from your volunteer program, and whether your strategies are helping you achieve those needs while also creating a positive experience for volunteers.
Maintaining high volunteer retention often requires a multi-faceted approach, and nonprofits can benefit from implementing several strategies to account for their wide range of diverse volunteers.
10 Volunteer Retention Strategies
To help your nonprofit start improving your retention rates, let’s dive into the top ten actionable strategies your organization can leverage now.
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 could be making more out of your first impression. When a volunteer is 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. Let your staff know when your new volunteers will have their first onboarding session. Encourage them to stop by wherever you’re hosting this meeting—whether it’s somewhere in your office or online—to greet them. It might be helpful for some staff members to give a brief explanation about their role at your organization. While you should avoid overwhelming your volunteers with too much new information at once, the more friendly faces you can put on your organization, the better.
- Some background information about your nonprofit. When explaining the ins and outs of what your nonprofit does, stick to the most essential parts. Your organization might have a long and storied history, but your first onboarding session may not be the place for it. Instead, focus on your purpose, how your nonprofit is uniquely qualified to fulfill that purpose, and where your volunteer program fits into that overall purpose.
- A task description and explanation of how their work helps your cause. It might sound obvious, but your volunteers will need to come away from their first day at your nonprofit knowing what’s expected of them. You may have some volunteer responsibilities you want to keep flexible so they can jump in to help with various tasks as they come up. Make sure you have outlined task descriptions at the ready for the primary tasks your volunteers will be completing.
- A tour of the facility or grounds where they’ll be working. Your volunteers are a part of your team, so introduce them to their new environment with a tour. This can also be a good opportunity to have your team members offer their warm welcomes. Determine your tour route and plan to have a few of your staff members say hi when you go past their workspaces.
- An introduction to a staff member who they can go to for help. It’s normal for your volunteers to have questions, so make sure they know who at your organization they can go to for answers. During your onboarding sessions, introduce them to the staff member they should go to if they ever need assistance. Let them know how they can get in contact with that staff member both when you introduce them and by including written directions in their onboarding materials.
- A handout that sums it all up if they need a reminder. Onboarding sessions tend to hit volunteers with a lot of information in a short period of time. To make sure your volunteers have all of the essentials down, provide them with a handout or information packet that goes over 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 members and friends about their excellent onboarding experience, helping to promote your program through word-of-mouth!
2. Be a Positive Representative
As mentioned, making a good first impression through a friendly smile and introduction can help you retain more volunteers from your initial onboarding session. Make sure to follow through on this advice to create a positive work environment where volunteers feel supported.
When a volunteer arrives, you and your staff should be friendly and approachable even at your organizations busiest times. 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. Consider sending out staff-wide emails ahead of your volunteers’ days in the office to provide a little reminder to say hi, engage them in conversation, and thank them for dedicating their time to your nonprofit.
3. Make The Effort Worth Your Volunteers’ Time
There are few things a person can give that are more valuable than their time, and your volunteers want to feel the time they spend helping your organization is meaningful. Even if a volunteer is working with your nonprofit to fulfill a requirement for school or work, their time should still be appreciated all the same.
To make a volunteer’s shift worthwhile, make sure to provide 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 other ways.
Your organization will likely have several tasks for volunteers that your nonprofit needs to have completed but are less than thrilling for volunteers. When scheduling your volunteers, try balancing these seemingly mundane but necessary tasks alongside more dynamic, meaningful ones that align with their skill sets or that you think they’ll actually have fun with. For example, you might schedule a team of volunteers to spend the first half of their shift helping write and mail donation requests, then schedule them to get outside and work in your community garden for the second half. 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.
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
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.
To accommodate your volunteers’ pre-existing time constraints (and help ensure more volunteers will come in for their assigned shifts), make your volunteer schedule available far in advance. For example, you might email your active volunteers your schedule for the upcoming month in the middle of the one prior. 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. 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.
Volunteers want to know that the time they donate to your nonprofit directly impacts the lives of others. Help current and potential volunteers connect with your purpose 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.
