One of the more commonly asked questions by my clients is how to find committed volunteers and keep them for the long term.
Volunteer attrition and turnover is a challenge that most not-for-profits deal with, and much of the advice out there – while useful – will often only solve a portion of the problem.
In my experience, there are six main reasons that volunteers leave; and for most volunteers, it’s a combination of two, three or more of them.
They are poorly matched to the role.
When a volunteer is put into a role that doesn’t suit their temperament, or doesn’t take advantage of the skills that they bring, they feel disconnected and frustrated.
For example, if a person who’s studying to be a chef volunteers at a soup kitchen, but is put to doing dishes or clearing tables, they may get frustrated with the organization and leave.
Or if a person who is shy is put to greeting guests at a large fundraising event, they won’t come back.
Take the time to talk to each volunteer and find out the best place for them – even if it means switching a few things around.
The biggest impact on volunteer retention is when they don’t feel appreciated.
Most volunteer coordinators are great at saying “thanks” and “you’re doing a great job”, and most organizations try to arrange some sort of volunteer appreciation event each year.
What many don’t understand is that those efforts will have limited success in really making the volunteer feel appreciated.
This, though, is easy to fix.
Instead of a simple “Thanks for helping”, be more specific. “Thanks for cleaning out the storeroom. It’s so much easier to find things now; it’ll save us all a ton of time.”
Feel the difference? It shows that you really do see what they’re doing and know the value of it. This is one of the most effective ways to improve volunteer retention.
They don’t feel useful.
I’ve had this experience as a volunteer, and so have many people that I’ve talked with.
The volunteer shows up for their shift but the person in charge doesn’t know what needs doing, so the volunteer ends up in some make-work job just to keep them busy.
Believe me, it is incredibly demoralizing to be made to feel that you’re more of a hassle than a help.
Keep a list of necessary and useful tasks ready for your volunteers.
They feel in over their heads.
This is especially troublesome when the task involves specific skills.
In many cases, a coordinator or volunteer leader has done the task so many times that they see it as “self-explanatory”. They forget that at one time they, too, needed training.
If a volunteer is given a task and they feel lost and inadequate, they won’t return.
Ensure your training is thorough, and your volunteers know that you welcome questions.
The experience is different than they expected.
A volunteer starts out thinking that they will only need to do a couple of hours a month, but end up doing a couple of hours a week.
They’re asked to tidy the office, but find out they have to do a thorough cleaning including vacuuming and washing windows.
When things like this happen, volunteers feel put upon and coerced. Remember, when volunteers are unhappy, they walk.
Be completely transparent. Don’t hide the actual time commitment or the tasks involved, even if you think it will scare people away.
Take the time to find the right person, rather than repeatedly replace people because they didn’t understand what was involved.
They are the wrong person.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.
A person may think they want to volunteer but find out that it’s not really for them. Or they think they have the time, but realize they don’t.
There are many reasons why volunteering – or volunteering for your specific organization – doesn’t work for some people.
The best thing to do in this case is simply try to screen them out during the recruitment process.
By using these six tips, you will find committed volunteers appear throughout your organization.
None of them are complicated, but they do take time and thought. Trust me, though, it will be worth it!
There are few things that can help you achieve your mission easier or faster than by having an enthusiastic, reliable and well-trained corps of volunteers.