Concerned about your charity volunteer attrition rates? Adrian Sargeant delves into the research to discover ways to retain these essential people.


Charity volunteeringMany nonprofits struggle to retain their charity volunteers, with turnover rates of over 100% being reported by some organisations in the course of a typical year. As with donor attrition, the rapid loss of volunteers comes at a cost. Resources will be wasted on the recruitment process itself, the quality of service to the donating public will suffer and the organisation’s reputation will be hit as potentially dissatisfied volunteers tell a great many of their friends about the poor quality experience they endured.

Interestingly, research tells us that charity volunteers are most likely to quit after three months, six months or 12 months. It seems this occurs because they begin their work in a honeymoon stage of enthusiasm, but regress to ‘post honeymoon blues’ after gaining some experience. After longer periods of time charity volunteers are likely to quit because they were not able to accomplish what they’d hoped or because the organisation didn’t represent the values they thought it did on joining.

So how can attrition be minimised and are there any lessons to be gained from research? Although the following list is far from exhaustive, the key points raised are worthy of consideration.

1 Screening charity volunteers

The process of screening applicants for volunteer posts is critical and should be as rigorous as possible. Every effort must be taken to filter out individuals who, for one reason or another, are not suited to the role that has been created, perhaps because they hold unrealistic expectations or because their motivation seems unsuited

2 Matching

Every effort must be taken to match individuals with particular roles. Every role should contain some pleasant tasks alongside the more mundane. Genuine variety should be created and this variety matched to the needs of specific individuals.

3 Tenure

This is a simple point, but surprisingly effective if actioned. We have known for some time that volunteers are significantly less likely to quit when a specific end date has been supplied. It appears that a fixed-term obligation is more likely to be honoured than an open-ended commitment.

4 Communication

The key communication problems cited by volunteers as a cause of attrition include: difficulty contacting staff, a lack of feedback from support staff, concerns about the value of written reports, a misunderstanding of policies or procedures, and not being briefed properly for the tasks they were asked to accomplish. It is essential therefore that volunteers are party to the same communications as paid staff.

5 Inclusion in decision making

Volunteers should be invited to participate in any staff consultations the organisation may undertake and be asked to offer suggestions for service improvements in the same way as paid staff. A high number of volunteers leave because they feel unable to exert even the most modest of influence over the plans of the organisation.

6 Provision of appropriate training and supervision

Some volunteers quit because they feel unsupported by the nonprofit or ill equipped to perform the duties they have been requested to undertake. Problems can also arise with supervision since organisations must make tough decisions about whether to have the volunteer supervised by a volunteer coordinator or by the line manager in the department in which they are working. The balance of evidence is that volunteers prefer the latter so they can feel part of a team but the real lesson from the literature is that ‘it depends’ and as a consequence the issue must be approached with some sensitivity.

7 Recognition programs

Nonprofits may either create a formal recognition system or deal with recognition on a more ad hoc basis. Simple communications such as notes of thanks, a telephone call, or a mention in a newsletter or internal paper have all been found to be effective forms of recognition.

There are also certificates, pins and recognition dinners, which form the backbone of volunteer recognition programs in the US and which seem to be creeping their way across the Atlantic. The reason? In this country research tells us that while volunteers may say they have no need for recognition, recognition actually plays a critical role in their retention. We also know that, in the fundraising context, volunteers feel it is typically more appropriate to reward tenure than the actual amounts raised.

8 Performance evaluation or appraisal

Volunteers should be subjected to the same internal program of evaluation as paid staff. Most commonly this may be a periodic appraisal of their performance – and ideally the organisation’s performance in assisting them to achieve their personal goals. An action plan for the coming period can be agreed upon and appropriate development opportunities actioned.

9 Watch the door

Many nonprofits now conduct exit interviews of volunteers. This can be an excellent way of identifying areas in which the organisation might improve the quality of support and opportunities it offers to its volunteer base.

While some volunteer turnover will be due to unavoidable factors, such as relocation or a change in the individual’s lifestyle, there will undoubtedly be some turnover that proves to be due to one or more of the factors listed above and on which the organisation can therefore take action to improve.

Adrian Sargeant

Adrian is a world-leading researcher, author, thinker and teacher of fundraising practice. He is Chair in Fundraising at the UK’s Plymouth University and was the first Hartsook Chair in Fundraising at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in the US.



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