What makes some people quit volunteering? Sometimes the experience isn’t managed effectively, causing people to decide volunteering just isn’t for them.

By Heidi Massey

Volunteering makes people happy … except when it doesn’t. Recently, in a conversation with friends who were all commiserating about how unhappy they were, I suggested that volunteering at a nonprofit organization might help. One friend responded: “I will be honest. I don’t get a lot out of volunteering. There are a lot of other ways I’d rather spend my time. Some people are volunteers, some people (like me) are hedonists.”

Clearly, this person never had a great experience as a volunteer. Her description of herself as a hedonist, “a person whose life is devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification”, meant that she saw volunteerism as something opposite of that. Her vision of volunteerism probably fits with what many think—that it is for selfless individuals who are not concerned about receiving anything in return for their time. But in reality, the opposite is true. When managed well by nonprofit organizations, volunteers can have transformative experiences and gain countless benefits including new skills, valuable career connections, increased self-esteem and improved health. We even have posts about the value of the selfish volunteer on this blog.

Volunteering to build a tangible product that improves the community helps tie efforts to results.

So what is happening at some nonprofit organizations that causes volunteers to quit volunteering? What follows is a list of “not to-do’s” if we want to keep volunteers coming back.

1. No training or vetting of volunteers
When volunteers aren’t provided with training, they will not understand what they are doing, how it fits in with the overall mission to provide value, and what the organization’s expectations are of them. Vetting volunteers helps organizations guide them to the best fit for their service with the organization.

2. No flexibility in opportunities
When people want to volunteer and organizations respond with rigid requirements, many of those volunteers are scared away. Volunteers tend to be busy people. The organization that isn’t cognizant of that and requires of all volunteers very specific dates, times, and hours per month is going to miss out on some of the best people out there.

3. Asking too much or too little of a volunteer
When great volunteers show up, it is tempting to heap too much on these highly capable individuals too quickly. Volunteers need to go through a series of developmental stages. If they are given too much responsibility before they have had the opportunity to connect on a deep level with the organization, they will disappear. The same is true with giving them too little responsibility. If they are bored because they aren’t given enough to do, they will feel as though what they do doesn’t matter, and again, they will disappear.

Doing real and valuable work while volunteering makes it more meaningful for volunteers.

4. Lack of communication, especially appreciation
Volunteers need to be told, regularly, that the organization values their time and effort. They need to be told thank you. They need to be recognized privately and publicly. Without that recognition, most volunteers will not continue to show up. Telling them—or better yet—showing them how their time has made a difference is a way to make sure they will never leave.

5. Unhealthy or unprofessional environment
Organizations that have a negative energy have a difficult time holding on to volunteers. When a nonprofit’s staff badmouths others, or doesn’t follow through on commitments, it has an impact on the organization, and on volunteers.

Creating high quality volunteer experiences is not complicated. And the effort is certainly rewarded with committed and engaged supporters who extend the reach of organizations far beyond what staff is able to do. Perhaps it is a matter of simply educating nonprofit organizations about best practices. They don’t realize they are doing it wrong. Or perhaps staff knows how to manage volunteers but doesn’t appreciate the value they provide. Regardless of the cause, it’s time for the entire sector to up its game when it comes to volunteer management. Because when it is done right, volunteers truly provide a win-win situation for everyone involved.

What kind of volunteer experiences have you had? What had an impact on you in those experiences?

Heidi Massey
Project Manager

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