Managing Volunteers for Retention

Support and supervision

Providing ongoing support to volunteers is crucial; your organisation must devote appropriate time and resources to do so.

The kind of support volunteers need will depend on:

  • the nature of the role
  • the conditions of the role
  • their motivation for volunteering
  • their personality and circumstances

Who’s the boss?

Consider these needs when determining who will allocate work and supervise a volunteer – the manager of volunteers, another staff member or another volunteer.

If the supervisor is to be someone other than the volunteer program manager, you will need to ensure they understand their responsibilities and any issues specific to working with volunteers. You should also create lines of reporting that will help you identify whether the needs of both the organisation and the volunteer are being met.

Performance management

Organisations should monitor how volunteers are performing in their role and provide them with regular feedback, both good and bad. This means determining whether they are:

  • working within program and practice guidelines
  • demonstrating any problems such as overconfidence or requiring an unrealistic level of supervision
  • working well with other staff, paid and unpaid
  • working well with consumers

Performance management is also about volunteers having their say. Do they feel adequately supported and supervised? Do they have any feedback on organisational issues? Are they happy? Taking feedback seriously is one way you can recognise a volunteer’s efforts.

A carefully planned approach to conflict management is essential in case performance issues do arise: see Fast Facts – Dealing with Conflict for further advice.


All volunteers need recognition for the work they do. Some will need or desire more than others and each volunteer will have a preference for how they like to be recognised. Here are some options to consider:

  • Say ‘thank you’ regularly
  • Share positive comments from clients, staff and others with your volunteers
  • Give positive feedback based on your own observations
  • Celebrate successes in your volunteer programs
  • Write thank you notes to your volunteers
  • Include items about volunteers in the organisation’s newsletter or journal
  • Ensure volunteer services are included in the organisation’s annual report – their activities, impact and in-kind financial contribution
  • Provide references if requested or act as a referee
  • Issue certificates for length of service, special achievements, completion of training, etc
  • Organise a picnic, barbeque or other outing for your volunteers
  • Publicise the work your volunteers do throughout the community
  • Put forward your volunteers to receive awards offered in the local community
  • Name something after a volunteer (a room, an award, etc).


Responsible organisations ensure that their staff are properly trained. Volunteer programs are no different.

As well as orientation and training before they commence, you should plan for a volunteer’s ongoing training and development needs. Changes to the program or organisation, or new systems or equipment, may require volunteers to update their knowledge— either through formal training or via newsletters, posters or briefings.

The added bonus of training and development is the opportunity volunteers gain for personal growth and progression within the organisation— which may make or break their commitment to your program.

Being counted

Involving volunteers in decisions that affect them can allay discontent and head off conflict – it may also bring useful ideas to your table. Decision-making processes will vary from place to place, so the involvement of volunteers needs to be considered in the context of your organisation as a whole. Think about how you can ensure volunteer involvement is effective.

The part-time nature of volunteering must also be considered, so that volunteers aren’t excluded from decision-making simply because, for example, they don’t volunteer on the day meetings are held.

Parting Ways

A volunteer’s departure is a good opportunity to continue the ongoing evaluation of your program.

Exit interviews allow you to capture a volunteer’s experiences at the organisation—perhaps with greater honesty than while they are still employed. You may also wish to provide a statement of service that acknowledges the volunteer’s commitment and achievements.


Occasionally volunteers are asked to leave an organisation, perhaps due to a dispute or problems with performance. A dismissal policy is essential to ensure that the process is fair and clear to all.

And remember: while such an experience can be painful for all parties, it is also an opportunity to critically assess what works and what doesn’t in your program.

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