Motivating the Nonprofit Volunteer: How an Organization can Keep ‘Em Coming Back for More

The bottom line is that volunteers are non-negotiable for nonprofits; they are necessary for an organization’s survival. While some nonprofits operate with big overhead budgets and complete full-time staff, there are many others that are run entirely by volunteers. Most nonprofits fall somewhere in between and no matter the range of reliance, nonprofit organizations need volunteers to function.   Effective volunteer management is vital to the success of nearly all nonprofit organizations. A nonprofit organization will benefit more from retaining existing volunteers than from recruiting new volunteers. Brudney and Maijs highlight how shifting too much focus towards recruitment can result in a cycle where current volunteers feel a lack of attention and leave organizations to rely on new volunteers. This cycle is inefficient for nonprofits because they expend resources training new volunteers instead of allocating them toward the mission.

To combat this, Brudney and Maijs discuss the idea of volunteers as a “renewable resource whose continuation and volume of flow can be affected positively as well as negatively by human interaction.” They coin the idea of “volunteer energy” being the true renewable resource and emphasize that people (or organizations) must carefully cultivate and care for volunteers for the energy to flourish. The authors propose a new model that outlines how organizations can shift their actions to preserve volunteer energy, rather than deplete it. 

The model has two issues: 1) it is not always (and probably often not) practical for organizations to change their policies to meet the needs of the volunteer and 2) they skate around the idea of motivation by placing it within general volunteer management. First, nonprofit organizations are already tight on resources, which is a main contributor for the reliance on volunteers. Most organizations do not have the time to negotiate with volunteers, the staff to arrange flexible work schedules, or space to store work completed at different times. While some movement toward a middle ground would most likely attract and satisfy more volunteers, the regenerative model as it is presented simply isn’t feasible for a lot of organizations. Secondly, volunteer motivation as a strategy for sustainability is missed. Here, the idea of volunteers being intrinsically motivated to continue is a non-issue. What Brudney and Maijs fail to focus on is the opportunity for organizations to maintain renewable “volunteer energy” by focusing on extrinsically motivating volunteers. Extrinsic motivation is the variable that organizations have most control over and can adjust policies and practices to fit the needs of each volunteer class. 

The literature surrounding volunteer motivation has been consistent in concluding that volunteers anticipate receiving some benefit for work. Common preferred rewards and benefits overlap with the for-profit sector where “appreciation dinners, recognition in the organization's newsletter, a certificate or plaque, small gifts… and preferred parking” are all valued. There are different rewards that can motivate a volunteer to return, but each one is a form of appreciation.

There are some volunteers who are intrinsically motivated, but other groups of volunteers participate for general community service and need a more explicit investment to motivate their return. Nonprofits may give volunteers hats, sweatshirts, or t-shirts to signify their place with the organization. These types of rewards may seem trivial, but the attention shows the volunteers that 1) the work is appreciated and 2) they are being noticed as individuals.

Appreciating volunteers with concrete rewards is an effective way to motivate and regenerate “volunteer energy,” however, not all nonprofit organizations have the resources to dole out promotional items or certificates. Even if an organization has the resources, is it appropriate to reward a first-time volunteer with dinner? The recognitionthe individual is the motivating factor; so, organizations can also utilize non-physical rewards to renew “volunteer energy.”

One way for organizations to conceptually show volunteer appreciation is for paid staff to defer to any volunteer experts.This is a way to validate the volunteers and acknowledge their worth. When volunteers feel that skills are being used correctly, they are more likely to feel motivated to return. Another way for organizations to show appreciation is to recognize volunteer work by thanking them. Having members of the board email or call volunteers shows that t the work is noticed and is regarded as important by the ‘higher ups.’  

If an organization is somewhere in between rewards systems, one solution is to offer a “menu of rewards,” allowing volunteers to pinpoint what is most important to them. These packages could include anything from promotional items to different volunteer opportunities and might “allow the organization to reach individuals who might not be attracted by a single appeal.” There are organizations that have a recurring group of internally motivated volunteers, but for other organizations, this proposal offers a way to reward volunteers without fear of wasting resources. This build-your-own menu option ensures that volunteers will be rewarded, and therefore motivated, while minimizing any instances where organizations miss the mark and still lose volunteers that they have invested in. This idea improves on Brudney and Maijs’s regenerative model by 1) prioritizing volunteer motivation and 2) decreasing the need for a negotiation between volunteers and organizations. Both improvements make volunteer management more efficient and offering rewards easier for organizations. Regularly, many nonprofit organizations may not consider rewarding volunteers and may rely solely on intrinsically motivated people to stick around, however this plan allows organizations to secure renewable “volunteer energy” without expending too many resources. 

A lot of volunteer-management and nonprofit literature mentions the idea of offering new duties or options for progression. This is an interesting concept for an organization that already has a slew of skilled workers. For example, skilled employees may teach clients how to service themselves in the future, non-skilled employees may learn less-technical tasks on the job, or administrative volunteers may assist with organization-wide. These new opportunities can be offered to veteran volunteers to expand on their personal skills, but also to show that they are trusted members of the organization. Allowing volunteers to branch out into different areas of responsibility further solidifies the relationship between them and the organization. 

Among the many approaches a nonprofit organization could use to manage their volunteers, motivation as a means of retention should at least be one of them. Although missed by Brudney and Maijs’s regenerative model, volunteer motivation is a key component of retaining volunteers at any nonprofit organization. An organization can encourage volunteers to continue working with them by appropriately recognizing hard work and appreciating donated time.