The Secret Sauce that Keeps Volunteers in Your Program

Guest post by Elisa Kosarin, Twenty Hats

This post was originally published on Twenty Hats.

Start a continuing ed program and watch your volunteers stick around.

The secret sauce that retains volunteers - Twenty HatsWhat does a continuing education program do for your volunteer base?

Besides educating your volunteers, it’s the secret sauce that boosts volunteer retention.

That’s one of the great lessons I learned while managing volunteer training for Fairfax CASA.

CASA volunteers are required to complete 12 hours of continuing education each year in order to remain certified as advocates. The mandate keeps volunteers current on issues related to child abuse and neglect.

What I discovered was that our continuing ed program did much more than educate the volunteers: it also helped create a sense of community and belonging that kept volunteers engaged.

One year our volunteer satisfaction survey included over 125 (overwhelmingly positive) comments about continuing edeveryone had an opinion about it—compared with only a few dozen comments around other questions. I knew that our program was on the right track when our volunteers found so much to say about their learning.

Ditch Your Appreciation Event?

Some volunteer programs get really bold with continuing ed. Take Lori Baker, who recently retired as head of a program that trained tutors to work with adult learners. Lori used to schedule in-services instead of volunteer appreciation events because “my volunteers kept sharing the same feedback – that what they really wanted to do was spend time together and share with each other.”

Lori’s solution was to make her in-services as relevant as possible and give the volunteers plenty of input. For one workshop on the revised GED, the volunteers did some advance reading, took parts of the revised test themselves and then met together to develop tutoring strategies.

“My volunteers liked to get their hands dirty,” says Lori. She made sure that her in-services combined unstructured time for volunteers to meet and share with structured, project-based time.

CE is Doable

That combination of learning and sharing went a long way at Fairfax CASA, where the most popular events were the roundtables, where volunteers met for lunch to swap notes and informally discuss a topic.

If you want to add some continuing ed to your volunteer program, rest assured that it’s easy – it’s mostly a matter of scheduling and coordination. Besides roundtables or special trainings, you might think about:

  • Book clubs
  • Movie nights
  • Speakers
  • Field trips

Ultimately, a continuing education program shows your volunteers that you hold them to the same professional standards as your paid staff. That sends the message that you value your volunteers by expecting more from them. And by expecting more, your program gets much more in return.

Tweet this post! If you agree with my POV, feel free to send this message:

Send your volunteers back to school. It’s the secret sauce in volunteer retention,

What Must Volunteerism Lose to Win? Ideas from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service

Guest Post by Tobi Johnson, MA, CVA.

Volunteer Engagement 2.0 Table Discussion

What Must Volunteerism Lose to Win?There are times when holding on to tradition pays off. Take the Roman Empire for example. Building on tradition, the Romans managed to amass huge swaths of geography and achieve amazing feats of architecture, art and engineering. But, nothing lasts forever, does it? Sometimes, the inability to innovate can lead to an organization’s (or civilization’s) demise.

In my chapter in Volunteer Engagement 2.0, I ask “What must volunteerism lose to win?” I note new insights from brain science, demographic and educational changes, technological advances, and workplace shifts that are having a deep impact on how we volunteer​ and serve. I make the case that some of our “legacy mindsets” may need to be revisited and perhaps abandoned. But, changing long-held beliefs isn’t easy.

In the spirit of innovation, I facilitated three table discussions about my chapter – Big Shifts That Will Change Volunteerism for the Better – during the Volunteer Engagement 2.0 session at Points of Light National Conference for Volunteering and Service.

Over lively conversation, we had the opportunity to delve deeper into mindsets that may be obstacles to the growth of our organizations and the field of volunteerism. To get the conversation going, I asked participants who visited my table to ponder two questions:

  • What current “legacy mindsets” do you see at play in your organizations and the field?
  • What are solution-based ways we can address these mindsets, both in ourselves and our organizations?

Visitors at my table generated a fantastic list and shared creative ideas about what to do about them. I thought I’d share them with you. Thank you to everyone who shared their wisdom!

Legacy Mindsets Identified by Participants

Below are several legacy mindsets, or historic beliefs, the groups at my table felt we are ready to retire. Do you agree?

