Losing volunteers

Even if an organisation has successfully recruited and trained new volunteers, some will inevitably go on to leave. They may do this for many reasons:

  • People’s lives change and even if the volunteer really enjoys their role, and feel valued by their organisation, they may have to leave. If they have had an enjoyable and fulfilling experience with one voluntary organisation, however, they will hopefully return or find a new role at a later date.
  • In other situations, volunteers leave because they do not enjoy the role or find it satisfying. They may still be committed to the cause or issue that prompted them to volunteer in the first place, but feel negative about the actual activities they were required to do, the environment they are working in or poor relationships with other volunteers or paid staff. Alternatively they might feel stressed or overworked. It might also be that the role is not what they were expecting: expectations of paid and unpaid work form a major part of people’s job/volunteering satisfaction, both before a person is recruited and then how the job works out in practice.
  • Some people will leave after their first session volunteering and others will leave further down the line. Volunteers do not need to give formal notice in the way that paid staff do, so may phone up on the day they were expected to say they are leaving, or just leave without any communication – clearly this is highly disruptive to rotas and colleagues. Although organisations generally value their volunteers and appreciate their help it can be hard to know how to express this, particularly when resources are tight and people are pulled in many directions.

However, an organisation should also be prepared to dismiss volunteers if necessary. There are a number of reasons why volunteers may need to be ‘let go’: perhaps they have volunteered in one role for a very long time and run out of steam; maybe their personal circumstances have changed to the detriment of their volunteering; or else maybe, after all, they show themselves to be unsuitable for their role, however good the organisation’s recruitment and training processes. Knowing when to let go is as important as knowing how to retain.

Unless there has been serious misconduct, a departing volunteer should receive thanks and be offered an exit interview opportunity. At this the totality of their volunteer experience, short or long, can be evaluated and views sought from the departing volunteer about possible improvements that might be introduced for future volunteers. The manager should be as positive as possible so the departing volunteer will retain positive views about the organisation and not seek to lower its reputation. Furthermore, agreeing the benefits the volunteer has gained whilst with the organisation and offering them appropriate support in seeking new opportunities, is also good practice.

Problems can arise sometimes in managing volunteers. As Knowhow Nonprofit (2016) highlight, different organisational priorities can come to the fore and volunteers may not understand why things have changed; or volunteers do not get the resources they think they need and money goes to a part of the organisation other than the one they are serving. Where good support and supervision procedures are in place, problems may get solved without prolonging the difficulty.

In other situations, a volunteer may bring a complaint about a member of staff, or vice versa, or a client may complain about a volunteer. Volunteers need to feel complaints are handled with sensitivity, that they receive a fair hearing and that the complaints/grievance procedure of the organisation will be rigorously followed. This procedure should be in writing and available to volunteers, and will ensure a consistency of response. Dealing with such issues is of course important to the individual concerned, but also helps deal with any tension or upset within the volunteer team. Staff always need to be mindful of the fact that volunteers are not tied by a contract or the need to earn a wage and may leave if they find the atmosphere upsetting.

3.4 Key points from Section 3