5 Tips for Retaining & Appreciating Volunteers

As volunteer appreciation month comes to a close, we wanted to share five strategies you can implement at your organization or volunteer action that can help you retain and appreciate your volunteers.

1. Radical Welcome

People will come to volunteer with you for one of two reasons initially. The first, is because the care about the issue or the work you are doing. The second is because they know you and care about you. What keeps them coming back, is the experience that they have with you, your organization, and the action that you had them do. And it still rings true, a first impression is a lasting impression and the way someone is welcomed into your space is their very first impression and will set the tone for their time with you.

So what is a radical welcome? It’s more than just introducing yourself. It’s bringing a human centered approach to welcoming them into the space. Remember, we don’t know people’s histories, even colleagues and friends may have traumas or anxieties that you don’t know about.  We want to be thinking through our volunteers experience as thoroughly as possible to make the experience as easy and accessible as we can. Below are some ways we can begin to formulate what some components could be of your Radical Welcome process.


  • Call and confirm your volunteers

    2-3 hours ahead of the action, do they have everything they need? Do they know where to go? Do they know what they need to bring? Do they have any questions or concerns? If you call your volunteer and they don’t pick up, leave a friendly voicemail sharing why you’re excited to see them today and include any important information that might be helpful, like time of the action and location with any necessary directions.


  • Setup your space

    Keeping comfortability of your volunteers in mind. This means setting up the space in a trauma informed way as best we can.

    • Make sure your space is well lit.
    • If its a group activity that requires a facilitator in a smaller room, do your best to orient the room so no one’s back is to the door, if possible, orient so the doors/entry points are on the sides of the room so they are visible but not distracting as people come and go.
    • If in a group where everyone is meant to interact, try to avoid setting up a closed circle of chairs, and instead setup in a “U” shape. A “U” shape has a clear way to enter or leave the group if someone needs to excuse themselves, where if you setup a closed circle, it can feel like a closed space with no exit which could be anxiety inducing for some people.
    • If possible have light refreshments available for folks and clearly mark where people can find bathrooms to meet basic human needs.
    • Ideally, make your restrooms gender neutral so all feel welcome. If you currently have gendered restrooms, put a sign over the gendered signs that says “Gender Neutral” and if you have bathrooms with urinals, you can either make the urinals unavailable with signage or on your exterior signs indicate “Stalls & Urinals” or “Stalls Only” underneath the “Gender Neutral” sign.
  • Greet your volunteers

    at the first physical place that could generate confusion. Is the entrance to your location hard to find? Have a greeter outside to direct people from parking lots to your entrance. Is your space a large open room? Have someone by the door to welcome them into the space and direct them where they should go. Remember, a confused mind always says no, if someone is feeling a little nervous about volunteering for the first time, and they feel like they can’t find your location, they will bail on you and feel like they tried. If you don’t have enough hands to have greeters at those potential places, put signs up, chalk sidewalks and parking lots, make it clear and simple for folks.


  • Introduce volunteers

    Introduce volunteers to each other and to staff. It can be uncomfortable to be in a new space, especially if you don’t know anyone. Get to know your volunteers, as you welcome them into the space ask them why they are volunteering, how their day is going, how they heard about your organization, have they ever done anything like this before? If you have returning volunteers that you already know well, introduce them to the new folks. If people show up early, invite them into the work with you, you can chat while you setup chairs. They will immediately feel helpful and accomplished and you can continue to get to know them better.


2. Set volunteers up for success

Remember, we want folks to have a great experience so they look forward to coming back to future actions with us. Follow the steps below to help set your volunteers up for success.


  • Have a clear agenda

    And do your best to stick to it. People want to know what’s coming, it can help alleviate anxiety about what we’re doing, how we’re going to do it, and when it will all be over.


  • Do a thorough training at every collective action

    Even if you do the same action every single week, run the training every time. For new folks it will help set the tone and give them the tools and skills they need to be successful. They are here volunteering because they want to help, and we want them to be successful so that it helps your effort and leaves them feeling successful. If you have vols that have been through the training a few times, invite them to a Train the Trainer training and coaches training, and graduate them up the leadership ladder to trainers and coaches so they can support other volunteers and build more capacity for you. Still have your vols go through the training, as its an opportunity to connect with the other volunteers and build those relationships that will be important during the work.


