Your hard-won volunteers will serve—for a while. But then they’ll go. Here’s world-class advice on managing volunteer turnover.
1. Appreciate everyone, but focus on your core.
Appreciate everyone, but focus on careful maintenance of your core volunteers. That way, the natural ebb and flow of departing volunteers won’t have as dramatic an impact on the ministry.
People volunteer with the American Red Cross in a variety of ways. We have a very, very active blood donor recruitment program. Around 2.5 million people volunteer every year to give blood, and about 200,000 people every year give platelets multiple times. We have about 50,000 folks working for other organizations who organize blood drives at their churches, workplaces, or other locations. We work with a variety of volunteers—those who give blood directly, those organizing a blood drive, and those volunteering at the blood drive.
Our main challenge—and opportunity—is to consistently have outreach and appreciation for those core volunteers. One way we do that is through a specific team member called a donor recruiter. It’s the job of the donor recruiter to motivate the core volunteers, pump them up, give them appreciation, tell them what a good job they’re doing, and really look after those relationships. The net of it is really maintaining the relationship with specific team members who work with other volunteers.
Cliff Numark is vice president of blood services for the American Red Cross.
2. Provide more flexibility.
Provide more flexibility, including adding short-term roles and breaking larger jobs into bite-sized opportunities.
Habitat for Humanity has noticed trends in volunteerism, including an increase in interest from professionals and youth, and interest from volunteers who are employed. These volunteers, with increasing demands on their time, need more flexibility. We’ve been able to respond by adapting volunteer assignments to meet the availability of volunteers, such as creating virtual positions and shorter-term project positions that allow people to engage in ways that meet their schedules. We also invite volunteers to assume leadership roles on our build sites and in our offices, which encourages them to become truly invested in our efforts to build decent, affordable homes.
Mark Andrews is vice president of volunteer and institutional engagement for Habitat for Humanity International.
3. Hold volunteers loosely.
Change and turnover happen. Don’t “white knuckle” your volunteers by gripping them too tightly.
I’ve learned to hold volunteers loosely. I’ve always got to be ready and willing to move them up, move them on, or move them out. Moving them up to roles of greater influence within my ministry creates a temporary hole but provides greater leadership for my team. I move them on to other areas of ministry where their strengths or passions shine even more. And I move them out when their behavior is inconsistent with the needs of the role. The hardest thing in the world is to release a volunteer who has a less-than-stellar attitude—because, despite the attitude, that person still fills a need. But a bad attitude is cancer, and it does greater long-term damage than they need the person meets on the team.
One way we manage turnover is to use an apprentice model to give prospective volunteers the opportunity to explore a role without the long-term commitment. We pair prospective volunteers with a mentor for four to six weeks and allow them to shadow and learn, taking the reins a little bit at a time so they can test out the role and determine whether it’s a fit.
Giving people “boots on the ground” experience helps us identify when a role isn’t a good fit. In our follow-up, we help people explore other areas of ministry within the church until we find the right fit for them. At the same time, providing a mentor gives a volunteer another relationship on your team that serves as the glue that can lead to longevity.
Gina McClain is the pastor for children’s ministry at Faith Promise Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
4. Treat volunteers well.
Work to leave volunteers as happy on their way out as they were on the way into your ministry. They may go on to serve elsewhere, send new volunteers your way…or return themselves.
We have an expectation that every volunteer may not stay with us forever. People move away, some have kids, or they take on a new job. Life happens, and we understand that.
At Catholic Charities, we try to give our volunteers the best experience possible. So in the event that they’re no longer volunteering with us, they’re still passionate about serving and help- ing others. And at the very least, they can be advocates for our mission: to provide help and give hope.
Staci Florestan is the director of volunteer services at Catholic Charities of New York.
5. Make things clear.
Strengthen your core team through good management to ensure stability. And keep your attitude in check when volunteers do go.
If you have volunteers who you know can make a significant impact on your work in ministry, then treat them like valued employees, which means giving them a good orientation, having job descriptions, and being clear so they know what’s expected of them. Make sure they understand the big impact of what they’re doing. When that inevitable turnover happens, make sure new volunteers also understand what they’re going to be doing, what’s expected, and the impact they’re going to have. This seems simple, but it’s a huge issue.
