Retaining Volunteers


Retaining your volunteers is the key to success. There is no point in being good at recruitment if you cannot keep volunteers coming back. Recruitment is a solution to the problem of not having enough volunteers; retention is a way to avoid the problem altogether.

The key to retaining volunteers is to make sure they are getting their motivational needs met through their volunteer role. Volunteers have combinations of needs. The art of motivating volunteers lies not only in knowing how to tap a given motivator, but in being able to figure out what combination of needs a particular volunteer has. One way to do that is to ask the volunteers why they began and are continuining to volunteer? If the volunteering role satisfies the volunteers needs then they will continue to want to continue to volunteer with your organisation.

There are three different ways of "improving" volunteer roles to make them more interesting and involving.

1. Give Them a Great Place to Work

The process for strengthening involvement necessarily varies from job to job and from volunteer to volunteer, but some factors are probably common to all situations. One of these is providing for the volunteer a rewarding job, one in which working facilities are satisfactory and social relationships are positive.

Some research has identified factors that might be important in this conversion process. A study of volunteer workers in three Israeli social service organisations found that organisational variables (such as adequate preparation for the task they were asked to do) and attitudinal variables (such as task achievement, relationships with other volunteers, and the nature of the work itself) were the best predictors of volunteer retention. Another study identified the following factors as important to volunteers in any volunteer job. The factors are ranked from 1 to 4, with 1 being "Not At All Important" and 4 being "Very Important."

Colony, Chen, and Andrews
Rank and Mean Scores of Individual Items for All Volunteers

Item Mean
1 Helping others 3.83
2 Clearly defined responsibilities 3.58
3 Interesting work 3.53
4 Competence of supervisor 3.51
5 Supervisor guidance 3.47
6 Seeing results of my work 3.46
7 Working with a respected community organisation 3.43
8 Reasonable work schedule 3.41
9 Doing the things I do best 3.39
10 Suitable workload 3.22
11 Freedom to decide how to get work done 3.21
12 Chance to make friends 3.20
13 Pleasant physical surroundings 3.17
14 Opportunity to develop special skills/abilities 3.09
15 Challenging problems to solve 3.05
16 Convenient travel to and from volunteer work 2.94
17 Opportunity to work with professional staff 2.88
18 Volunteer recognition 2.49
19 Adequate reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses 2.07
20 Chance to move to paid employment 1.50

Note that most of the top 10 items deal with the situation in which the volunteer work is performed and the design of the job itself: clear responsibilities, interesting work, effective supervision.

After analysis it was noted:
"Perhaps the single most important finding reported in this study is the relatively high importance volunteers accord situational facilities...In addition to the intrinsic and extrinsic incentives associated with volunteer work, then, it appears that individuals strongly desire conditions and organisational settings that facilitate effective and efficient volunteer work."

Roughly translated, this means that volunteers like good working conditions, just like the rest of us, and that volunteers tend to prefer jobs where the environment is friendly, supportive, and effective.

The factors that are key elements for each volunteer job will vary. A study of another volunteer program identified three top perceived benefits that volunteers thought essential: receiving new sources of information, obtaining new gardening knowledge, and gaining access to experts and information. Note that none of these is "altruistic." Each factor involves a benefit that the volunteer felt to be of value to herself and which was gained through volunteering and the additional training provided.

2. Give Them What They Don't Have

Another way of approaching the process of making a job more interesting is to look at it from the perspective of the potential volunteers. What is it, for example, that they want out of this volunteer job that they aren't getting from their current paid job?

A study of volunteers at three social service organisations tested the hypothesis that some people volunteer in order to satisfy needs that are not currently being met in their paid employment.

The findings indicated that volunteers whose regular paid employment failed to satisfy their needs for psychological growth tended to be more satisfied with volunteering when it could satisfy those growth needs.

The study's conclusion was particularly intriguing: "The present study suggests that volunteers who perceive their paying jobs as relatively unfulfilling should be asked to do the more challenging work."

This would suggest that volunteer motivation could be improved by first analysing potential volunteer's attitudes toward their current job to identify deficiencies and then structuring volunteer assignments to fill the gaps. Variables that might be examined would include whether the paid job is worthwhile, interesting, satisfying, diverse, flexible, and allowed for such factors as social interaction, expression of leadership skills, etc. Sample questions which could be used during the volunteer interview would include:

  • "What do you get out of your current job?"
  • "What do you not get to do sufficiently in your current job?"
  • "What would your ideal job look like?"
  • "What would you do in it, and what would you not do?"

