Research & Insights

3 Ways to Keep Your Volunteers

Volunteers are the backbone of many nonprofits.

Without people donating their time, the numerous services these nonprofits provide would diminish. However, nonprofits often face the struggle of keeping their volunteers.

New research suggests that an organization’s structure and volunteer system are key to retaining volunteers. Organizations with a bureaucratic structure and a strong volunteer system are more likely to have committed volunteers, according to economics scholar Kim McKeage and her colleague. These findings were published in the January 2015 Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership.

The researchers picked two nonprofits characterized by a high level of collaborative engagement, emphasizing “shared values, teamwork, [and] high commitment”. One organization had an established hierarchy (with a formalized structure to create accountability), while the other focused more on creativity in management (supporting entrepreneurships, individuality and innovation).

From the two nonprofits, 121 volunteers and 66 staff members completed a survey on their level of satisfaction with their work. Volunteers were asked to rank how satisfied they were with “the amount of information [they] receive about what the organization is doing,” the “support [they] receive from people in the organization,” and the “degree of cohesiveness [they] experience within the organization.”

The researchers discovered that at the more hierarchical organization, the volunteers were more satisfied with their volunteering experience than the volunteers in the more creative culture. The researchers believe the more formalized structure helps volunteers feel like they are being supported by the organization.

“Creating a good experience for volunteers is the right thing to do,” the researchers said. “It has been predicted that volunteer satisfaction affects subsequent involvement and overall time spent volunteering.”

The researchers give several recommendations for managers who want to improve the experience of their volunteers:

  1. It’s important for the organization to have clearly-stated goals and to make sure that both volunteers and managers know their role in achieving these goals.
  2. Managers should put in place a clear “process for interviewing and placing volunteers” and a “structured orientation program.”
  1. Managers should take time to celebrate the contributions of their volunteers. “Volunteers contribute time, skills, resources, and more to the organizations they serve,” the researchers explain. “These generous contributions deserve ongoing, sincere recognition.”

Kristine B. Jensen, Bread for the City
Kim K. McKeage, Hamline University

Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership

Posted: February 17, 2016
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