  • Provide coaching and support

    Throughout the action, provide coaching and support. Set the expectation that will be happening so folks can anticipate and look forward to it. If a volunteer can be doing something better, we owe it to them to show them how they can do it better. It helps them in their own skills building and it helps their work be more effective.


  • Celebrate all the wins and debrief collectively

    At the end of your action, if you’re phone banking or making dials, have people tally up their totals and pass them to one of the folks facilitating the training to do a group total. While one person tallies up a collective total, the another person can facilitate a debreif; what went well? What was hard? Anything to shake off? Best conversation? Then share the collective totals with the room and celebrate. This can be SO powerful. When one person sees that they did 100 dials, had 5 conversations, and committed 2 people to take action, it can feel good, and when they see that they were part of 1,000 dials, 50 conversations and 20 people committing to take action, they can see their part of a collective action that had a huge impact and feel amazing about it.

3. Put Volunteers in meaningful roles

Anyone can volunteer. That includes highly skilled professionals. If you can do it, a volunteer can also do it (and maybe even do it better?). Work to get to know your volunteers and find roles for them that they can excel at. You may have recruited them to stuff envelopes, but you learn that they are a retired english professor and enjoy creative writing. Maybe they can help you write your monthly email newsletter? Maybe you have a volunteer that can help you write a grant, or run your social media channels? Think creatively about the roles you have for volunteers. If you put people in meaningful roles where they can excel, it might take you a little more time up front to onboard them in that capacity, but you will get capacity back in spades because they will be doing work that is fufilling for them and taking to-do’s off your list.

4. Create opportunities for volunteers to connect

As part of your volunteer retention, broaden the way you think of volunteers to building a community around your organization. Create opportunities for volunteers to connect, this is especially important if the work you have volunteers doing is more solo work, like volunteer drivers, or mentors for kids. Volunteers can learn from one another and will find meaningful ways to collaborate in service of your organization. Below are just a few ways you can create connection points for your volunteers.

  • Host a social event

    Maybe its a monthly luncheon, maybe its a picnic in a park, think about the type of work you do and what would be most fun and exciting for the community of volunteers you’re building


  • Pair folks in the work

    Again, could be especially helpful to those organizations where their volunteers are doing more solo work, you can offer to your volunteers a debrief buddy if they’d like one, everyone who signs up you pair with someone else. Then they have someone they can reach out to if they want to debrief their work or if they have questions.


  • Create networking and skills development opportunities

    Host professional development trainings that are exclusive to your volunteers. Are you an outdoor club? Could you host a Wilderness First Aid course? Think about the unique ways you could provide value to your volunteers through having them go on learning journey’s together.

5. Practice an ‘Attitude of Gratitude’ always

Appreciation can go a long way and can take many forms. Some folks love public recognition, others treasure a hand written note. One of my personal favorite forms of appreciation comes in the form of what was lovingly called “fan mail.”  In the offices of the campaigns I worked on, we would find a blank wall or back of a door and tape up a plain letter envelope. These envelopes were taped up with the flap open, and were left up permanently.  Staff and volunteers could then drop little notes to each other of appreciation, maybe its a thank you for a ride to the office, or how someone helped built capacity for you, or even as simple as letting someone no how much you enjoy their energy in the office.

Another great way to show appreciation for your most committed volunteers is to spotlight them with an award during your biggest event of the year. If you do an annual fundraiser, select one to three folks to win an award each year. If you want to do public recognition and don’t have a large annual event or you want to do it more frequently, something I’ve seen work well is a round of “Appreciations” at the end of an action or gathering. The way it works is everyone (and if you have a large group break into smaller groups of five or six people) goes around the room and shares who they appreciated that day. Could be as simple as thanking someone for holding the door for them, even what seems like a small action, celebrated in a public space, can magnify the value and gratitude of those action. And say thank you, often, more than you think you should. You can never be too grateful.

Thank you for all the work you are doing for your community and reading this post, I hope it helps you continue to serve your community in a meaningful way. If you’re ever looking for more ideas or information on volunteer recruitment, reach out to us. Happy to have a conversation. content@dirigocollective.com

  By Benn Marine, April 28, 2023