Volunteer labor has become an essential part of the work force, and more people than ever are answering the call to donate their time and expertise to nonprofits, charities, social organizations, and community agencies. In a January 2010 press release, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 26.8 percent of the population--about 63.4 million people--were active volunteers between September 2008 and September 2009. (See References 1)
Like paid employees, volunteers require leadership in order to do effective work. However, since volunteers are unpaid, managing them requires some special knowledge about what motivates and rewards them. Failure to properly manage volunteers has been cited as the primary cause for lack of volunteer retention. A study by The Urban Institute in 2004 found that even though four out of five charitable organizations regularly use volunteers, only three in five employ a professional volunteer manager who is trained to provide leadership to this unpaid but often critical workforce. (See References 2)
Connect to Mission
Even when they have lost interest in their daily work, most employees still have motivation to stay with an organization, namely the continued payment of their salary. Volunteers, though, must be compensated in ways that keep them emotionally invested in the success of the organization. The easiest and most compelling way to do this is to connect your volunteers to the mission of your organization.
Rather than relegate volunteers to doing the lowest level of administrative work, making photocopies and answering phones, consider involving them in the truly exciting tasks that make your organization worth their time. Ask a volunteer to moderate a discussion forum for people interested in a particular topic, or challenge volunteers to head up the local walk-a-thon team.
When volunteers are participating in doing the real work of the organization, they will be more invested and more likely to keep volunteering.
Match Roles to Talent and Experience
As the baby boomer generation continues to retire in large numbers, leadership skills and talent is moving from the corporate work force to the volunteer sector. For members of this generation--one of the first to have significant college attendance rates and long-term professional employment--using their skills and talents in their volunteer work is key to staying invested.
Organizations that want to attract and retain the most skilled volunteers should review the types of work they make available to volunteers. Is your organization seeking people to fill roles you have already defined, such as sorting through a backlog of membership inquiries or generating letters to the last year's worth of donors? Or are you interested in developing volunteers who have specific skills and talents that they wish to use on your behalf.
Matching the unique talents of your volunteers to the work that your organization needs can mean the difference between having warm bodies to do made up work and having a strong, committed volunteer work force.
Recognize and Reward
Demonstrating the value of your volunteers--both to the volunteers themselves and to the organization's staff, partners, and donors--is key to maintaining a thriving volunteer program. Although most volunteers don't give their time as a way of seeking accolades, showing your appreciation and your understanding of the sacrifices they make to improve the work of your organization will instill a sense of belonging, which encourages volunteers to maintain their connection to your group.
You can show your volunteers that you recognize their value by including them in the ongoing work of your organization, inviting them to routine staff meetings and taking their input seriously. Post-even recognition awards or ceremonies are also effective ways to make volunteers feel special, needed, and attached to the mission of the organization.
A key ingredient of volunteer retention is motivation. Motivation begins from the first moment of association with a volunteer and continues as you remain in contact with your team. If you communicate all details and project background to volunteers and check in with them frequently, they will begin to create an attachment to the program and the project even before they arrive. Consequently, they are more likely to show up on the day of the project, perform duties wholeheartedly, and remain open to future volunteer opportunities with your program.