Four Secrets to Attract (And Keep) Volunteers

Learn how one nonprofit organization keeps volunteers coming back with takeaways you can apply to your own volunteer recruitment and retention strategies.

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Reliable, dedicated volunteers can be the beating heart of successful non-profits. Volunteers provide a diverse range of skills and knowledge that help organizations better support beneficiaries, foster stronger relationships with communities, and save funds and resources. Recent estimates suggest each volunteer is worth an average $27.20 per hour, for a combined annual value of $188 billion dollars. 

But the United States has seen a consistent decline in volunteering over the past two decades, bottoming out at 24.9% in 2015. And this trend has accelerated over the last 18 months amid lockdowns, social distancing and working from home. The pandemic has made it difficult for many volunteers to continue their regular community service — just as organizations need them most. With 70% of volunteers donating only a few hours per month, it has been difficult for many nonprofits to find people to fill even two-hour shifts. 

But this isn’t the case for all nonprofits. For example, Experience Camps has people lining up to volunteer at least one full week of their time, while addressing what can be a difficult issue. The national nonprofit champions the nation’s 5.3 million bereaved youth and runs week-long, no-cost summer camp for kids grieving the death of a parent or sibling. For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, volunteers provide opportunities for kids to laugh, play, and learn how to navigate grief while experiencing the joys of childhood. And interest from volunteers has increased by more than 35% over the past two years, despite the pandemic. 

Here are four secrets that keep volunteers coming back to Experience Camps summer after summer, and four takeaways you can apply to your own volunteer recruitment and retention strategies.

1. An Immersive Experience 

Volunteers at Experience Camps are immersed in a safe space where they can be vulnerable, talk openly about their grief, and surround themselves with a community where grief is normalized. The long-lasting effect of this experience is a recurring theme among volunteers, providing them with skills and resources to navigate grief in their own communities. “It’s what keeps me coming back to camp year after year,” said one volunteer

The best volunteer opportunities provide access to immersive, hands-on experiences that can counteract stress, anger, and anxiety. While some volunteers prefer to dedicate a few hours once a month to their local food bank or animal shelter, there are many others who choose to be of service for longer periods of time. With the average volunteer dedicating 52 hours per year, it’s safe to say that many people are looking for long-term opportunities that allow them to go deeper and get more involved.  

Takeaways: Make your volunteer opportunities as hands-on and immersive as possible.

nonprofit volunteers

2. A Sense of Purpose That Hits Close to Home

More than 80% of Experience Camps volunteers have experienced the death of a loved one, and a large portion of those volunteers didn’t feel like they could talk about their grief. As a result, they know how important it is to support grieving children. When these individuals discover an organization that pairs nostalgic summer camp experiences with clinically-informed grief support they often can’t wait to sign up. Over the years, more than one volunteer has said that “volunteering at Experience Camps has become a part of who I am.” 

Harness the power of your organization’s purpose to set your cause apart and instill a sense of accomplishment among volunteers. With more than 30% of volunteers dedicating their time to causes that are important to them, it’s important to develop clear, emotionally-compelling messaging to communicate your organization’s reason for being. This will help you attract and connect with your target volunteer audience. 

Takeaway: Rally your volunteers around your organization’s purpose to instill a sense of belonging and inspire action.

3. Wrap-Around Support & Growth

When people volunteer at Experience Camps, they gain access to a community of like-minded, grief-informed individuals. And this community doesn’t disappear when camp comes to an end. Staff and volunteers develop close-knit friendships built on understanding and trust. A week-long investment often results in a life-long support system that has your back and reflects your values. As one volunteer said, “the feeling of safety, community, and understanding continues all year round.”

One of the main reasons that people volunteer is to make new connections with others and widen their social circles. Volunteering can help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, arming us with tools and resources to deploy when we return to the real world. Building continuity of community through shared experiences strengthens bonds, not only between volunteers, but also between volunteers and organizations. With 72% of volunteers dedicating their time to only one cause, it’s important to ensure your volunteers feel supported — before, during and after they volunteer. 

Takeaway: Create opportunities that foster healthy connections and support systems between volunteers that can continue to grow over time.

4. A High-Impact Opportunity 

After attending Experience Camps, 90% of children report higher self esteem and less loneliness. Throughout the week, volunteers get to see this impact first-hand as they help empower grieving children to develop life-long coping skills that enable them to move forward with their lives. This tangible impact helps motivate 70% of volunteers to keep coming back year after year. They are proud of the time spent supporting campers and grateful for the opportunity to show them that they’re not alone in their grief.

Focus on effectively communicating your organization’s impact to help new and returning volunteers better understand, not only your organization’s mission, but its influence on beneficiaries. Nearly 75% of working millennials would volunteer more of their time if they had a better understanding of the impact they were making. An emotionally-compelling message with poignant testimonials and  high-impact metrics is a strong motivator for potential volunteers. 

Takeaway: Accurately communicate your impact in a way that resonates deeply with your target volunteer audience.

Across the nonprofit sector, organizations depend on volunteers to keep the lights on, the doors open, and beneficiaries engaged. Many nonprofits would not be able to function without the help of enthusiastic, invested volunteers. Providing an immersive, high-impact experience with a strong purpose and wrap-around support will keep volunteers fulfilled and ready to come back for more.

Carol Cone ON PURPOSE

Since 1983, we have developed and proven the strategy of purpose: helping organizations uncover their reason for being beyond profits, grounded in humanity. Why? Because we knew purpose was a powerful growth accelerator. While it didn't seem like business strategy when we started, today it is no longer if a company embraces social issues, it's how.
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