The prospective volunteer would be encouraged to identify elements of a possible volunteer job that would meet motivational needs not currently being met in their life and particularly not being met in their paid work. It would then become important to make sure that the volunteer job provided this perceived need.

3. Give Them a Good Time

Another way of thinking about more effective retention is to develop ways to let the volunteer have more "fun."

This is not quite as strange a notion as it might seem. It is suggested that one way to view volunteering is as a "leisure" activity—something which is done freely without expectation of monetary benefit. Volunteering and leisure have similar expected benefits: "People want to do something interesting, to achieve something, meet people, have fun, learn new things, be refreshed, and relax." All of these factors might be examined as aspects of volunteer jobs that could be strengthened.

Research suggests that the Volunteer Coordinator focus on four areas to take advantage of this relationship between leisure and volunteering:

  • The self-interest and recreational expectations of volunteers that might make volunteering more appealing to people.
  • Providing volunteer opportunities that will be perceived as worthy leisure.
  • Utilising the "recreational aspects" of volunteering as a technique for recruitment.
  • Matching a person's leisure expectations to potential outcomes associated with a volunteer experience. A survey alluded to earlier suggests that some aspects of leisure, such as enjoying activities conducted with one's social group, may be of particular significance in tapping this aspect of motivation.

Focusing Retention Efforts on Critical Points

One way to encourage volunteer retention is to focus on critical points in the volunteer's cycle of relationships with the organisation. There are two critical periods:

The First Six Months

Studies of volunteer retention have determined that the first six months experience of a volunteer is critical towards their retention. The greatest loss of volunteers occurs during this period, as volunteers resign or simply drift away and disappear.

The loss probably occurs because new volunteers have approached the organisation with a set of expectations for what they will encounter and what they will be able to accomplish. During their initial contact with the organisation and its work, they will come face-to-face with the reality of the situation. If there is a significant gap between the high expectations and the actual situation encountered, the volunteer is more likely to reach a decision to depart.

Volunteer Co-ordinators must pay close attention to volunteers during this early period and smooth the transition through the normal ups and downs of this acclimatization period. They should also ensure that the volunteer does not have problems created by an inappropriate job match.


Volunteers also require more attention at "anniversaries," such as annual evaluation dates, the end of large projects, or the completion of an agreed term of participation.

At these critical points, volunteers are likely to engage in a re-evaluation of their service to the organisation, reconsidering their commitment to and interest in the work that they are doing.

You can assist volunteers in re-affirming that commitment by pro-actively assisting them in this analysis, helping each identify new interests and goals. You can then suggest possible jobs within the organisation that will help them obtain these new motivational objectives.

Do not assume that a volunteer who has been doing a job will always want to do that same job.

Volunteers change over time, due both to changes in their own lives and to exposure to types of volunteer work. Periodically review what they are doing with them.

Don't Forget the Obvious

Two final comments about retention: the first is so obvious that many programs not only ignore it, they do exactly the opposite. Since volunteers are coming to the organisation because they want to help, it is essential that you do everything you can to give volunteers work to do as soon as possible. Under-utilisation create serious retention problems, because motivated volunteers who are trying to be of assistance will feel useless if they are not actually involved in doing something. They will also lose any sense of relationship with the organisation over long periods of non-involvement. In the words of Hanawi: "There is a minimal level of activity which is necessary for volunteers to feel connected to an organisation; there are individual variations in this critical level but certainly when a person's involvement falls below one or two hours a month, or when there is no continuity in the level of contact, volunteers will drift away."

The second is equally obvious: when in doubt, ask them what they want to be doing. Part of the original volunteer interview and part of every subsequent evaluation session should consist of ascertaining what the organisation might do that would meet the volunteer's motivations. This includes identifying the right job for the volunteer, but it also includes identifying what it would take for the volunteer to feel successful in the job. Questions such as: "How can we show you we care?," "What would it take to make you feel successful in this job?," "Who would you like to know about your accomplishments?," are designed to uncover possible retention and recognition strategies. It is vitally necessary to keep exploring this area because the motivational needs of volunteers will undoubtedly change over their lifetime and during the course of their relationship with the organisation.

Recognising Volunteers

Volunteers must receive a sense of appreciation and reward for their contribution. This sense can be conveyed through a number of processes, including both formal and informal recognition systems.