  • Corporate management doesn’t care about employee volunteers
  • There are not enough community volunteer opportunities available for businesses to take advantage of
  • It isn’t worth it to invest time into volunteers. It’s great to have the time for it, but we don’t have it
  • Viewing a supporter as “just a volunteer” with limited skills, versus the whole person with a lifetime of experiences to share
  • Seeing partnership as an exchange as opposed to a true win-win collaboration
  • For 20-30 years we have been task-centric, but experienced volunteers know more than anyone else. Some believe that volunteerism is only valuable if it’s task-based
  • The status quo, “We’ve always done it this way” mentality; “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”; fear of change
  • Similarly, “We tried it a new way and it didn’t work”; failure is inevitable
  • The sentiment that risk is hard, and failing is always bad (versus an opportunity for learning and growth)
  • Favoring the “bake sale” model versus the strategic business model
  • Not seeing the whole picture with volunteers as part of a community ecosystem, and instead viewing them as individuals “widgets” we plug into tasks
  • Believing that everyone that belongs to a specific generation will only behave one way
  • Blind acceptance of authority; the boss says we don’t have the resources, so we don’t look for creative solutions for resources
  • Lack of perseverance; using the resistance authority figures as an excuse to block our progress
  • Subscribing to an “if we build it they will come” mentality, versus focusing in cultivation of involvement and commitment
  • Our decision making is self-contained within the circle of management; we don’t need to include others in it
  • When it comes to volunteers “No” shouldn’t really mean “No”
  • The belief that volunteers aren’t here to do their best work and that we can’t expect greatness; lack of trust
  • Along similar lines, you can’t hold volunteers accountable
  • Because they are “only volunteers,” we really can worry about whether their skills match with the task or role, and we certainly can’t re-direct them into something else that is a better fit

Solution-based Thinking Offered by Participants

Participants also shared solutions to combatting unproductive legacy mindsets in their organizations and in themselves. Which might you use at your organization?

  • Be more creative about volunteer roles; find the right roles for the right volunteers
  • Seek to develop long-term partnerships that are vested in the community and dedicated to volunteer involvement; seek to foster a community-wide incubator or ecosystem of organizations in which volunteers can flourish
  • Cultivate across levels of engagement versus simply one-off recruitment
  • Give volunteers more freedom through a partnership model of management with greater power sharing
  • Give volunteers a seat at the table for conversations that affect them
  • Follow best in class organizations and be strategic about volunteer involvement (their role, how to train, using an intentional, system-based approach)
  • Launch initiatives like the YMCA’s Togetherhood project that aim to put volunteers in the front seat of community change
  • Consider that there’s equal potential in short-term and long-term volunteers – there’s a time and place for all kinds of involvement; it’s about intentional impact versus time
  • Remember that volunteering is often an important event in the continuum of a person’s life; they will remember it positively or negatively, so act accordingly
  • To set limits, create new rules for volunteers; ask veterans’ help be part of determining what they will be required of everyone
  • Engage volunteers in the process of making change though focus groups to gather their insights and opinions
  • Say “No” to volunteers when needed; set boundaries
  • Use small pilot projects to phase in new programs versus going “all in”; ask “is this the right project?”
  • Develop an internal volunteer-led training corps that shares realistic limitations and expectations of volunteers with staff
  • To foster greater accountability, become part of a process; don’t give a false sense of completion if a project isn’t done
  • Acknowledge that some of the traditional ways still have value
  • Focus on the importance of screening for both skills and what volunteers want to learn; offer a spectrum of opportunities
  • Get together locally as volunteer managers and share opportunities; re-direct volunteers to an opportunity that’s a better fit; give them a list of what each organization is looking for
  • Spotlight volunteer skills on your website versus simply as recognition to see who wants to work with them, to share expectations, and to ask prospective volunteers to think about mutual commitment; be clear about what we commit to you, and you commit to us
  • Need to be willing to do something different, not just limit yourself
  • Re-prioritize, there’s no one best way to do something; be willing to be scared from time to time
  • Honor and reward resourcefulness and creativity in volunteers
  • Recognize that volunteer managers have more power than they realize; your boss has no idea what you really do, so take some initiative and ask for forgiveness later (if you think you can in your environment)
  • To get your boss’s buy-in, design a comprehensive re-start, backed by research and data; include comments from volunteers and staff in your data; offer more than one option, and review the pros and cons of each; explain why you favor what you are recommending and let your boss choose the final option