Turnover happens, whether it’s with volunteers or employees. Even in very large organizations, at some point, it breaks down to the guy in Pascagoula, Mississippi, who has a small team. He’s trying to manage his volunteers, and sometimes his attitude might be, “Man, some of these volunteers are more trouble than they’re worth!” That mindset is an easy trap to fall into, but we have to always be very, very careful to not fall into it because that attitude shows.
We have to build into a set of core folks. Getting your key volunteers in place and training them, giving them a sense of ownership (which means they’ll usually stay longer), and helping them know what they’re doing—that’s the key. The more we invest in them, the more we will realize how beneficial they are
to us as an organization. We could not do what we do without volunteers, and most organizations would say that as well. Some will stay with you for the long term and some simply won’t.
Lt. Col. Ron Busroe is the national community relations and development secretary for the Salvation Army.
6 Ways to Say Thank You to Volunteers
Volunteers are those very special people our churches and ministries couldn’t function without. Saying thank you is always important, but once in a while, it’s good to go a little further with appreciation. Here are simple, do-it-yourself ways to say thank you to your beloved volunteers.
1. Birthday Baskets
Personalize birthday baskets for your volunteers. A chocolate bar, notepad, notepaper, lotion, movie tickets, and other small items are easy to gather and arrange in a gift basket along with a birthday note of thanks. These gifts are perfect for recognizing volunteer birthdays.
2. Volunteer of the Month
By spotlighting a volunteer of the month, your entire church will know how amazing your volunteers are. A special bulletin board, Facebook group post, or announcement recognizing the individual is a great way to draw attention to the person’s efforts and to your ministry as a whole.
3. Day Off
Everyone needs a break from time to time, including volunteers. Give the gift of appreciation with a “day off” pass. Simply attach the pass to your volunteer’s schedule and invite him or her to choose the day off and let you know.
4. Book of Kids’ Quotes
Volunteers will cherish the gift of an inspirational book of quotes from your kids. Have kids each write (or write for them if they’re too young) what they like best about that person. Collect the quotes and attach them with ribbon. This simple but very special gift will remind your volunteers why they spend their free time with the kids at church.
5. Prayer Rocks
These are a great way to remind volunteers that you pray for them regularly. Have kids paint or decorate a plain wooden box. Next, help them collect smooth stones and write Bible references on each one. Select inspirational, comforting, and loving verses. Then pray together for all the volunteers in your ministry. Place the box in a central location of your ministry, and invite volunteers to each take a stone as a reminder that kids and ministry leaders pray for them.
6. “Volunteer Sunday”
A church is all about fellowship, family, and celebrating together. Why not invite your entire congregation to worship together on a Sunday? Organize a “Volunteer Sunday” to include your entire congregation to worship together and thank volunteers for their time. The sermon might be centered on giving to and serving others. The choir and children might orchestrate a song of gratitude. You could have a special prayer that kids lead for volunteers. The possibilities are many!
Hilary Roming is a children’s minister and writer living in Ruidoso, New Mexico.
Why Volunteers Stay
There are a few things that have been effective when it comes to managing volunteer turnover and getting volunteers to stay longer. I have a Facebook message thread, especially for all my volunteers. This helps me always stay in tune with them and to send out schedules and reminders. Here are the reasons my present volunteers say they stay.
“[I get] encouragement and uplifting words.”—Mona
“[You allow] individuality with teachers to teach the same material in their own way. The feeling of appreciation is so important.”—Randy
“[You] love on volunteers and kids. [You] make volunteers feel important. [You] serve our Savior in front of us.” —Paula
“[You don’t] expect a whole lot of each person. God’s work is spread among all the volunteers so no one gets burned out.” —Danya
“You are confident God has equipped each of us with what children need. We’re believed in, like when I shared with you that those two were the hardest kids I’ve ever taught. You said, ‘That’s why I sent them to you.’ Very encouraging.” —Mandy