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. Let your volunteers know how your overall volunteer program is working to help advance your nonprofit’s purpose. This can reinforce their faith and dedication to your organization and help them see how their efforts fit into a larger whole. Try highlighting past projects volunteers have completed, what your volunteers are currently doing, and any outstanding metrics you have about your volunteers’ work during training sessions and even in your handbook.
- Start each volunteer opportunity with a quick recap of how the activities fit into your overall purpose. Make sure your volunteers always know why they’re working on a specific task. When first assigning them to a new responsibility, give a run down of what it is, what they need to do to succeed, and how it helps your organization complete fulfill its purpose.
- Use volunteer hour tracking tools. All nonprofits should track volunteer hours both for their 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. All the little things they do will add up to show them just how much of an impact they’ve made.
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 cause 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
Your volunteers are passionate individuals who bring their own unique experiences to your nonprofit. Discover their perspectives and make them feel like a part of your nonprofit’s community by getting to know them personally. Here are three quick things you can do to add value back into your relationships with your volunteers:
- 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.
- 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.”
- Ask for volunteer feedback. Nothing is more valuable for improving your volunteer program than feedback directly from volunteers. Send out surveys or have your volunteer manager sit down with volunteers to ask them about their experiences with your nonprofit. You can gain a better understanding of your volunteers’ feelings and get thoughtful suggestions to make targeted improvements to your program.
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 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 okay 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.
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 their organization, including their volunteer program.
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.
There are several things that you can do to positively impact a volunteer’s career and future including:
- 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 already have and what skills they’re interested in improving. Then, to let them practice these skills, find opportunities with low-stakes, lots of preparation time, or veteran volunteers available to help mentor new volunteers.
- 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
To make sure your volunteer program is continually improving, you will need to continually reassess and determine both how to make it more effective and create a more positive experience for your volunteers. Collecting volunteer feedback can be a strong first step, but to really understand what a life in the day of one of your volunteers is, try having your staff work occasionally alongside volunteers.
This approach can help your team gain hands on experience about your volunteer program to make practical changes backed by the knowledge of how they would play out in practice. Plus, encouraging your staff to join your volunteers can provide an opportunity to forge relationships, provide a warm welcome, and generally make your volunteers feel like a part of the team.
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. Does your nonprofit have any extra merchandise laying around? Free up your storage and show volunteers you care by handing out t-shirts, hats, mugs, and any other branded items that your nonprofit has on hand. Send out items for free as a thank you or consider how you can use them as prizes to motivate volunteers. For example, you might set up a little friendly competition between volunteers and award the winners with higher-quality items like hoodies, tote bags, or whatever else your nonprofit has.
- A free luncheon or dinner. Get to know volunteers by taking them out for a meal. This can be part of a thank you celebration to commemorate the end of a successful event or campaign, or as part of your welcome strategy to get new volunteers acquainted with each other and your staff.
- Social media shoutouts. Give your volunteers a little public recognition and inspire volunteers in your community by creating shoutouts. These can be posts on social media tagging the volunteer’s own profile, a regular section in your monthly newsletter, or a recurring series of blog posts. When planning to give a volunteer a shoutout, make sure to get in touch with them to get their permission (as not everyone loves the spotlight) and even a quote from them about their personal connection to your cause and nonprofit.
- 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. Appreciation events can be big or small, and to make sure all your volunteers can attend, they can even be virtual. 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 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.
To improve your volunteer program even further, try looking into resources like these:
- Volunteer Recruitment: The Complete Guide to Power Your Work. Recruiting volunteers can be a challenge. Explore how to attract more volunteers with this complete recruitment guide.
- Volunteer Recognition Ideas: 50 Ways to Show Appreciation. Appreciating volunteers helps your nonprofit retain them. Get creative with how you say thanks with these 50 ideas.
- Volunteer Hours Log: Free Resource & Tips. Recording hours is an essential part of a volunteer program, but is your organization managing this process as effectively as you could? Improve your volunteer hours log with this free resource.