What the Scholars Say: Positive Relationships Retain Volunteers

Keeping volunteers committed to and engaged with your organization is key. Since a great deal of effort, time, and resources goes into training volunteers, retaining them only makes sense.  What keeps volunteers committed to your work? While many factors are at play, a group of Italian researchers found that volunteer relationships with staff and other volunteers can have a more profound impact on retention than task-related factors.

This installment of “What the Scholars Say” summarizes the research conducted by Nencini, Romaioli, and Meneghini and published in the International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations.

Nearly two hundred and fifty volunteers from four Italian social service nonprofits were surveyed using a series of vetted volunteer survey instruments. Researchers were interested in finding out what encourages a volunteer to leave or remain with an organization.

The researchers were surprised to learn that the characteristics of the volunteer tasks did not seem to impact the volunteers’ motivation or satisfaction with the service.  The data showed that merely completing a task, whatever it may be, fulfilled the volunteers’ desire to serve. What did play a role in a volunteer’s decision to remain serving, was how well socialized the volunteer felt within the organization.  The strength of the connections to other volunteers and staff members was more important than the actual duties the volunteer was asked to complete.

Positive personal relationships are what retain volunteers.

How can your organization utilize this useful information? Be proactive in building strong relationships with your volunteers.  Here are a few tips to ensure your volunteers feel connected.

Top Tips to Build Volunteer Relationships

#1 Feed Them

Food brings people together. Gathering staff and volunteers around a table provides a great opportunity to connect and learn about each other.

And of course, free food is much appreciated and shows how grateful you are for your volunteers’ time and service. While feeding your volunteers may be costly, there are ways to cut costs and still use this pro-tip. Many grocery stores and restaurants will donate food for a good cause. Asking your board members or staff to cook large, inexpensive meals can also work great (think soups, stews, sandwiches, and pastas).

#2 Provide Outlets for Volunteer Voices

Ask volunteers to share about their experiences in a variety of creative ways. Invite them to be a guest blogger to share about their volunteer experience. Utilize social media to provide an easy and accessible platform for them to highlight their work. It may be useful to frame these options as opportunities to spread the word about the organization as some volunteers may be hesitant to brag about their own service, whereas some individuals would love to showcase their own service.

#3 Thank Them

A good rule of thumb is to thank them a minimum of three times. Of course you thank them in person on the day of service. Then you could thank them with a “tag” through social media. And lastly send a good old-fashioned thank you note. The power of receiving a hand-written letter should not be an opportunity wasted.

It’s All About Relationships

The research is clear. Positive relationships keep volunteers coming back and committed to your work. Understanding this and remaining sincere in your engagement with volunteers will go a long way. The tips to strengthen volunteer relationships mentioned above are pretty obvious ways to ensure long-term engagement and with a committed volunteer strategy, are fairly easy to implement.  What other ways are you ensuring your volunteers feel connected and engaged with each other and your staff?

References Nencini, A., Romaioli, D., Meneghini, A. M. (2016). Volunteer motivation and organizational climate: Factors that promote satisfaction and sustained volunteerism in NPOs. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 27(2), 618-639.

Courtney Baines is Content Specialist for ServeHub. She has over 10 years experience in the nonprofit world, serving as a Founder, Program Director, and Executive Director for a variety of organizations. With a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, she specializes in curriculum design, nonprofit success, science literacy, and interdisciplinary education.