To Retain and Engage Volunteers, Focus on the People and the Structure

Volunteers provide critically important service to nonprofit organizations, but their engagement and retention can be challenging. To improve volunteer commitment, nonprofit organizations need to focus on both the people volunteering and the organizational structures that give clarity and direction to their efforts.

Approximately one in four U.S. adults volunteers in a given year. Collectively, they contribute some 8.7 billion hours of time to nonprofit organizations, delivering more than $180 billion of value. But volunteers are not a guaranteed source of labor: about one-third of volunteers in a given year do not return to volunteer the next year.

One of the central concerns with volunteers is that because they are not being paid, they can easily quit. Your volunteers will stay or go depending (in part) on how well their responsibilities are defined and whether they are provided the opportunity to give input into decision-making that impacts their work. The implications for volunteer managers is that structural issues (such as role clarity) and personal attention (such as two-way communications) are both important to volunteer retention.

What’s particularly interesting is that interpersonal communications and volunteer management structures each have different impacts on volunteer engagement. Psychologists at the University of Nebraska studied the effect of two types of leader behavior. Person-centric volunteer leadership focuses on behavior such as communicating with the volunteer, demonstrating approachability, exhibiting respect towards the volunteer, and collaborating with the volunteer. Task-centric volunteer leadership focuses on structures such as defining roles, conducting advanced planning, and formalizing procedures.

Consistent with prior studies, each type of leader behavior was shown to have important, distinct effects on volunteers. For instance, when the leader exhibited person-centric behavior, volunteers were less likely to feel emotionally exhausted or burnt-out by their volunteer work. When the leader exhibited task-centric behavior, volunteers better understood their responsibilities and had more confidence in their ability to get the job done.

Another study on “super-volunteers” also found that good management demanded both structural and inter-personal management. (Super-volunteers were defined as someone who volunteers ten or more hours per week and who contributes a qualitatively higher type of service, often in a leadership or skilled professional capacity.) Super-volunteers valued both “being able to do useful work” and “individual attention.” They cited technical training and their manager’s trust in their particular capabilities, suggesting that (again) volunteers want both task-centric and person-centric leadership.

Some volunteer leaders naturally like to be engaged with the volunteers, whereas others may prefer to focus on establishing formal committees or writing up a comprehensive volunteer manual. These studies remind us that that excellence in one area doesn’t compensate for a deficiency in another. Those with responsibility for engaging volunteers need to attend to both the people and the structure.

John M. Bradley is the Principal of Broadfield Insight LLC, where he provides governance education, advising, and consulting to boards of directors and nonprofit leaders. He can be reached at john@broadfieldinsight.com and at www.broadfieldinsight.com.