Please note that, unlike the other topics in this How-to's of Volunteer Management library area, "retention" is an outcome, not a task. In other words, you can take specific steps to recruit, supervise, or recognize volunteers, but you can't set aside an hour or two to "retain" them. Retention is the end result of a well-organized, welcoming, and meaningful volunteer assignment -- the cumulative effect of doing all the elements of volunteer management right. This area shows information that self-describes its content as being about retention. But if you are new to the field, learn how to do all the other tasks and volunteers will evolve long-term commitment. Caveat: Sometimes life intervenes and you cannot keep everyone forever.

Produced by Community Brands, YourMembership, and Abila, this study reports on answers given by over 1,000 association members to what they want from their membership and what keeps them renewing.  

, 2017, pp. 23
Compassion Fatigue UK
Do your volunteers have to cope with "compassion fatigue"? Get advice, training, and resources at this site that promises volunteers it "will help you get back to being brilliant; so that you can remember why you're doing what you're doing and get back to doing it; making that difference to the people you care for."
Volunteering America: Resources for Retention

The Corporation for National and Community Service website provides a good deal of information on recruiting and retaining volunteers. Through its studies on "Volunteering In America," the Corporation delivers increasingly detailed reports on the trends and habits in volunteering across the country, in order to better understand who is serving in our communities and how, when, and why they serve.

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A compendium of the best techniques for leading volunteer engagement, proven to work in a myriad of settings.

Building Loyalty Throughout the Volunteer Life Cycle
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

I've often said that volunteer "retention" is not a task, it's an outcome. Volunteers evolve commitment and remain enthusiastic in stages, as they progress through what might be called the "volunteer life cycle." At each stage, what you do and say - and how volunteers feel - matters a lot!

Here's a brief summary of how someone moves from being a stranger to your organization through becoming a volunteer and then from being a newbie to a seasoned veteran. Consider how the messages you send in word and deed create a welcoming environment (or not) at every stage.

Stranger → Possible Recruit

  • What your recruitment message says...and how
  • Whether you tell the truth about what you want and expect
  • If the invitation to serve seems to welcome individual talents

Candidate → Applicant

  • Speed of response to initial inquiry
  • Depth and tone of the interview

Accepted Volunteer → Being Oriented/Inducted

  • How you communicate the volunteer's acceptance into your organization
  • Reinforcing expectations during orientation

Placed in Assignment → Starting Out

  • Staff or volunteer supervisor/partner is prepared to coach and support the newcomer
  • Training useful to the role + good instructions
  • All volunteers seen as "trainees" at the start
  • The importance of the volunteer's first day
  • And also of day 2 (when questions still remain)

Novice → Knowing the Ropes

  • Good performance is reinforced
  • Problems get attention early
  • Importance/impact of the effort is reported
  • Recognition is genuine and ongoing
  • Communication is open, honest, and two-way

Experienced Volunteer

Are long-time volunteers happy? Getting bored? Getting burned out?  

Recognize that more volunteers leave because they are under-utilized than because they are overworked! At least being overworked means they are needed. 

Experienced volunteers can choose to:

  • Stay in place - but they might appreciate a change of pace, such as a short-term special project or even a leave of absence
  • Move on/up to a different assignment in the organization
  • Leave

Even someone who stops volunteering with you can still remain a supporter (if you offer that chance and keep in touch). Alumni volunteers can even come back to service or help out in short-term roles - again, if you keep communication open and ask.

Paying Attention to Changing Needs
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

In last month's Hot Topic I mused about the effect of the economy on volunteering and this month I propose some ways to engage clients and neighbors in self-help. I have one more thought about the unsettling financial times we are living through and that is to pay attention to what is happening to the people around us, specifically the volunteers and the paid staff of our organizations.

I wrote a Hot Topic on "Volunteers Just Want to Have Fun." Despite the title, I seriously proposed that we create an environment within which not only volunteers enjoy their work, but everyone else does, too. While I would not describe us as "cheerleaders," I do think that, as the staff member charged with mobilizing community resources, we have remarkable freedom to keep people productive in ways that go way beyond pay.

