Engaging Volunteers (2): Understanding the Volunteer Experience

The second post in this volunteer engagement & management series focuses on the volunteer experience.

Workplace engagement applies to both nonprofit employees and volunteers. Like employees, volunteers are not immune to becoming disenchanted with the nonprofits they serve. Unlike employees, however, it’s easier for volunteers to leave when they become disengaged.

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNSC) addressed the problem of volunteer turnover in a 2009 research brief:

“ … over one third of volunteers (35.5%) drop out of service each year and do not serve with any organizations the following year. While new volunteers may be walking through the door of an organization, they may not stay, or they may be replacing an existing volunteer. This high rate of volunteer turnover stunts the productivity of nonprofit organizations as they focus on replacing volunteers instead of maximizing impact.”

Nonprofits cannot afford to lose this talent in a down economy when they’re increasingly hard pressed to serve growing needs with fewer resources. That’s why the volunteer experience is receiving renewed attention.

To better manage this experience, you need to understand who your volunteers are, what motivates them to become involved and stay with your organization, and what contributes and detracts from the quality of their experience with you. Volunteer motivations vary by individual and intensity; reasons range from wanting to “give back” … to sharing skills and/or learning new ones … to needing to feel needed … to getting involved to stay busy. Regardless of their respective motivations, most volunteers choose to get involved in a particular organization because they share a belief in the cause/mission and wish to make a difference.

Nonprofits can learn about their volunteer talent through research and informal listening posts that include volunteer surveys, roundtables, staff and volunteer feedback, etc. Here are sample questions that will provide important insight on volunteer motivations and expectations:

  • What about this organization appealed to you to get you involved?
  • What about this organization keeps you involved? [for long term volunteers]
  • What do you expect to give and get from your volunteer involvement?
  • What do you enjoy most about your volunteer experience here?
  • What suggestions do you have for staff that can improve the volunteer experience?
  • Would you recommend this organization to other volunteers? Why or why not?

Also consider exit interviews with volunteers who leave your organization – whether through rotating volunteer service (fulfilling board or committee term limits), burn-out, a negative experience, or other reason. Sample questions include:

  • What do you know now about this organization that you wish you had known when you first became involved?
  • What did you enjoy most about your volunteer experience? (or) What will you miss most about your volunteer experience here? [ask only if the volunteer is leaving on good terms]
  • What suggestions do you have for staff that can improve the volunteer experience?
  • Would you recommend this organization to other volunteers? (Probe why or why not?)

Responses to these types of questions will enable you to build a knowledge base of volunteer motivations, expectations, and perceptions of your organization.

In my next post I’ll cover what nonprofits can do to better engage their volunteers through intentional management.

4 Comments

  • Margaret Roller May 19, 2010 Reply

    Appropriate to this discussion is the issue of recognition. We asked two questions on the American Cancer Society Volunteer Satisfaction Study survey that I mentioned in an earlier comment. Over 10 years & across the country, without fail, intangible rewards such as a verbal or written “thank you” were (by far) the most cherished among community-level volunteers.

  • Lenny Diamond May 12, 2010 Reply

    It’s also helpful to seek volunteer feedback following an event or project they have participated in. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate interest in your volunteers and a source of invaluable, current information about the “volunteer experience”

  • Cherry Woodburn May 12, 2010 Reply

    Your points are well taken. An organization that uses volunteers does need feedback about the volunteer experience. It takes too long to bring a volunteer up to speed to lose them because of poor communication and feedback.

  • Chris Bonney May 12, 2010 Reply

    I may be out of date on this. At one point, I believe the Girl Scouts of America was considered one of the best at nurturing its volunteers. They had a very gradual way of bringing new volunteers, usually mothers, into the work. If the first steps worked out and the volunteer showed interest, they moved them up to the next step. There were programmed appreciations, usually some kind of personal feedback, whether from someone local, regional or national, along the way.

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