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Top Challenges with Volunteer Engagement & Retention

Lori Halley 13 May 2015 2 comments

challenges of managing volunteersAfter hosting a webinar on Volunteer Onboarding (presented by Tobi Johnson), we gathered together a group of volunteer managers to discuss the key challenges facing organizations in trying to engage, motivate and retain volunteers.

In this article, I'll cover the five main challenges that everyone in the group faced as well as the advice and insights that other group members had in dealing with each challenge.


Top Challenges Volunteer Managers Are Facing with Volunteers

Prior to the session, we asked the membership participants to share their top challenges of managing volunteers. Here are some of the specific responses we received:

  • Recruiting enough volunteers to accomplish the things that need to be done.
  • Getting volunteers, matching them to right task, and keeping them.
  • Recruiting enough volunteers to staff events.
  • Identifying members who can become consistent, active volunteers and transition into leaders of the organization.
  • Being a volunteer based organization, managing volunteers with conflicting opinions.
  • Engaging volunteers to follow through with assignments.
  • The same people seem to volunteer – getting into "burnout".
  • Retention is our biggest issue.
challenges of managing volunteers


Do Any of These Resonate with You?

If they do, don’t despair! Even volunteer management professionals have challenges. One participants in our discussion who is a professional volunteer coordinator, noted that while she doesn’t have any difficulty recruiting volunteers she does have trouble motivating volunteers. She struggles with getting volunteers to take their role more seriously and provide more of a customer-focused attitude, instead of focusing on the speaker, activity, or exhibit or event they are staffing as a volunteer.


Peer-To-Peer Sharing of Challenges and Helpful Advice

During the hour-long conference call, group members noted their key challengesand also offered one-another some helpful advice and ideas. Here are some highlights from the discussion that you might be able to apply to your organization.


Challenge 1: Recruitment is a key challenge for a volunteer leader at a library.

One of the group noted that she has difficulty getting enough people in to fill the gap when a volunteer needs to take a break.

Advice & Ideas: Another MAG member offered the following advice:

“We find that some of the best recruits are done through existing volunteers. How about asking these great volunteers before they leave to tell their friends or someone who has the time, energy, inclination to help out at the library. [Consider saying]: “you do such a great job here, we would love for you to think about who in your group of friends and family… could you refer me to someone.”


Challenge 2: Consistency of effort and interest across volunteers and moving them into leadership roles.

One participant who is involved with both alumni and professional associations noted his biggest challenges are recruiting and also trying to motivate volunteers to move into leadership roles. He noted:

“...some volunteers are always involved and going gang busters and you think they’ll be a leader, but then they drop off. Or a volunteer is active but wants to stay in the background [instead of stepping up to a leadership role].”

Advice & Ideas: He found that what worked well was “having a leadership session each month to pass on information, ideas about activities, share successes or topics to help to grow their organizations.”


Challenge 3: Transitioning from an older network of volunteers to younger members coming in.

One of our callers noted that her association needs to transition from a group of older volunteers who are "getting burned out" to some younger volunteers. The problem is that “a few volunteers who are excited to pass on the torch, others feel they are being replaced.”

Advice & Ideas: It was suggested that the organization have the older members train and mentor the newcomers.


Volunteer Engagement


Challenge 4: Having volunteers “step up to the plate and take responsibility”.  

One professional association board member noted that:

“our board does most of the work (they sign up because it looks good on a resume…) but we found that some volunteers were good at throwing out ideas but not acting on them."

Ideas & Advice:  The solution to this challenge at one association, was to force all board members to take responsibility and follow-through. Now if a board member raises an idea, he/she is tasked with leading that project. The MAG group member noted:

“The group found that the more responsibility you offer, the more volunteers step up to the plate and  take their role seriously.”

Just ask: Another participant noted that if a volunteer “isn’t performing well, he or she may give up and quit, or they might do more if you only ask.” She also noted, you need to know what motivates your volunteers:

"People volunteer because they want to know that what they are doing has impact. The younger generation doesn’t give to charity, they give to causes, so if you want to engage younger people, they want to know the result of their efforts, e.g., when you tutor these kids in English, they do better at school.

People leave because they don’t think that what they are doing is important, so in onboarding interviews be sure to ask what they are looking for. [In addition] people don’t continue when they aren’t appreciated/recognized, so ask them how they like to get thanked – e.g., a party; access to tickets; a personalized thank-you; personalized email, etc.”


Challenge 5: Project completion & follow-up with technical volunteers.

An Executive Director of a professional association noted that she has had some amazing volunteers with high technical skills who will complete a project, but then drop off. The challenge is that she and other volunteers “have to try to pick up the ball afterwards”. The problem is that not only are they lacking the technical skills, but they also may not have all of the details they need to continue this work.

Ideas & Advice: There were a number of suggestions to help with this problem, including:

  • using independent contractors
  • ensuring all tech help (volunteer or otherwise) create documentation - e.g., step-by-step process of the task or project that remains with the organization for future reference
  • always insist that tech volunteers track all the background information, create a job description, and build the documentation for the role so that when they leave, someone else can move into the role


Key Takeaways from the Chat

At the end of the discussion, we asked the group what key learning they’d received that they could put in place at their organization. Here are a few of their takeaways from their discussions with their membership peers:

  1. Informally surveying volunteers when they start, to ask them what they are looking for from the volunteering experience. Never thought to ask what they wanted to get out of the experience.
  2. Have regular check-ins with volunteers.
  3. We need to do more information gathering. Start treating volunteers more like part-time independent contractors. Be a little more specific about what volunteer jobs we have available.
  4. How to work with technically talented people - have a form on which they provide information, so that we have details about the project/task when they move on.


Want More Information?

If you didn’t attend our Expert Webinar on Converting Volunteers From Joiners to Stayers, you can watch the video or check out the presentation here.

You also might want to read one of these helpful articles:

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Wednesday, 13 May 2015 at 8:30 AM


  • Ken Thompson said:

    Wednesday, 13 May 2015 at 9:45 AM
    This article just restates common sense information; nothing new or interesting.
  • Shiv Narayanan [Magnetic Apricot] Shiv Narayanan [Magnetic Apricot]

    Shiv Narayanan [Magnetic Apricot] said:

    Wednesday, 13 May 2015 at 10:18 AM
    Hey Ken! I believe you are part of our Membership Advisory Group and have always had some great insights. Thanks for your comments. I think you would make a strong candidate for a 1-on-1 to share your expertise. Someone from our team will be in touch :)
Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.

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