Are you aware of whether any current volunteers have lost their jobs or whether someone in their family has? What about the families of employees? Obviously you cannot pry or ignore confidentiality, but people do tend to talk about personal difficulties and being a good listener has always been a quality of the best leaders of volunteers. So let's assume that, simply in the course of the work week, you learn that at least a few people are dealing with crisis. What can you do?

First, you can make it clear that you care. You can ask if the volunteer needs to be more flexible with his or her schedule for a while - which, by the way, may mean giving more hours to fill long days without a paying job. If the unemployed person is the spouse or other relative of the volunteer (or employee), you might mention that you would be happy to consider her or him as a new applicant to be a volunteer, even on a limited schedule. Remember that self-esteem is damaged by a layoff and by issuing this invitation you are affirming that the person has talents to share.

If several people are in the same boat, or your community has suffered a major plant or company closing, host a "Want to Talk about It?" brown-bag lunch or long coffee break, giving people the chance to vent a bit or to commiserate. If enough people participate, turn it into a discussion of what people need and how you might be of mutual help. The holiday no-cash gift ideas I mention in this month's Hot Topic might be a place to start.

If there is a bulletin board in a private space not seen by clients or visitors to your facility, permit volunteers and paid staff to post what types of jobs they are seeking for themselves or loved ones. The larger your agency, the more likely someone might have a referral. Remember, even in bad times, some companies are hiring.

The bulletin board might also be a place to offer services for hire. You may be surprised at how many people earn extra money (even in good times) by an array of things from elaborate cake decorating to refinishing furniture. Not to mention letting others know that they have teenagers willing to shovel snow or mow the lawn for quick cash.

If this is done in a low-key, but deliberate manner, and not in any way obtrusive to the public, you may find that both volunteers and employees appreciate the chance you are giving them to reach out. And that appreciation translates into positive feelings towards the volunteer office and to building internal community.

Ways to Refresh Long-time Volunteers
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

We're in the "lazy, hazy days" of summer in the northern hemisphere - a great time to think about ways to refresh everyone, including ourselves. One potent form of recognition is to ask someone to give advice or input. It is flattering to the person and a truly effective way to get knowledgeable feedback on a wide variety of things.

Invite volunteers who have been with you for over a year to take a break from their regularly-scheduled tasks and do a short special assignment. The change of pace will be welcome and affirms that each volunteer has much more to contribute than the single position she or he fills. Here is a starter set of ideas for activities that can be done in 30 minutes to two hours.

  • Pair off volunteers from different units or doing different work. Have each spend an hour observing the other, learning what's going on in another part of the organization. Then hold a meeting to find out what surprised or impressed them about the other's work - and consider using those comments in your next recruitment campaign.
  • Consider doing the above idea by pairing volunteers from your organization with volunteers in organizations where you are friends with the volunteer program managers. Such an "exchange program" can be fun or at least interesting, and opens the door to possible new perspectives on everyone's work.
  • Ask volunteers of varying longevity to look at the materials you use in orienting new volunteers, make sure all the facts are up to date, and recommend new things that might be added.
  • Review the volunteer handbook in the same way.
  • Ask all volunteers to record an audio clip sharing what the best thing is about volunteering in your organization (and give you permission to use it, with or without their name).
  • Now, way before the end of the year, invite suggestions for fun ways to celebrate the December holidays and the new year. Note that International Volunteer Day is December 5th - how would volunteers like to commemorate that?
  • Send volunteers into the community to visit agencies to which you refer clients or to attend local events. Prepare them to observe and report back, or to be on the lookout for certain information you need.
  • On a selected day, ask volunteers to use their cell phones or digital cameras to snap photographs of themselves and other volunteers at work. Collect these and post an album to a photo-sharing Web site as a "Day in the Life of Volunteers in Our Agency." When it's ready, make some lemonade and invite everyone to see the slide show projected on a screen. (You can then use these shots in all sorts of recruitment and recognition presentations.)
  • If you have a good spot near your building, hold a series of volunteer meetings outside (in the shade). Invite everyone to bring beach towels or folding chairs and use the change of environment to spark new ideas on some strategy you are hoping to implement in the next few months.

There are many ideas like this. The point is to do something out of the ordinary, yet clearly useful. And to have some fun. Be cool and stay cool!