Tips for Retaining Volunteers Amid Uncertainty

Posted Wednesday, April 7th, 2021 by Sterling Volunteers Staff

Two Women in Facemasks

Much has changed in the twelve months since the pandemic was declared in the United States. Many organizations have ceased or greatly reduced volunteering, others, such as those pertaining to crucial services like food delivery, have seen steady or increased engagement due to a rise in demand.

In a recent webinar, which is now available on-demand, nonprofit expert Beth Steinhorn, President of VQ Volunteer Strategies, shared insights into how organizations can convert one-time volunteers into repeat volunteers–even amid uncertain and changing conditions.

Mainly, this article recaps the webinar and addresses the evolving definitions of retention and what it can mean to different organizations; how to set and advocate for relevant retention goals for your organization; and how to structure episodic volunteer opportunities so that participants are more likely to return. Additionally, you will want to check out our eToolkit Volunteer Recruitment and Retention Amid Uncertainty for helpful tools to refresh and develop organizational plans.

Volunteer Engagement Trends

First, there are a few noteworthy trends as they relate to short-term, episodic volunteering. Particularly, volunteering was on the rise in the US prior to the pandemic. The volunteering rate rose from 24.9% in 2017 to 30.3% in 2018, according to the Volunteering in America 2018 study by Corporation for National and Community Service. Yet, time spent volunteering declined from 126 hours to 89 hours per volunteer during that same timeframe.

In fact, past data from 2007 to 2015 shows a long-term trend away from concurrently volunteering for multiple organizations. The number of people volunteering for 4 to 5 organizations at the same time decreased, even though an increasing number were volunteering for individual organizations. Today, we should also be aware of the growing trend of “free agent” volunteers–people simply leveraging social media and tackling issues on their own without organizational associations.

Impacts of Pandemic

The pandemic immediately began to impact volunteer efforts at the onset in March of 2020 and may have accelerated trends already in the works. One of the biggest shifts has been an openness to engaging volunteers virtually, which aligns with the need to deliver services virtually as well.

VolunteerMatch surveyed volunteer organizations in March, July, and October of 2020, inquiring about virtual opportunities, volunteer cancellations, and other types of engagement related to the pandemic. They published their results in The Impact of Covid-19 on Volunteering & The Social Sector in December of 2020 and found a significant increase in virtual volunteering.

The percentage of organizations that increased virtual volunteering opportunities in 2020 rose from 32% in March to 51% in October. Virtual volunteering allows those sheltered-in-place or in a high-risk group to continue to serve their communities. Also, according to the VolunteerMatch study, heavy cancellations are down from more than 65% in March to just 40% in October where it appears that volunteers can’t commit beyond a few weeks because of uncertainty.

While the pandemic may be resolving, we must recognize that some things may never be the same. Even as millions get vaccinated, restrictions are lifted, and people return to work, organizations must make a plan to rebuild engagement strategies with realistic retention goals. Covid-19 health testing is also being implemented by organizations as protecting the communities they serve remains a priority.

Tip: Develop Worthwhile Volunteer Experiences

Points of Light offers insight into what experiences attract and retain volunteers in Civic Life Today: A Look at American Civic Engagement Amid A Global Pandemic, published in Summer 2020. From the volunteer perspective, a worthwhile experience that motivates them to make time to volunteer is described as: discoverable; local; credible; social; authentic; personal; impactful; and repeatable.

Thinking about what will attract volunteers in the future, a key element is the notion of “repeatable” A few important questions that organizations should ask include: How are we leveraging one-time or even short-term volunteers to view the opportunity as a repeatable one? How are we also ensuring that their first experience is credible, authentic, and impactful so they will be motivated to repeat?

Tip: Define Retention

In setting expectations for success, organizations should define what retention success meansfor their own unique situation and changing circumstances. We know that retention has evolved significantly over the years, despite being touted as one of “The Three R’s of Volunteer Management” (alongside recruitment and recognition), and there is no one established definition in the field for retention. In fact, definitions and measures range widely including:

  • Hours, events or shifts
  • Years of service
  • Fulfilling required commitments
  • Consistency
  • Maintaining certifications
  • Taking on new roles

Keep in mind another trend that has continued. Based on an older study from the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2007, a big shift in retention surfaced from 2005 to 2006: One in three volunteers who volunteer one year don’t volunteer the next – only a 66% retention rate.

Which volunteers stay longer?

