5 Reasons Volunteers Quit (and How to Keep Them)

Volunteer Management / Friday, November 9th, 2018

Every year, millions of kind-hearted and well-intentioned people sign up to volunteer for a nonprofit organization. Nonprofit leaders understand that the success of their organization is dependent on volunteers, but despite this, volunteer turnover remains high. There will always be circumstances that are beyond a nonprofits’ control-a change in the volunteer’s life circumstances like a move, a job change, a new child or health issues, for example.

Yet, there are many other, subtle factors that play into a volunteer’s decision to stay or leave an organization, and understanding what they are and how to address them early can dramatically improve volunteer retention numbers.

  1. They Don’t Feel Appreciated

One of the most underused phrases in English is “thank you,” yet those two words carry a lot of power. Since volunteer work is unpaid, it’s important to ensure that you let your volunteers know how much you appreciate their efforts. This gratitude can be expressed through formal expressions, such as a yearly volunteer appreciation breakfast, or throughout the year with simple thank you cards and emails. It’s easy to get busy in the everyday, but technology provides plenty of help to remind you of this important task.

  • Schedule “thank you” reminders on your calendar
  • Ask Alexa or Siri to remind you. 
  • Do it the old-fashioned way; decorate your computer with post-it reminders.

The point is–a simple expression of your appreciation for your volunteer’s time and hard work will increase their satisfaction with their volunteer role, and you’re less likely to lose them.

 2. Experience Didn’t Match Expectation

Hannah loved animals, which is why she volunteered for a local animal shelter. But after a couple of months volunteering, she found herself agreeing to less and less shifts until she stopped altogether.

“When I signed up, I thought I’d be spending afternoons walking, playing and loving on animals who didn’t yet have a forever family.” Hannah lives in a small, city apartment that doesn’t allow dogs.

“The reality was hours cleaning dirty cages and cleaning up poop. Not exactly what I had in mind.”

Not every volunteer job can be nuzzling adorable puppies; there has to be someone willing to do the literal dirty work. Yet, if organizations want to reduce volunteer attrition, they have to be transparent about the expectations of the role, good, bad and ugly

People volunteer for many reasons, but it’s important to find out those reasons early and make efforts to align volunteers with roles that will fulfill those expectations. If not, they’ll quickly become disenchanted with your organization and leave.

3. Compassion Fatigue

According to Dr. Charles Figley, Director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute and Professor of the Paul Henry Kurzweg Distinguished Chair at Tulane University,  “Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

Over time, people can become emotionally drained from volunteer work, especially with difficult and/or challenging clients. One may to combat this is to periodically suggest volunteers rotate roles and responsibilities. If your volunteer spends a lot of time face-to-face with clients, a couple of weeks doing simple clerical work or physical labor could be a healthy change of pace. This allows your volunteer time to regroup mentally and emotionally and come back, recharged.

Additionally, suggesting actual vacations from volunteer work can help keep volunteers excited and engaged.

4. Burn Out

To badly paraphrase Samual Johnson, the road to burnout is paved with well-meaning but overworked volunteers. When Erin signed a 3-year board commitment to a local educational nonprofit, she relished the opportunity to make a significant impact in a cause she believed in. But she quickly found herself being asked to take on more and more tasks outside the scope of the role including being asked to create PowerPoint decks,year-end reports and copy edits normally done by a paid secretary.  The final straw came when she was asked one Friday to create a 450-photo slideshow for a dinner event by the following Monday. What started as an exciting opportunity quickly soured into a drain on her time and emotional resources.

It bears reminding that no matter how understaffed you are, it’s not fair to burden volunteers with additional work unless they’ve explicitly expressed a desire or willingness to take on more. Most volunteers don’t feel comfortable saying no; instead, they’ll reluctantly agree to the task and then find the quickest exit once it’s completed.

5. They Only Did it to Fulfill a Requirement

A common misconception about volunteers is that intentions are always altruistic, but nonprofit veterans know this isn’t always the case. In addition to all the “noble” motives like giving back to society and making the world a better place, people are also motivated by a wide variety of reasons, and not acknowledging them can set you up for failure.

A volunteer may be fulfilling a job, school or community requirement. Pre-established partnerships with organizations like high schools make it easy to plan and manage volunteer time. Knowing in advance why a person volunteers can help determine the length of their potential commitment as well as which role would make the best fit. 

Volunteers may feel guilty admitting they’re only there to fill community service hours, so frame your question in a way that makes them comfortable being honest.

Better understanding and preparing for future attrition saves the organization countless recruitment hours and costs, and when your volunteers do leave, they leave as happy advocates.

To learn more how VolunteerMark’s communication tools can help improve your retention rate, schedule a risk-free, quick demo today or explore our new self-guided tour in a pre-populated VolunteerMark account. 

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