The Shawshank Retention; how to keep your volunteers, because ‘treat 'em mean keep ‘em keen' doesn’t work

picture of chocolate

The Shawshank Retention; how to keep your volunteers, because ‘treat 'em mean keep ‘em keen' doesn’t work

It is easy to focus on that warm satisfying feeling when you have a fresh team of new volunteers, all trained up and raring to go with bundles of passion and enthusiasm. After all the hard work you put into recruiting and training them, it is tempting to sit back and watch them blossom. The problem is that many volunteer managers can find themselves back on the recruitment treadmill with the speed dial turned up pretty high if they don’t pay careful attention to keeping volunteers engaged. As a serial volunteer and a volunteer coordinator, I’ve been involved with them since university (sometimes at the expense of Statistics coursework, but nobody’s perfect right?) and there seems to be a number of common, easily-avoidable reasons why great volunteers decide to leave good organisations.

One of the biggest turn offs is poor communication from the outset. Once a volunteer has been accepted into your organisation, it is vitally important that you show them responsiveness and get them through to the next step with reasonable speed. Responding quickly to emails and having a rough training date for them means volunteers get a good first impression of you and it sets the bar for how you expect them to behave. If I had a penny for every time I have heard a volunteer manager complain about how slowly volunteers respond to their emails, I’d be very rich. Making sure you lead by example in the early stages shows them what the drill is. It’s frustrating for new volunteers to get through the application process only to feel like they are shouting into the wind when it comes to getting info on the next step forwards, so ensure you are well prepared for this stage before you start recruiting.

Before any volunteer comes walking through the door of your organisation, it’s vitally important that you have laid out a basic role description for them. It can be fairly formal, like a contract for them to sign or a bit more informal, more like a checklist of the duties they are expected to perform. Put it this way, you wouldn’t take a new job where you had no job description and no idea what your duties were or what role you played in the company. Why expect a volunteer to show up clueless?

The key here is to draw up interesting and exciting roles with opportunities to gain new skills and meet new people. When drawing up volunteer roles, carefully consider what you want your volunteers to do and how you are going to make that interesting for them. Build flexibility into the role description in order to cater for their specific interests and skills and make sure they have the chance to add their input once they have settled in. It is important to review roles over time for long-standing volunteers as they may change and get more or less involved as time progresses. For example, I once went from being a weekly facilitator, to executive committee member, to press officer to trustee for one organisation. My role description wasn’t updated beyond facilitator; this made me feel confused and sometimes undervalued by the organisation. Investing some time in making sure your volunteers know where they stand makes their whole experience smoother and causes a lot fewer problems further down the line.

All good volunteer managers know that everyone has a reason for volunteering; nobody will just wander in off the street and become one of your top volunteers! Some of the most common ones are because they feel an affiliation with the cause, or they want to meet new people, gain new skills or spend time outside the house. Apparently 3% of volunteers even do it because they are fed up with their spouse! (Royal Voluntary Service, 2013)

Whilst you can’t become a marriage counsellor and deal with your volunteers’ spouse woes, being aware of the reasons they are volunteering can help you pave their journey through your organisation. Put very simply, if they don’t feel these needs are being met by the volunteering experience you offer them, they will go elsewhere!

Motivations often change over time. For example, I initially got involved with mental health organisations because it is a cause I feel very passionate about, but the factors which kept me volunteering were more related to the friends I was making and the skills I was gaining. Feeling included is important and most of us like to feel part of a team, so give your volunteers the opportunity to meet each other or support each other online. Be warned, feeling marginalised often leads to a swift exit!

Volunteers need regular, high-quality supervision if they are to stay satisfied. Supervision offers the opportunity to check in regularly with how things are going for them and more importantly, the chance to raise problems as and when they occur. Otherwise, things may build up over time until your volunteer decides to leave! Have a very clear complaints procedure and make sure each volunteer has a named supervisor who is easy to contact in the event of an issue arising. Encourage them to participate in supervision and also use it as a time to reflect on their progress and tell them what they have done well. Make sure that volunteers are included in internal meetings within the organisation where possible and ensure they have a chance to meet paid staff and beneficiaries if this is appropriate.

