Retaining Volunteers

The key to retaining volunteers is to have a volunteer management program in place and to apply its principles to your daily volunteer management. In this article we will cover:

  • Orientation
  • Training
  • Supervision
  • Evaluation
  • Motivating Volunteers


In some organisations, volunteers are told little more than to come in when they can and something will be found for them to do. Consequently, volunteers can have no sense of belonging to the organisation or of the purpose of their role. Retaining volunteers under these circumstances can be difficult. Orienting volunteers to the organisation, regardless of how much time they commit, is essential to creating the first feelings of belonging and purpose.

Some organisations provide group orientation sessions prior to a personal interview as a method of pre-selection, so that the volunteer may self-select. However, most organisations prefer to conduct the interview first, followed closely by an orientation session.

Example of topics to include in orientation:

  • History: When and why the service began
  • Aims: The aims of the organisation
  • Funding: How the organisation is funded
  • Staffing: How many people, what they do
  • Service Users: The client group
  • Structure: Where volunteers fit into the organisation
  • Service: Services that are offered

While much of the above information may be provided in written form, an opportunity to discuss issues and instructions and to meet other volunteers is essential. Inviting key personnel to meet volunteers is also a good method of providing a welcome and effective communication.


Volunteers have the right to expect training and support. Pre-placement and on-the-job training will depend upon the type of job and the level of ability of the volunteer. Training should be flexible and relevant. Ongoing training serves as a means of support, helping build skills, interest and confidence, thus helping in retaining volunteers. In addition, training should provide opportunities for growth and development of individual volunteers.

Training, like other aspects of the volunteer program, needs to be carefully planned in consultation with volunteers, paid staff, service users and their representatives, and appropriate specialists.

Apart from providing specific skills, techniques and knowledge, a good training program enables the volunteer to:

  • Ask questions
  • Express personal opinions, needs or worries
  • Learn and grow on the job, developing confidence
  • Appreciate the responsibilities of the job and what is expected
  • Appreciate how the volunteer role contributes to the success of the service or program.

Choosing the best techniques for presenting new skills and information is essential. For various reasons, some volunteers are reluctant to participate in formal training while others are enthusiastic. A range of approaches can cater to the varying needs of volunteers. Training can be formal or informal, practical or theoretical, on-the-job or off-the-job. Training methods to consider are:

  • Formal talks by specialists.
  • Informal discussions.
  • Workshops.
  • Guest speakers.
  • Demonstrations.
  • Role plays.
  • Group exercises.
  • Audio-visual material.

If volunteers appear reluctant to attend training sessions, you can encourage their interest by informal information sessions during morning or afternoon tea, or with a special guest speaker. If particular volunteers remain reluctant to attend training, you may need to reconsider their suitability.


Supporting volunteers

Supervising people includes a range of functions, usually falling into the following categories:

Planning and rostering Meetings and telephone contact
Checking work Supporting, coaching and training
Handling problems Observing and improving
Assigning jobs Record keeping

All supervisors need to create an encouraging environment. However, this is especially important for managers and co-ordinators of volunteers. They need to be sympathetic and understanding of the volunteer’s needs, easily approachable and readily available for information, support and complaints.

Technical aspect of supervision

In addition to providing personal support to volunteers, managers and co-ordinators need to meet some of the technical and legislative responsibilities of the role. Some factors to consider are:

  • Safety and Protection – Volunteers have a right to a safe place to work, the right materials and equipment to do the job and to be covered by appropriate volunteer insurance.
  • Reimbursement – Volunteers should be able to claim out-of-pocket expenses and be informed of the procedure for making claims. Volunteers should not be paid on a ‘fee for service’ basis.
  • EEO and Anti-Discrimination – The organisation needs to have policy statements on Equal Employment, Anti-Discrimination and, where appropriate, an Ethnic Affairs Policy Statement. These policy statements apply to volunteers as well as paid staff and clients.
  • Conflict Management – Develop procedures for managing conflict, grievances and for dismissing volunteers. Where possible, policies and procedures should be consistent for both paid and volunteer staff.
  • Providing good supervision takes time and should be adequately allowed for in the budget. Volunteers are entitled to good supervision to ensure they receive a quality volunteer experience in return for their commitment and efforts.


Appraising the program

Evaluation provides a time for making revisions and improvements. It is an ongoing process to ensure the program’s viability and vitality. Results are measured against the goals and objectives of the program and appropriate changes made to suit the changing conditions of the community and client group.

Both qualitative and quantitative information can be used to judge whether the goals and objectives of the program have been met. Qualitative information, for example, can be gained through questionnaires to service users, volunteers and paid staff.

Questions such as ‘Has a better service been provided?’ will help provide information regarding service quality and standards.

Quantitative information is based on statistical records. This information should help answer questions such as ‘Have we expanded our service in the last year?’.

Appraising volunteers

The performance of the volunteers may also be considered in qualitative and quantitative terms. Number of hours of services and of clients receiving service can easily be measured through the keeping of records. However, questions such as ‘How much have volunteers enjoyed being part of the program’ can only be measured by asking the volunteers themselves. An appraisal interview is an appropriate time to ask such questions.

The appraisal process

Appraising the work of volunteers is just as essential as appraising the work of paid staff. This provides an opportunity for managers / coordinators to receive feedback regarding their own skills in supervising and supporting volunteers. Appraisals are also a time for volunteers to express their needs and set new goals. Volunteers whose opinions are sought and listened to are far more likely to remain with an organisation.

Volunteers’ appraisals should be conducted in a similar way to those of paid staff. In general, the function of an appraisal is to:

  • Value the contribution of the volunteer.
  • Monitor the volunteer’s satisfaction levels and whether current motivation is being met.
  • Assess the manager / coordinator’s support for the volunteer.
  • Plan for the future needs and aspirations of the volunteer.
  • Discuss the work currently being performed by the volunteer.

Motivating volunteers

Motivating volunteers relies on satisfying the individual’s reasons for volunteering. In addition, the reason an individual begins volunteering may change over time. For example, a newcomer in town may desire to meet people. Once friendships have formed, a new reason will replace the original, for example, meeting new challenges.

Motivation is a driving force that comes from within the individual. Finding out what drives particular individuals is the key to keeping them motivated. Do not overlook human curiosity and learning as powerful motivators. The chances of retaining volunteers is greatly enhanced by continuing to engage and motivate volunteers in your organisation.

Some practical ways of maintaining volunteer motivation and enthusiasm are to:

  • Understand each volunteer’s reasons for volunteering and ensure that some of those reasons will be met through the program.
  • Be enthusiastic yourself and encourage achievement.
  • Ensure volunteers know the job and why it is important
  • Accept the individual’s potential and limitations.
  • Provide an orientation to the organisation.
  • Provide training to do the task and ongoing education.

Acknowledging volunteers

Part of ongoing motivation for volunteers, and thus your organisation retaining volunteers, is providing informal personal acknowledgement as well as formal recognition of their contribution to the organisation. You can:

  • Ensure volunteers always feel respected in your program.
  • Express appreciation and compliment volunteers on work well done and goals achieved.
  • Ensure volunteers are treated as equal members of the team.
  • Structure official recognition in the form of pins, certificates, thank you notes, parties and social events.

Individuals differ in the way they prefer to be recognised. Some are given a great boost by a personal telephone call thanking them for a job well done; others prefer public recognition. Try to find out the preferences of your volunteers.

Nominating your volunteers in programs such as the NSW Volunteer of the Year Awards is a great way to show your volunteers they are appreciated. every volunteer nominated receives a certificate of appreciation. For more information visit the Awards section of our website.