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Expert’s Corner: Top 7 Tips for Volunteer Retention’ by Professor Agnes Meinhard September 6th, 2012

written by Banu Raghuraman

Top 7 Tips for Volunteer Retention’ by Professor Agnes Meinhard. Professor Meinhard sits on the Endeavour Advisory Committee and she is Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Theory in the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University. Professor Meinhard is the Founding Director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Studies at Ryerson.


Based on Professor Meinhard’s research in the volunteer sector, she states ‘volunteer retention is much harder than volunteer recruitment’. Read on to find out how to maximize retention!

1. Honesty

Part of volunteer retention is how you recruit. Organizations are sometimes not very clear and forthcoming as to why they are recruiting the volunteer. The organization needs to be very honest so that the volunteer knows what is expected of him or her. For example, verbal assurances may be made during the volunteer interview regarding training, but it may turn out that it is never provided, or organizations underestimate the number of hours of voluntary commitment required. Even though the volunteer may agree during the interview, it will eventually dawn on him/her that their previous experience is not sufficient and training is not actually provided. This gap between the promise and actuality often leads to dissatisfaction. So, honesty upfront is very important.

2. Match the skills of the volunteer to the position

The nature of volunteerism has evolved in the past 20 years. Previously, volunteers were wedded to the cause for which they volunteered. For example, campaign volunteers were willing to do any task to support the candidate they supported. Generally, these volunteers are easy to satisfy and keep happy, as long as the organization’s cause aligns to theirs. The current trend requires other needs to be met. Research has shown that volunteers are much busier, have a different way of communicating and are mainly looking to share a specific skill with an organization. It is not cause-based volunteering; it is contributing the volunteer’s own skills. When that skill is not used, the volunteer will leave and join another organization. So the organization needs to recognize what type of volunteer they want, the type of skills required and whether it is long term or short term. With the recruitment, the organization still needs to follow some regular rules of engagement – being polite and acknowledging the volunteer is doing it out of the goodness of their heart, giving them a sense of responsibility, allowing them to develop their leadership skills and figure out things themselves, as long as it doesn’t harm the task, organization or the volunteer themselves.

3. Preparation

If a volunteer is directly working with clients, it is important to train them well for all scenarios they may encounter when they volunteer. For example, when working with seniors or disabled people, volunteers may not be prepared to handle certain scenarios, depending on the extent of an individual’s illness or handicap. As part of my research with high school volunteering, we did a survey before and after the volunteer completed their tasks. About a third of the participants had a negative experience as they did not know how to handle the clients’ handicaps or elderly clients or some behaviour that they normally did not encounter. Therefore, preparing the volunteers for the tasks at hand provides them with better latitude for decision making within specific parameters.

4. Appreciation! Appreciation! Appreciation!

This point cannot be stressed enough. But I think generally almost all organizations understand this point. Throwing a party for volunteer appreciation, giving positive feedback, all lead to increasing the fun element in volunteering. Younger volunteers need to have fun. When they feel they aren’t getting rewards, they don’t feel satisfied. In the for-profit side of things, we go to work and are willing to put up with a lot of responsibilities. This is because we are provided with remuneration that satisfies our hedonistic needs. This is absent in volunteering and so fun becomes our fulfillment, after challenging volunteering!

5. Group dynamic management

Often overlooked, this is an important part of volunteer satisfaction. Volunteers work with other volunteers and so team spirit should be well managed. Some volunteers may become too controlling; some may have conflicts with others, etc. All these issues need to be looked out for and managed appropriately with protocols, which need to be communicated to the volunteers. Ideally, the organization will have a Volunteer Handbook so volunteers can familiarize themselves with the organization’s expectations. The protocols should assist the volunteers on how to deal with negative behaviours. Help channels should be accessible to eliminate the detrimental behaviours that will stop the growth of the volunteers and the organization itself. With ample social media channels available, negative experiences can quickly be communicated, so management of group dynamics and conflict resolution is a key component of volunteer retention.

6. Leadership development opportunities

Organizations that are committed to providing leadership opportunities to their volunteers tend to retain them longer. It provides an opportunity for the volunteers to express themselves, which ties into our second point about matching their skills with their job and letting them grow within it, with a sense of responsibility.

7. Feedback

Although this aspect is most important for long term volunteers, this can also be useful for short term individuals. It is key to find out what inspires the volunteers to keep their association with the organization and continue volunteering. Also, what keeps them happy, as a happy volunteer will stay for a longer time. For example, Endeavour can train their team leaders to talk to the rest of the volunteers about what they are expect out of the experience.

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