Interested in more on volunteer engagement? Check out this upcoming webinar:

[Webinar] Low-Cost Ways to Thank & Recognize Volunteers (to Celebrate the Season)

Monday, November 23, 12:00-1:00pm EST/9:00-10:00am PST

Volunteer recognition is so important, but many struggle with how to creatively thank their volunteers without a big budget. Join us to learn a variety of creative ways to thank and inspire volunteers beyond the traditional plaque, certificate, or pin.

For more details, go here.


About the author: Tobi Johnson is the Chief Engagement Officer (CEO) of VolunteerPro, an online learning community for leaders of volunteers. See the training calendar for an up-to-date schedule of upcoming webinars and courses. Tobi is also the author of Tobi’s Volunteer Management Blog.

Photo Credit: Roman Emperor Augustus & Livia, Walters Art Museum, Tobi Johnson

Four Ways to Fail Your Volunteers

Guest post by Eli Raber 

Don't fail your volunteers.Volunteers are the backbone behind many organizations., for example, is made possible by business advisers who volunteer their time, insight, and experience to strengthen small businesses that create jobs in underserved communities.

Because volunteers are so important, it’s essential that your engagement and appreciation efforts don’t fall through the cracks. Read on to discover four management missteps that are easy to make, yet with a proactive approach, even easier to avoid.

Fail #1: Not Framing the Big Picture

While you may live your organization’s mission day in and day out, volunteers may need some education on your “big picture.” Just like you, your volunteers could benefit from a holistic perspective.

Break down the value of their work; how do their personal contributions add to the whole, and in what ways are their efforts creating impact? Framing things in a larger scope can up the commitment factor for volunteers, making their efforts more meaningful.

Fail #2: Setting Blurry Expectations

Just because volunteers are eager, willing, and…well, voluntary, doesn’t mean they should be thrown into situations without clear expectations and support. Commit to giving your volunteers the tools they need to succeed.

From an information sheet to a formal starter kit—standardize an onboarding process that best suits your volunteers. Also, take the time to teach your staff how best to train your volunteers; volunteers who do not feel supported by program staff may have a bad experience and might not come back.

Fail #3: Narrow Entry Points for Engagement

Don’t discount the different ways volunteers can lend a hand. For example, the most common way for’s volunteers to contribute is by mentoring a small businesses. But that’s not a convenient option for everyone who believes in our mission, so we offer multiple entry points for engagement. Hosting an online webinar, volunteering to table an event, and submitting a blog post are different yet important ways our volunteers contribute.

Empower your volunteers to think outside the box when deciding how to help. Also, consider organizing a volunteer committee that can give a voice to the group, and thus, creates a seamless way for your organization to stay connected to its volunteer base.

Fail #4: When Appreciation Stays Stagnant

We all know that we can’t take our volunteers for granted, but thanking them through the same old channel is another fail. Your appreciation should be as fresh and vibrant as your volunteers’ energy.

From t-shirts to coffee cups, consider swag for your volunteers. A Volunteer of the Year Award is an exciting way to show thanks, or (on a smaller scale), make social media shoutouts to outstanding contributors. Remember, individual attention can be more powerful than public recognition. When volunteers send you an email or answer a survey, make an effort to respond. Exemplify that you’re listening and prove how important they are.

Our program, like so many others, would not exist without volunteers. What are some other “fails” to avoid? Join the conversation via the share buttons below!

About the Author: Eli Raber is the Associate Director of, helping to connect entrepreneurs who create jobs for underserved communities with the valuable resources they need to run and grow their businesses successfully.

5 Tips to Build Volunteer Loyalty

Closeup portrait of a group of business people laughingGuest post by Marylin Ryder

Just because you successfully attract volunteers to your organization doesn’t mean you’ll keep them. Here are five effective tips to maintain great relationships with your volunteers by building loyalty.

