Nonprofit Volunteers: Top Five Tips to Keep Them Coming

Keeping nonprofit volunteers around for more than a few shifts can be a challenge. Learn the tricks to creating a loyal volunteer corps.

Retaining good volunteers can be a challenge for nonprofits. Yet in order to reap the maximum benefits of using volunteers in your nonprofit, it's important to keep them coming over the long term. If you can maintain a loyal corps of volunteers, your nonprofit can get more done for less money (sometimes substituting for paid staff), create community involvement, and increase your organization's visibility.

Yet all too often, nonprofits spend long hours recruiting and training volunteers, only to have them leave after a few shifts. Read on to learn how to keep your volunteers coming shift after shift.

1. Tap Into Volunteers' Motives

Don't volunteers just want to help your cause? Well, yes and no. They no doubt have good hearts and believe in your organization's work. But most volunteers have additional reasons for volunteering -- perhaps looking to meet new people, develop skills, and feel needed. If you assign them to stand by a photocopier for long hours, it may not satisfy any of those motives.

Ask volunteers at the outset what they'd like to get from their experience, and look for ways to satisfy that. If, for example, a volunteer is hoping to use photography skills, ask her to build up a collection of photos ready for use in your newsletter, annual report, or website. If you have regular volunteers, try to schedule them so that they overlap and can talk with one another.

2. Tell Volunteers What You Expect

Start by giving each volunteer some formal training. Explain the work of your organization and the volunteer's place in it, including the importance of seemingly ministerial tasks. Discuss what you normally expect volunteers to do and what more interesting tasks they might "graduate" to after proven good work. You might also want to create a volunteer manual, explaining:

  • what you expect of volunteers in terms of hours, notifying you of when they'll be late or absent, and so forth
  • your commitment to making the volunteer experience a positive opportunity for community involvement, and
  • basic office policies such as personal use of the phones and photocopiers.

Be ready to provide feedback on how your volunteers are doing, particularly if they're trying to develop job skills. At the initial training, tell the volunteer that you'll periodically sit down for a review -- and make clear that the volunteer will then have a chance to tell you how he or she is enjoying the volunteer experience and what would make it better.

3. Make Volunteering Convenient

Most nonprofits want volunteers to commit to working a certain number of hours per week or month. But creating alternatives to this model can be a good idea. Your best source of daytime volunteers may be freelancers who have spare time -- but not always at the same time each week.

Some organizations, for example, ask people to make a general commitment of hours, but then to call ahead and advise the organization of when they'll actually be putting in those hours. Others may recruit heavily for one-time events, or ask volunteers to take on a particular time-limited project.

4. Make Volunteering Fun

You don't have to create a party atmosphere for your volunteers, but realize that some tasks are innately more fun than others. For example, if you work with kids or animals, it's a fair bet that most of your volunteers are hoping for some contact with them too.

Of course, how much use you can make of unskilled help depends on the kind of work you do. Still, you can think innovatively about what tasks volunteers can do. For example, one organization that helps low-income girls prepare for college invited student volunteers to give talks about their college experience. Those volunteers weren't stepping into professional staff roles, but they were taking the pressure off the staff, and breathing new life into the program.

5. Show Appreciation

Every volunteer wants to know that he or she is making a difference and advancing the cause. It's your job to make sure the volunteer knows this, for example by:

  • saying thank you, early and often
  • planning some organized volunteer-appreciation activities, particularly if you have a large volunteer corps
  • holding an annual volunteer party
  • inviting volunteers to your nonprofit's other events, such as a holiday party, lecture, or annual dinner, and
  • giving little speeches at events saying how much particular volunteers have done for your organization, and accompanying this with awards, certificates, or small plaques.

For more information on recruiting, training, and retaining volunteers, get Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits: Real-World Strategies That Work, by Ilona Bray.

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