How to Retain Volunteers in Nonprofit Organizations
Volunteers play such a critical role in nonprofits, helping to power day-to-day operations simply because they believe so strongly in the cause. But, just like donors, if you don’t properly cultivate these relationships, they’ll leave for new opportunities.
In this article, we are going to share all you need to know about how to retain volunteers in nonprofit organizations.
By following these simple steps, you can make sure your volunteers keep coming back to help you advance your nonprofit’s mission.
Let’s dig in!
Importance of Volunteers in Nonprofit Organizations
Volunteering for nonprofits is just that: voluntary. These individuals are at your organization not because they have to be but because they want to be.
But that doesn’t make them any less important. On the contrary, it’s actually the opposite! Volunteers are critical to your organization’s success. They can make a huge difference, helping you further your mission without impacting your bottom line.
Because of their limited budgets, many nonprofit organizations have to get creative in how they accomplish their goals. One way to do this is by recruiting volunteers!
Volunteers can help advance your organization’s operations by volunteering their time and expertise.
For example, if your volunteer is a communications professional in their daytime job, you can lean on them to help you in your social media efforts.
Volunteers can also help you do basic tasks. For example, if you run a food bank like Feeding America, you can have volunteers help you sort and pack food so you know what you need more of.
You can get creative in how you use your volunteers, so look at what your needs are and create volunteer roles accordingly.
Volunteers Showcase Community Involvement
Most nonprofits start with a dream of making something better or more accessible.
When people want to volunteer with your organization, it shows that you’re doing something right. It lends legitimacy to your operations in the community that you’re working in because people give up their free time to help.
Retaining volunteers in nonprofit operations ensures the same faces are there to support the community. Community involvement builds trust over time. That trust will help you engage with and serve your community better.
Volunteers Spread Awareness
Word of mouth is incredibly powerful, and if a volunteer is having a great experience, they will share it with their friends.
Volunteers can spread awareness about your organization’s cause and mission, encouraging others to join them to make a difference.
Having engaged volunteers is a great way to spread awareness about your nonprofit organization at no cost to you. You can also encourage them to take to social media to share about the work they are doing.
How you treat your volunteers will come back to you, so it’s really important to learn how to retain volunteers in nonprofit organizations. They become the unofficial mouthpiece of the organization to the community.
Engaged Volunteers Become Engaged Donors
When volunteers first come to your organization, they are interested in the good you want to do in the world, and it’s up to you to shape that into something more.
Volunteers donate their time, but they may also make a gift to help fund operations. This could be simultaneous to their service or long after their volunteering has finished. They could even rave about your organization so much that you could receive a volunteer grant from their employer.
Whatever the case may be, how you treat them determines how they will interact with your nonprofit in the future.
Strategies to Increase Volunteer Retention
Before we dig into strategies to increase volunteer retention, let’s start with the basics.
What is volunteer retention, and why is it important?
Volunteer retention is the number of volunteers who stay with your organization year after year. So, if you have 100 volunteers and 40 quit throughout the year, then you have a 60 percent retention rate.
So how can you keep your volunteers coming back? Here are seven top strategies to help you increase your volunteer retention.
Prioritize Role Clarity
Before a volunteer walks in the door of your organization, you should have clarity on what you expect them to do. To do this, you should set out clear roles and responsibilities for each volunteer position.
Treat it as if you were writing a job description. As you outline the responsibilities, be as specific as you can. You’ll want to include the following:
Description of the activity they will be doing while volunteering (e.g. staffing reception, sorting donations, calling donors.)
Any special requirements (e.g. must be able to lift 20 pounds, provide own transportation.)
Consider what your organization really needs and outline the roles accordingly. Being clear with role descriptions can help you get the support you need and your volunteers will know what is expected of them. This will help minimize frustration from volunteers who didn’t know what they were signing up for, especially if they didn’t feel prepared.
Instead, volunteers will choose opportunities that align with their skills and interests. This will lead to higher job satisfaction and increased retention.
Set them up for success right from the start by having clearly outlined responsibilities, and you will have loyal volunteers who get the job done exactly as you need it.
Conduct Volunteer Interviews
If you have volunteer openings that require specific skills, you can post them online and invite people to interview.
You don’t have to take every volunteer that comes your way, and the best way to make sure you’re getting a good fit for your organization is to conduct volunteer interviews.
Ask simple questions like:
Why do you want to work for the organization?
What are you most looking forward to?
What skills and qualifications do you have?
Can you meet the job and schedule requirements?
The interview shouldn’t be as thorough as a multi-stage job interview. Just a simple phone screening should suffice.
Invest in Volunteer Training
Once you get your volunteers in the door, don’t assume that they know what they need to do. You’ll want to invest in volunteer training to bring them up to speed quicker.
You can set yourself up for success by creating a volunteer training program. Outline what you want to cover in the program. Ask current volunteers if there’s anything they wish they knew from the start, and then write it all down in a training manual.