1. Get personal

In general, volunteers want to feel that you care about them. Ask about their interests and motives for volunteering. Perhaps they came to your organization to gain experience or find friends. In my article “I’m a student volunteer!” I outline the reasons why many young people join the volunteer community. Try to help them in achieving their goals and you will see how loyal they will become.

2. Tell volunteers your expectations

No one likes to spend time doing something he or she does not understand. Lack of understanding leads to low motivation and general disappointment. Thus, to keep your supporters motivated and satisfied with the results of their work, explain clearly what is expected of them and why their work matters.

3. Make volunteering convenient and fun

Many nonprofits ask volunteers to commit to working several hours per week or month. To keep your volunteers satisfied and wanting come back repeatedly, make sure this work is going on in a pleasant and friendly atmosphere.

4. Let your volunteer speak

Each volunteer has his or her own opinion and aspirations in volunteering, so let them share it! Create a forum for your nonprofit where everyone could share their experiences or expectations, discuss topics that excite them or show pictures from their previous volunteering projects. This will help you to get to know your team better and create friendly and loyal relationships.

5. Show appreciation

Every person engaged in volunteering wants to know that he or she is really helping. Showing them they are appreciated is one of the most important parts of your job as a leader. You can do that in many ways, from simply saying “thank you” to holding a volunteer party or more.

Why is maintaining loyal relationships with volunteers so important?

Volunteers consider your mission worthwhile and want to support your community. This is evident in the fact they are volunteering their time. So, you need to focus on keeping their support for the future of your nonprofit.

In their role as an integral part of your organization, volunteers have the ability to give honest feedback. Don’t be afraid to talk with your volunteers about the project they’re working on – in discussion you may find greater solutions to existing problems and improve the process significantly.

Volunteers can help find other donors and supporters. If volunteers have a good experience of working in your team and truly believe in what you’re doing, they can easily convince other people to support the project. By sharing their thoughts and impression of working with your nonprofit, happy volunteers raise awareness for your organization and attract more like-minded people.

About author: Marylin Ryder is a professional blogger and a freelance writer. Currently she’s engaged in educational projects in Seoul and volunteers at, helping students in essay editing.

Photo credit: Richard foster

Top 10 Things Executive Directors Need to Know About Volunteer Services

Guest post by Meridian Swift

This post was originally published on Volunteer Plain Talk.

What Executive Directors need to know about volunteer programs.I’ve always wanted to see a small pamphlet entitled “Volunteer Services for Dummies” or maybe “Volunteer Management, The Cliffs Notes.” Then I could sneak around and slip that bad boy under the door of the executive director while he was at a conference on “How to Get Donors to Donate More.” The pamphlet would have a way to insert whatever author’s name would impress him, like maybe that consultant who he’s recently hired to tell him that he needs to get more donations.

So, forget the pamphlet. Let’s just list the ten top things that I wish CEOs would understand about volunteer services.

10. Volunteers do not sit by their phones waiting for us to call.

Shocker! We don’t just “order up” volunteers when someone asks for eight volunteers who can work twelve-hour shifts, outside, tomorrow at 8am. Yeah, no one wishes it were that easy more than we volunteer managers. Asking volunteer Charles to prioritize volunteering with us over his other volunteering activities, his trip to Bermuda (that he’s saved years for), his managing of his elderly mother’s affairs, and his scheduled surgery might just be a tad unrealistic. It takes a wise volunteer manager to know how to balance volunteers’ experiences so that volunteering is not burdensome and they look forward to coming in to help.

9. Managing volunteers is not like managing staff.

Wow, bigger shocker! Unless managing two to ten times the number of very diverse people who only work maybe four hours a week without pay is the same thing. Instead of a paycheck to dangle, volunteer managers must use real leadership skills to inspire and coordinate volunteers. Think of it this way. Volunteers typically spend about 4 hours a week volunteering while you, the Executive Director and your staff spends upwards of 40 or 50 hours a week working for the organization. That’s at least ten times the amount of “plugged in time” you have over volunteers. Do you think that the volunteers spend the other 36 hours thinking about our organization? If not, volunteer managers must be able to “plug-in” volunteers every time they arrive on scene, motivate them to achieve that connection and keep them informed of changes and updates.