  • Older volunteers
  • Individuals with higher education levels
  • Those who devote more time to volunteering
  • Volunteers in religious organizations
  • Those who have more challenging, meaningful volunteer activities

We know these trends are evolving, especially regarding generational trends. For instance, Generation X more recently leads the nation in volunteer rates.

Repair the World research has found important drivers for what transforms episodic volunteers into ongoing volunteers. Particularly, through authenticity and the impact of the work; by offering opportunities to serve with other volunteers who care about the same things; and by offering opportunities for volunteers to form meaningful relationships around the cause and service they care about.

Tip: Retention Measurements – Volunteer Engagement Scale

NY Cares’ landmark 2009 study, ‘The Leadership Ladder’, was the first attempt to collect and measure different levels of volunteering. It focused on volunteer commitment such as what motivates and “de-motivates” volunteers to participate over the long term. Volunteers stay engaged over time for the same reasons they initially became involved: To help others and make their communities better places to live.

The strongest factors in determining whether volunteers became more involved over time were the same as for volunteers who were already highly engaged: Satisfaction with the organization and belief that their work made a difference. So, host organizations need to be organized and communicate effectively. And they need to communicate the impact of the work–how it is authentic and meaningful.

NY Cares: The Leadership Ladder

Level One: Shoppers

Individuals who call for information or attend an orientation, but don’t sign up.

Level Two: Episodic Contributors

Volunteers who participate in only one project annually.

Level Three: Short-term Contributors

Volunteers who complete two to four projects per year for only one year or become Site Captains for an Annual Event.

Level Four: Reliable Regulars

Volunteers who complete five or more projects for one year or two to four projects per year for more than one year.

Level Five: Fully Engaged Volunteers

Volunteers who participate in five or more projects per year for more than one year, become Team Leaders, or assume other leadership roles.

Level Six: Committed Leaders

Volunteers who have committed to more than one year serving as a Team Leader, Site Captain, Speakers Bureau or committee member, or helping to cultivate contacts/donors.

NY Cares: Strategies and Results

Strategy: Improve communications with potential volunteers
Result: Volunteer projects that filled increased 182% from 2004-2008

Strategy: Revamp volunteer orientation
Result: 77% increase in new volunteers from 2004-2008

Strategy: Communicate with every volunteer
Result: Average projects per volunteer rose 12.7% from 2004-2008

Strategy: Move volunteers up the leadership ladder
Result: Team leader corps grew by 84.3% from 2004-2008

Strategy: Increase organizational capacity
Result: Filled volunteer slots increased by 101% from 2004-2008, while new volunteers only increased by 77%

Strategy: Implement team leadership development program
Result: Leaders would now be expected to improve retention by inspiring and supporting volunteers in ways that would drive their future participation.

Tip: How to Measure Success in Days of Service

The pandemic has taught volunteer organizations many new ways of providing services and measuring outcomes, including re-engineering how we measure volunteer engagement. Days of service offer measurable benefits such as:

  • For Beneficiaries – Service Day Outcomes/Outputs
  • For Organizations – Awareness Raising; Donations/Corporate Contributions; Number or Percent Returnees; Leadership Development; and Recruitment
  • For Volunteers – Professional development for students and professionals

Prepare and Structure for Success

The quality of the volunteering experience you provide is vital. The first step to ensuring a quality experience is preparing for success. Ensure both the organization and your volunteers are prepared and understand their role.

Another important step is bridging your volunteers to future opportunities. You can do that by listing future opportunities, coaching your volunteers to be talent scouts and following up with volunteers after events. Incorporate learning into the experience, if appropriate.

Most importantly, remember these key takeaways:

  • Establish realistic goals
  • Incorporate learning and a chance to socialize
  • Prepare a list of future opportunities
  • Engage volunteers as leaders and talent scouts; arm them with information about desired skills and available opportunities
  • Personalize the experience
  • Share impact clearly and powerfully
  • Follow-up promptly and personally invite to future volunteer opportunities

Watch the Webinar On-Demand

To learn more, watch the “Retaining Volunteers Amid Uncertainty: Converting One-Timers into Repeat Volunteers” webinar. Plus, download our latest eToolkit Volunteer Recruitment and Retention Amid Uncertainty for five helpful planning tools.

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The information contained herein is for informational purposes only. Sterling is not a law firm, and none of the information contained in this notice is intended as legal advice. Clients are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel about the impacts of any requirements. This, and other important information can be found on the Sterling website at