The Crunchie Conundrum; why thanks goes a long way

Recognising volunteer achievements and rewarding your volunteers keeps them engaged and makes them feel valued, which in turn makes them more likely to stay. Volunteers who never receive positive feedback or thanks may feel undervalued, disgruntled and may start to resent giving their time up. At the extreme end, this may lead to them exiting the organisation on bad terms, something all volunteer managers want to avoid!

There are a number of formal ways of thanking volunteers, like annual parties, certificate or offering accreditation from awarding bodies. Alongside these are a number of informal ways to say thanks, for example a thank you note, a text message or buying somebody a drink in the pub. Small thank you gestures should be given regularly as a way of thanking people for giving up their time. Save the larger thank you gestures for when something meaningful happens and make sure your volunteers know what they did particularly well.

Deciding how best to thank a volunteer depends a little on the volunteer themselves. They may not be the kind of person who wants a big fuss around them or they may be somebody who thrives on lots of attention. As an easy system, one of the organisations I worked with devised the following ‘chocolate system’ to decide when and how to thank volunteers:

Level 1: Tesco value milk chocolate: When you want a cheap and easy way of thanking large numbers of people, you’re not going to buy tonnes of really expensive chocolate (unless, of course, you’re running the nfpSynergy Insights event, where we promise high quality chocolate all the time…). Instead, you’re going to buy something that can be distributed to the masses. This refers to the regular generic thanks you give out to all volunteers; a small thank you message which requires little effort to send, but reaches everyone easily on a regular basis.

Level 2: Crunchie: Crunchie bars are a bit more exciting than Value chocolate, taste a bit better but they aren’t too expensive so can easily be distributed to teams of volunteers, rather than just one.  Crunchies have that ‘Friday feeling’; the feeling of excitement when volunteers have done something well and a key objective has been achieved. This could be anything from a successful fundraising event to seeing an improvement in a beneficiary. This type of thanks may take form of personalised thank you cards to the volunteers involved or a lunch out, for example. It’s made after significant milestones have been reached.

Level 3: Thornton’s Personalised Chocolate Bunny: Ok, so when somebody rescues your cat from the river, you don’t buy them Tesco Value chocolate or a Crunchie to say thanks do you? No, more likely you go out and get their name engraved on a chocolate bunny from Thornton’s. This level of thanks goes to volunteers who have gone above and beyond what is expected of them. It is highly personalised and may take the form of a small gift, a presentation ceremony or something similar. This may be given to a volunteer who excels at a one-off task or somebody who has been quietly getting on with things for a long time and deserves a big thanks for their efforts. It’s quite pricey so you can’t give it out to everybody, but you can bet that these volunteers are worth every single penny of it. 

Rachel Egan

Submitted by Anne (not verified) on 27 Aug 2013


I was told that unless it is branded, gifts (even bars of chocolate) can be seen as reward, payment in kind or bribes.

Submitted by Wally Harbert (not verified) on 28 Aug 2013


I greatly liked and enjoyed this piece. It packs in a lot of good sense. However, it tends towards an “us and them” approach. Many volunteers fully understand management issues.

The chocolate scenario can only apply to a few volunteering situations and, sorry to say, I do not think it helped the arguments.

Volunteers given chocolate for raising funds to save a hospice may not take kindly if the product of their labours is returned to them in the form of chocolate. A physical reward can be helpful but what really matters is the expression of unrehearsed thanks.

Submitted by Ann (not verified) on 29 Aug 2013


Great article! Our organisation is almost entirely volunteer-run (I am one of only two paid staff members), so keeping volunteers motivated and happy is a priority, especially as we are in the process of expanding our services. We do try to thank our volunteers often, but I think personal attention for especially good work is something we could probably do more often. I like the chocolate analogy (and I did notice that it was an *analogy* and not meant to be taken literally!) - a tiered approach seems very practical and effective in asknowledging volunteers.

Submitted by Hazel (not verified) on 6 Sep 2013


Good article - I feel like sending it to the national charity I've just stopped volunteering for - for just about all the reasons in the article.
Timing of 'thank you' is important to - a thank you before the job is finished or for the wrong job doesn't really work!

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