You can find more tips on how to set up an awesome volunteer training program here.
When your volunteers are trained, they’ll feel supported and valued, which can help increase volunteer retention. They’ll recognize you are investing in them by creating a fully thought-out volunteer program, helping setting them up for success from day one.
Check-in with Volunteers
Once you’ve onboarded your volunteers, don’t just let them be and forget about them. If you do, they’ll likely find another organization that makes them feel like they’re part of something bigger.
Avoid this by scheduling regular check-ins to gauge how they’re feeling and to see if they have any questions or need additional support.
These check-ins don’t need to be long or formal. These micro-interactions can do a lot to boost morale when volunteering for nonprofits.
If you ignore your volunteers, you run the risk of them becoming disengaged.
Capitalize on Their Skills and Passions
There’s something about your organization that caught their eye. Now it’s up to you to use your volunteers to their full potential!
What are they passionate about? Do they have any skills that can help your organization outside of their current role?
A great way to do this is by listing your volunteer opportunities and sample responsibilities on your website. That will help potential volunteers see what each available role entails so that they can sign up for one that aligns with their interests and skills.
You can also include on your volunteer sign up form an open-ended question where they can type in other things they are passionate about or skills they can bring to the table. You may be able to tap into their skills in ways you didn’t think of initially.
Volunteers, like staff members, want to be heard, valued, and respected. They want to be recognized for their contributions so they feel like they’re making a difference.
Recognition can come in all different forms, including verbal and written thank yous. You can shout them out on social media for being a great volunteer, give awards or free t-shirts, or just bring in snacks to show your gratitude.
For example, the Central Texas Food Bank does volunteer spotlights on their Facebook page as part of volunteer appreciation month!
Demonstrate appreciation to your volunteers in ways that feel authentic to you but not over the top. Most of the time, a genuine thank you note will work wonders to boost morale and increase volunteer retention.
One of the best ways that you can retain volunteers is by being flexible.
Some volunteers will be able to commit to weekend-only shifts, while others can only do weekday evenings or even an hour each week.
Not everyone has a consistent schedule, so offering flexible times can help you retain volunteers who may have different or changing schedules. Just make sure you keep an open channel with your volunteers to ensure there are no gaps in the coverage.
Even as you’re flexible, you still need to make sure the needs of your organization are being met.
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You already learned why it’s important to retain volunteers, as well as some strategies to help you do so, but what are some challenges you should be prepared to face? And how do you overcome them?
Here are the top four to keep in mind.
Lack of Clarity
If your volunteers don’t have a clear idea of what they need to do and what they are working toward, then it’s likely they will find another organization that will give them a clearer direction.
This also goes toward your organization’s mission. If it’s not clear how their efforts are helping further your good work, then they may feel disconnected and disengaged when volunteering at your organization.
Having a clear job description and allowing them to see the impact of their work can help you overcome this challenge.
Burnout in the nonprofit community is a big deal, even for volunteers. You are all strapped for resources, making a lot happen on a shoestring budget. Make sure that you aren’t putting too much on your volunteers to help reduce the workload of your staff.
If you feel like your volunteers are starting to burn out, you’ll want to do something about it, and here are a few simple things that could make a big difference:
Make them feel appreciated and valued, sharing regular praise to recognize their vital role.
Volunteers also feel the effects of burnout, and they will be quicker to leave because they are not getting paid for their work.
Change of Circumstances
Sometimes, a new opportunity presents itself for a volunteer. Maybe they don’t have as much time to volunteer because they got a paying role somewhere else. Perhaps they have jumped to volunteer for another organization, or their life circumstances have changed.
Whatever the case may be, volunteering is often among the first things to go when people need to make more space in their lives. While that’s frustrating, you still want to foster the relationship by thanking them for their contributions and being receptive to feedback.
Leave the door open, and welcome them back when the time is right. They’ll remember not only how you treated them when they were volunteering but also when they left.
Not A Good Fit
Even if you have an interview process, sometimes a volunteer isn’t a good fit for the role. Maybe their skills aren’t up to par, or they don’t mesh with the culture. It happens, so don’t beat yourself up. Instead, evaluate to see if there’s another role or team that will be a good fit.
If there’s not, don’t be afraid to let a volunteer go. You have to protect your nonprofit organization’s reputation, and volunteers are a part of how the world sees your organization. You shouldn’t let a fear of a low volunteer retention rate stop you from making tough decisions.
Wrapping Up: The Next Steps
Learning how to retain volunteers in nonprofit organizations is critical. You want your volunteers to stick around for a while so they learn the ins and outs of your organization and help you in ways you didn’t even know you needed.
Just like donors, you need to cultivate your volunteer relationships. They need to feel heard, valued, and respected, and in turn, they will be loyal to your organization. You may face challenges along the way, but building your volunteer program the right way can make a huge difference in your operations.