Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.
Illustration by Yuxin Qin
Most nonprofit organizations in the U.S. rely on volunteers to provide their critical mission-focused services. These important team members give their time, talents, and resources, unmotivated by financial compensation or contractual obligations. So, what do these volunteers get out of serving? Do they continue to come back, and if so, why? The answers stem from how volunteer management and key organizational leadership view volunteer retention - the ability to keep volunteers long-term. Simply recruiting volunteers does not always equate to the ability to keep them.
For most nonprofit organizations, volunteers serve in capacities that are vitally important to the organization’s impact. They are often the catalyst that propel a mission from just surviving to robust thriving. The importance of volunteers cannot be underestimated. A volunteer’s significance goes far beyond just saving nonprofits money in wages; they bring experience, knowledge, and lots of passion. Well-managed volunteers provide incredible value, giving organizations the ability to strategically position themselves for continual growth and impact.
Regardless of the number of volunteers, having a thriving team requires intentionality on the part of key leadership to minimize the reasons why volunteers leave. Research has shown that these reasons often fall into four general categories.
- Volunteers feeling overloaded
- Volunteers feeling micro-managed and without a voice
- Volunteers feeling alienated and disconnected from the rest of the team
- Volunteers feeling a lack of trust and faith in organization’s leadership
It’s challenging enough to maintain a healthy volunteer team under normal conditions. Difficult times, such as COVID-19, can intensify those challenges if an adequate retention plan is not in place with the ability to properly implemented it. The onboarding process for volunteers can also be costly, (both in time and money) from staff wages to background checks to training materials. High nonprofit volunteer turn-over makes it difficult to establish consistency and efficiency.
Undoubtably, a significant part of making the best use of organizational resources includes a focus on volunteer retention. Bottom line, volunteer retention is not about policies and procedures, but more about the leadership’s ability to engage volunteers from the perspective of what they uniquely and individually bring to the organization. What volunteer retention strategies are needed to build a thriving team? Here are some key approaches to consider:
- First impressions. Be intentional with making volunteers feel special from day one.
- Share the love. Involve other levels of management/departments in letting volunteers know they matter to the mission.
- Put volunteers in charge. A significant way to show someone they are special is to acknowledge their leadership capabilities and put them in charge of something.
- Match volunteer’s skills to their assignment. Volunteers want to know their uniqueness can be used to further the mission.
- Be organized. Treat volunteers and the roles asked of them with respect and importance.
- Team building. Plan opportunities for volunteers to have fun together. Assigning volunteers to work in groups is a great way to deepen relationships, and provide mentoring and mission-focused collaboration.
- Model it. Examples of leadership need to be the given so the desired actions and behaviors are followed by the team.
- Job titles, job descriptions and training. Give every volunteer a written job title, a job description, and the appropriate training to fulfill the role they have accepted.
- Communication. How and at what frequency management communicates with volunteers is an indicator of how valuable volunteers are to the team and mission.
- Each team member is unique. Value each team member for their individual personality and abilities they bring to the team.
- Awards and gifts. Give honor where honor is due, and do it publicly.
- Celebrate the wins. Honoring the successes of the team efforts lifts everyone up.
These retention strategies can be condensed into an easy to remember and communicate acronym - S.A.V.E.D. Helping volunteers know they are Special, Accepted, Valued and Encouraged will produce a team that is Determined to be fully engaged and vested in the mission.
Reliable volunteer retention strategies are critical to creating a culture that draws people in and appreciates their contribution. Building this culture requires leadership with the knowledge, experience, and ability to look into the future of the organization. Devoting time, energy, and effort into volunteers is not only necessary to building a thriving team, but is vital to the success of the mission of any volunteer-centric organization. Managing volunteers well matters, and they are worth the investment.
Brian Hetzer is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Brian currently works for Feed My Starving Children (Mesa, AZ) as a Volunteer Program Supervisor. He is also the founder and president of Seed2Life International, a nonprofit helping equip, support and encourage other faith-based groups on the frontlines of poverty alleviation. Brian and his wife have three adult boys and live in Tempe, Arizona.