Volunteers are often the heart of an organization. Many nonprofits rely on volunteers for daily activities, special events and projects. Some grantors may even consider volunteer work as matching contributions, highlighting the real value of donating time and energy to a cause. However, volunteering is declining. According to the US Bureau Labor of Statistics, “the volunteer rate declined by 0.4 percentage point to 24.9 percent for the year ending in September 2015.”

This is not good news since millions of people volunteer and a 0.4 percentage point is a lot of opportunities lost. Considering that women volunteer the most and their involvement has decreased from 28.3% in 2014 to 27.8% in 2015, this is a worrisome trend. If it continues, organizations may have to cut down in programs or offer fewer services. Yikes.

People, including women, in general are just too busy with jobs, families and other responsibilities. Working overtime is the norm and many are simply exhausted to consider adding volunteering to the mix.  So, what can nonprofits do to keep good volunteers?

1- Consider short, one-time opportunities. Many people will be willing to donate a day or two a year or a few hours a month or quarter. It doesn’t seem overwhelming. To accomplish this, nonprofits that rely on volunteers for daily activities should consider having special days where new people come in only on those days and do certain things, giving others a break.

For example, you could have Wednesdays as reading days only and whoever is interested in this activity could show up once a week only. Volunteers could rotate that date, so that every Wednesday someone new could show up.  Don't burden certain people too much -- people can burn out.

2- Divide tasks into smaller chunks. Depending on the situation, this could be fewer hours or a process that could be divided into two or three. The idea is to give people more options with the time and resources they have available.  This also brings some variety to the volunteers, who may have more tasks available.

For instance, volunteers at a clinic could work a couple of hours only a week or could handle the front desk only, while others could accompany patients to their rooms. The challenge here is to coordinate the tasks well to avoid confusion and give people what they want -- some volunteers prefer working in a certain task only, while others prefer more variety.

3- Let them shine and don’t forget social activities. All volunteers should be recognized and mentioned in publications and public announcements. Let them show off – share with others a special talent or accomplishment of volunteers. Present a great photo someone took, take it to the social media and make sure everyone is showcased or mentioned, for instance.

It’s also important to allow for many social occasions. Many volunteers are in the workforce full or part time and many come in not only to do good, and also to meet others for networking or for social interactions with like-minded folks. If volunteers only come in, do their parts and go home, they may not be back that many times. People need to engage with one another, if they are to engage with a nonprofit long term.

4- Treat volunteers very well. This basic principle seems to get lost somehow. If you don’t treat volunteers well, actually spoil them, they will not stay. They are not employees and many don’t appreciate to be bossed around and to be put down. I have seen this happening, and frankly, I don’t get it -- people are working for free, be appreciative and note that we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Maybe volunteers should be moved around or maybe they are not a good fit, so do what it needs to be done in a compassionate way. People talk.

I know of a lady who volunteered for years at a thrift shop. She loved it, until a new manager came along and started to put her down, aggravate her, and she finally left the volunteer work. It was not worth her time anymore. Don’t do this. Spoil, value your volunteers and you cannot go wrong. If you see people leaving a certain volunteer job or you notice a higher turnover, check who is in charge and see if you can help that person keep the volunteers happy.



Mark Thurman
04/01/2016 1:57pm

All very timely recommendations.

04/10/2016 11:01pm

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05/27/2016 6:33pm

Glad you find this blog useful! I usually find inspiration listening to people, including volunteers :-)

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