For Nonprofits

Here’s what you should know about long-term volunteer retention

What does research about motivation and work satisfaction tell us about long-term volunteer retention? This blogpost includes practical tips on how to motivate your volunteers.

There are many similarities between research on work engagement and long-term volunteer retention. Both fields explore topics such as motivation and satisfaction to determine what drives people to stay involved in one organisation for an extended period of time. Remarkably, for volunteers, long-term involvement happens in return for little to no monetary compensation.

Conversations I had with nonprofits while working at Deedmob, a volunteer platform, revealed one main bottleneck keeping them from thriving with the help of volunteers: long-term retention. Specifically, it appears increasingly challenging to keep volunteers engaged beyond just several weeks.

In this article, I’ll explore the science of what dictates a volunteer’s intention to stay on for an organisation. Beyond this, I’ll be sharing some of our favourite best practices so you’ll know exactly what your organisation can do to increase its volunteer retention rate. 

What the science says…

It is theorised that there are 3 main variables influencing the intention to stay on as a volunteer (Chacón, Vecina, & Dávila, 2007) at each stage of a volunteer’s lifecycle.

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Stage 1 – Overall satisfaction (task, volunteer, and management): How closely does the volunteer’s experience meet their initial expectations? Meeting or exceeding volunteer expectations will motivate volunteers not to abandon the activity, despite costs such as time, burnout, and money eventually becoming more apparent (Chacón, Vecina, & Dávila, 2010).

Stage 2 – Organisational commitment: Long-term involvement requires a strong sense of identification with the goals and values of a particular nonprofit organisation. In many cases, it can make up for temporary decreases in satisfaction and motivate the volunteer to keep going.

Stage 3 – Role identity: Finally, the degree to which someone considers their role as a volunteer a part of their self-concept acts as an important predictor of sustained volunteerism (Callero, 1985, Finkelstein, Penner, & Brannick, 2005).

Get them hooked from the start

You know what your organisation cares about; the problem you are trying to solve. The trick is to get new volunteers to devote their time to help you solve it. The way you achieve this, however, may not be as straightforward as you think. 

In a survey conducted during my time working at Deedmob, we found that over 90% of respondents stated ‘team-spirit’ and ‘community feeling’ as the most satisfying factor during an activity. Perhaps, the connections made with other volunteers and organisation members hadn’t previously factored into their expectations, leading to greater overall satisfaction.

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It’s time to start thinking of new ways to increase volunteer satisfaction. Begin by focusing on the nature of the task at hand. Ask yourself if it is too difficulttoo easy, or simply un-engaging. Remember to be critical here.

Try to compensate for any unavoidable losses of task satisfaction by focusing on impeccable management and guidance. Finally, make sure to facilitate meaningful interactions between fellow volunteers, to make the overall experience just that bit more special.

Here are some best practices I’ve collected and couldn’t keep to myself:

  • Organise doors open days to offer prospective volunteers a low-commitment opportunity to get to know the faces behind your organisation.
  • Incorporate teamwork into volunteer activities and tasks.
  • Strive for excellent communication and expectation management, before and after the activity. Top tip: ask yourself if the way you’re describing the activity or task in a vacancy matches the reality.
  • Allow for bonding moments between fellow volunteers and charity coordinators. Take time in the day for a communal team lunch, introduction round, short game, or afternoon tea session.
  • Use social media to stay in touch with volunteers, by inviting them to like/follow your page.

Keep nurturing what matters

Once a person has volunteered for your organisation, it is essential that you keep nurturing your new relationship. Beyond initial satisfaction with the activity, volunteers need to start experiencing commitment to your cause, values, and goals. This will increase the likelihood of long-term involvement.

Just like employees, volunteers want to feel like their work is meaningful. But how do you achieve this? By letting them know how they have made a positive difference within your organisation.

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You may want to ask yourself:

  • Has this volunteer made someone smile?
  • Did they reduce the organisation’s costs or increase overall productivity?
  • Have they contributed, in any way, to the expansion and growth of the organisation to other regions?

It’s your turn to let volunteers know you value their commitment! Here are some things to try out to make them feel appreciated:

  • Delight them with ‘thank you’ notes
  • Put the volunteer of the month in the spotlight with a social media shout out
  • Let volunteers know exactly how they’ve helped your organisation become better
  • Get their creative juices flowing and involve them in future planning and strategy

Working with volunteers requires valuable time and organisation resources. I hope that these tips will help you get investment’s worth. By getting into the mind of a volunteer and asking the right questions, you’ll soon find out what drives someone to stay involved in your organisation.


By louisedesadeleer

I’m a digital marketer with a passion for tech for good, nonprofits, and psychology. I do data-driven marketing experimentation by following users through their journey - from awareness to retention - and ensuring a smooth ride! 🚲

What drives us to do good? Curious about all things nonprofit, motivation, altruism & ethics. Previously @deedmob — the largest volunteering platform in the Netherlands.

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