Note: This post was written in 2014. We’ve written more content with new research since then, including How to Get Nonprofit Software Discounts.
Twenty-five percent of American adults volunteer, but that number is at a 10-year low—putting extra strain on the 85 percent of nonprofits that rely exclusively on volunteer staff to manage the services constituents depend on. For this reason, it’s more important than ever that nonprofits figure out the best ways to attract and retain volunteers.
What is it that drives people to become repeat volunteers for an organization? To find out, we asked a random sample of 3,020 U.S. adults what incentives they thought would be most motivating.
However, 59 percent of respondents said that none of the choices provided would motivate them to commit to multiple volunteering engagements. So, this report focuses on the responses of the 41 percent who did share a preference. Here’s what we found.
Convenient Scheduling, Proof of Impact Are Top Incentives
Convenient scheduling was the most attractive incentive to most survey respondents (27 percent). Between working a regular job and taking care of life’s responsibilities, it makes sense that for people to volunteer more than once, they need a schedule that fits with their other activities.
Top Incentives to Encourage Repeat Volunteering
A comparatively large number of respondents (24 percent) said that receiving details about their work’s impact would most motivate them to volunteer more than once. Proof that the volunteer work people do matters can be a powerful motivator that inspires them to continue.
Twenty-three percent of respondents said that a volunteer experience that benefits their professional development would compel them to become repeat volunteers. For these volunteers, helping others also means helping themselves by acquiring new skills and knowledge to advance their careers.
Finally, 15 percent of respondents said social events geared towards connecting them with other volunteers would be the most effective incentive, while 12 percent said that receiving discounts at a local business in return for their work had the most pull.
Drop-In Schedule Is Favored Scheduling Convenience
With “convenient scheduling” the top incentive for most survey respondents, we dug deeper, asking what specific scheduling option would motivate them best. Among the top-selected scheduling conveniences, 37 percent said short work shifts and drop-in schedules would best accommodate their decision to volunteer more than once, while 34 percent said that choosing which jobs they performed was the best incentive.
Fewer respondents said that having the ability to sign up for volunteer tasks online (17 percent) or participate in an online orientation or training session (11 percent) would impact the length of their volunteer engagement. While these two options aren’t likely to keep volunteers on board, they can certainly make a volunteer coordinator’s job easier.
Preferred Scheduling Conveniences
You might think that if your organization allowed volunteers to choose their own jobs, no one would sign up for the least pleasant ones. But Jo Thomas, event and outreach director for Girls on the Run of the Bay Area, and Jerleen Bryant, director of development and community outreach for Maui Humane Society, report otherwise.
Before implementing online volunteer scheduling software that allowed volunteers to choose their own jobs, both organizations had difficulty getting people to sign up for the less glamorous roles—for example, picking up trash and cleaning kennels. As a result, some volunteers had negative experiences doing jobs they didn’t want to do, and the nonprofits didn’t have help in all the areas they needed.
However, once volunteers were simply given a say in which jobs they performed, more roles were filled and more volunteers were satisfied.
Testimonials From Beneficiaries Are Highly Motivating
Seeing proof that the work they’re doing is meaningful was the top incentive choice for about a quarter of respondents. Of those, 42 percent said that receiving feedback from a beneficiary who was directly impacted by their work would be the best way to encourage them to become repeat volunteers for an organization.
Preferred Ways to Provide Proof of Impact
Dr. Adam Grant, Wharton School professor and author of the best-selling book, Give and Take, says that “respectful contact with beneficiaries is a tractable, actionable tool for enhancing motivation without changing the properties of assigned tasks that comprise work.”
Grant goes on to describe a university fundraising call center experiment, in which certain agents were introduced to people who received scholarships thanks to the their work. As a result, agents stayed on the job longer, and their collected donations increased by 171 percent—while agents who had no contact with beneficiaries exhibited no change in performance.
Our survey lends further support to Grant’s findings from the call center experiment. Most respondents said that direct feedback from beneficiaries would likely motivate them to continue volunteering, which shows that this method would be more effective than providing indirect proof of impact in the form of data, charts, photos and written reports.
Career Training Is Top Professional Development Incentive
The desire to give is the core reason most people choose to volunteer. But receiving is also an excellent motivator, according to 23 percent of our survey respondents.
Receiving work-related training in exchange for volunteering—which volunteers can use to get a job or advance in their current position—was favored by 48 percent of those respondents who said professional development opportunities would motivate them to volunteer more than once.
Preferred Professional Development Opportunities
Joanna O’Connell of The Guardian reports on a trend where people volunteer full-time in exchange for room and board, living expenses and the opportunity to acquire new skills. O’Connell’s article describes Zoe Woodhouse, a 27-year-old who was having difficulty finding paid work and instead committed to a one-year, live-in volunteer job with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
“Even though I’m not earning a salary, I get free lodgings and gain experience in the field I want to spend my career in,” said Woodhouse.
While RSPB’s full-time volunteer model isn’t realistic for all nonprofits, many could still provide training by partnering with a community college to offer classes or local job training that teaches volunteers skills relevant to their career goals. For example, someone who is attending nursing school could gain valuable skills by volunteering for a hospital or medical clinic.
Academic credit and receiving a reference letter to share with a current or prospective employer were the favored choices for 20 percent of respondents each. The least-selected professional development option, chosen by only 12 percent of respondents, was a nomination for a national volunteer award.
No Strong Preference for Ways to Network, Connect
Only 15 percent of survey respondents said that connecting with other volunteers was the incentive that would most motivate them to volunteer with a nonprofit more than once. And even among those who did choose networking and social events as the best option, there was no strong preference for the type of event offered.
In our survey, 29 percent of respondents said casual volunteer meetups, such as bowling or movie nights, were most appealing, while volunteer-appreciation parties, online networking tools (such the Red Cross’ Volunteer Connection social platform) and a free ticket to the organization’s biggest gala were chosen by 25, 24 and 23 percent, respectively.
Preferred Social and Networking Events
Rick Lynch, author and nonprofit management consultant, writes that one way to increase the connection volunteers have with a nonprofit is to invite them to participate in social activities.
“Any kind of social or work-related invitation will [increase a volunteer’s feeling of connectedness]. Invite volunteers to parties, meetings and training sessions… [Invitations] also reinforce the importance of the volunteer’s role in the agency,” Lynch writes.
Free Food is Most Appealing Discount Incentive
Twelve percent of respondents selected discounts at local businesses as the best way to incentivize repeat volunteering. Of the specific discount incentives respondents preferred, food-related discounts were the winners. A grocery-store discount was chosen by 36 percent of respondents, while deals for local restaurants was the next most-selected option, at 30 percent.
Partnering with local grocery chains and restaurants to provide gift cards, discount coupons or vouchers for free meals—or even to provide snacks on-site during volunteer shifts—can be relatively affordable and easy-to-implement incentives.
Preferred Discounts at Local Businesses
The findings in this report reveal that by allowing people to choose schedules that work well for them and sharing proof that the work they do makes a difference can attract and retain volunteers who will stick around. By implementing some of these incentives at your nonprofit, you can grow a volunteer base that will keep coming back.
To find the data in this report, we conducted a three-day online survey which consisted of six questions, and gathered 3,020 responses from randomly selected volunteers within the United States. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.
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