8. Volunteers are everyone’s responsibility.

What?!!! The CEO is thinking, “Then what do I pay YOU, the volunteer manager for?” Staff doesn’t necessarily see working with volunteers as part of their jobs, but any staff can make or break a volunteer’s experience. Look at it this way. What if you, the CEO cultivates a donor by spending your time and sweat to encourage and inform and then another staff member comes along and insults that potential donor? It’s no different with volunteers. We need you, our CEO to set the tone. So if deep down, you are thinking that volunteers are not really time donors but are just fluffy side dishes,  then please stop saying things like “we can’t operate without our volunteers.”

7. Volunteer managers are real managers.

“Hmmm,” the Executive Director might be thinking, “No way, not in the same way our manager of fundraising is!” Well, no matter what you call them, coordinators, specialists or team members, volunteer managers are as much a manager as anyone on your staff. The list of skills needed to lead and cultivate a team of volunteers (see #9 and #6 and #4 and #3 and #2 and #1 and oh heck, all of them) is quite extensive.

6. Volunteers want meaningful work.

“So,” the CEO may be thinking,  “but I often need some meaningless stuff done. Who will do it?” That’s true, but volunteers do not want to just do what the staff doesn’t want to do, they want real jobs that make a difference. And since we don’t pay them, maybe we should consider meaningful work as pay? But, a great volunteer manager with awesome skills can lead volunteers to occasionally do the grunt work if grunt work isn’t all that is offered.

5. Volunteers want sincere appreciation from more than just the volunteer department.

An Executive Director might be thinking, “Hey! I always say that we couldn’t operate without our volunteers, don’t I?” Yeah, you do. But guess what? Volunteers see through the once a year speech at a luncheon that is just lip service. Volunteers want you to make an appearance and say hello, send hand written thank you notes and include their accomplishments the next time you meet with the board of directors. And oh, they would like you to genuinely encourage staff to do these things too. Volunteers are either an integrated valued service or it’s all just talk.

4. Volunteers are not just little old ladies drinking tea.

“But,” a CEO could say, “they sure look like that description ha ha.” Did you know that volunteers are diverse in every way, including age, background, culture and experience and that it takes some major skills to manage a group of very diverse people? But even if some volunteers are older, did you know that they are former executives, professors, leadership experts and full of wisdom and great ideas? And they’re more than willing to share their wisdom for free.

3. Volunteer managers are not lap dogs.

“Hey,” the Executive Director would protest, “I never said that!” But are the volunteer managers treated that way by staff? Is there an “order up” culture in which volunteer managers are expected to just get volunteers without having any meaningful input into volunteer requests? Volunteer managers have their fingers on the pulse of the organization and are privy to every aspect of the mission via volunteer involvement. Maybe, just maybe, your humble volunteer manager is really a great motivator and leader and not just an order taker. Check them out for some really awesome ideas and managerial skill-sets.

2. Volunteers are aware and talk.

“Sure, so what, that’s great,” a CEO might agree. But, when a volunteer hears negative speak from staff, or sees something less than perfect, guess what? They talk, to each other, to friends, relatives, and the cashier at the Quick-Mart. Volunteer managers keep volunteers motivated and inspired and mediate constantly to make sure the volunteer’s concerns are resolved and their experience is positive. In this world aching for transparency, volunteers are the town criers who can proclaim the worth of an organization or do damage to its reputation.

1. Volunteers don’t stay forever.

“Heresy! They should if the volunteer manager is doing her job,” an Executive Director could counter argue. No, actually volunteers don’t. Does staff stay until they die? No, and neither do volunteers. We should recruit, train and cultivate our volunteers just as we do staff, but not expect them to continue until they’re carted off in an ambulance. And, just like staff, sometimes we don’t want them to stay, so that’s why the professional skill-set of the volunteer manager is so crucial. A volunteer manager’s professional resolution to a challenging situation is an organization’s best chance to avoid negative publicity.

So, there you have it. I’ll bet you volunteer managers have some really great ideas on other truisms that belong on this list. You have my permission to print out this list, slip it under your leader’s door. Somehow add to it that it was authored by the “Center for Outstanding Management and Maintenance of Organizations and NGO’s” via the report from the “Study on Excellence in Non-profit Structure and Ecosystems” or COMMON SENSE for short.