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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can nonprofits improve volunteer retention?

Volunteer retention is important in nonprofits because many nonprofits rely on volunteers to provide services. It is an issue in both large and small organizations because no matter the size, nonprofits rely on volunteers to carry out their mission. Volunteer retention is the ability to keep volunteers involved in an organization. Retention of volunteers comes from a fulfilled commitment and the hope that they will renew that commitment to the nonprofit.

Volunteer retention is an important aspect of a nonprofit because nonprofits spend tons of money on marketing, recruiting, training, and replacing volunteers (Jamison, 2003, p.115). If nonprofits can increase volunteer retention, they can use the money they would otherwise spend to market and recruit for volunteer positions towards further training and development of volunteers and staff, thereby decreasing volunteer turnover. Volunteer retention improves if an organization focuses on what motivates a volunteer and builds volunteer management programs and appreciation experiences around those motivations.

Despite the large number of volunteers in human service nonprofits, there is a high level of dissatisfaction with the volunteer experience. Jamison (2003) found that 40% of volunteers were dissatisfied with how they are managed and only 20% were pleased with how they were managed. 41.5% of the volunteers surveyed did not finish the time they committed to volunteering at an organization (p. 115). Focusing on how volunteer management programs train each individual can help them to retain volunteers.

Volunteer retention is important to organizations big and small because volunteers are the manpower providing the service of the organization. In order to improve volunteer retention, an organization must cater to what motivates a volunteer to give their time to the organization. Volunteer motivations include believing in an organization’s mission, being recognized for the work they do, and job experience. In order to continue to retain volunteers, a nonprofit organization must continue to acknowledge the motivations behind an individual’s need to volunteer and how those motivations change over time (Bussell, Forbes, 2002). If an organization wants to continue to engage a volunteer’s motivation and improve retention, they need a manager and staff whose sole focus is to maintain a volunteer management program.

Having a designated volunteer program manager and staff gives volunteers a person to go to when they have questions, who takes the time to provide in-depth orientation and trainings and create ongoing team building exercises. According to Irma Jamison (2003) with more thorough volunteer training, volunteer retention improves and volunteer turnover decreases. Volunteer training has three different aspects: orientation and training, refresher trainings, and team building opportunities.

Volunteer orientation and training occur when the individual begins volunteering for the organization. According to a study by Jamison (2003), 55.4% of individuals who reported having no orientation or training at the start of their volunteer experience were not satisfied with their volunteer experience. Volunteers need to be comfortable with the tasks they are given, and the more orientation and training they receive, the more likely they are to be satisfied in the jobs they fill and the support they provide (Jamison, 2003). When a volunteer manager provides a strong orientation and training it reduces the feelings of frustration associated with failure.

The final way to improve volunteer retention is by showing appreciation for the work the individuals do for the nonprofit organization. Showing appreciation for the volunteers can be both social and institutional. Social appreciation means providing the space and time for volunteers to socialize with each other through volunteer events or providing meals for volunteers in their break space (Thornton, 2016). Institutional appreciation is showing volunteers their value through something tangible, such as a merit system, awards, friendly competitions, or random acts of appreciation, such as giving them a shirt or other gift (Warrington, 2016).

In order to improve volunteer retention, a nonprofit must look at what motivates people to volunteer and the differences in expectations. Though many volunteers have altruistic reasons for volunteering, many have expectations that can easily be met by an organization. An organization can improve retention of volunteers by focusing on the reasons that motivate an individual to volunteer, building a strong volunteer management program around those motivations that provides continual volunteer training and support, and showing volunteers social and institutional appreciation for the work and support they provide for the organization.

Want to learn more? Enroll your nonprofit or public organization in the Service Enterprise Initiative.(SEI) to unlock the power of volunteers. The SEI program will help you implement research-backed exemplary volunteer management practices to achieve your mission.


Bussell, H., & Forbes, D. (2002). Understanding the volunteer market: The what, where, who and why of volunteering. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing Int. J. Nonprofit Volunt. Sect. Mark., 7(3), 244-257. doi:10.1002/nvsm.183

Jamison, I. B. (2003, June 01). Turnover and Retention among Volunteers in Human Service Agencies. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 23(2), 114-132. doi:10.1177/0734371x03023002003

Thornton, J. (2016, September 29). St. Mary's Food Bank Alliance [Telephone interview].

Warrington, W. (2016, October 21). Phoenix Zoo [Personal Interview].


Laura Unkefer moved to Arizona with her husband 2 and a half years ago. She is currently working for Make-A-Wish America as a Donor Care Coordinator, CFS. Laura graduated with a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management from ASU in December of 2016.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog