Is the era of volunteer retention over?

by Salam Salloum, Lebanese Red Cross and Adjmal Dulloo | Jul 3, 2024 | Thought Pieces

Volunteer retention is often touted as a key metric of success for volunteer-engaging organizations. However, there is an ongoing debate across the volunteer sector about whether the focus should be on retaining volunteers or on ensuring they have a positive and fulfilling experience, regardless of the length of engagement.

In a recent poll with volunteering leads from National Societies around the world, 68% of respondents indicated that they strongly disagreed that “prioritising volunteer retention can waste resources” but at the same time 64% strongly agreed that “resources should be invested in improving volunteer experience”.

In an era marked by increased mobility, busy schedules, diminished trust in institutions, and a rise in informal volunteering, the question arises: Is volunteer retention still important?  

Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Take the Survey

Don’t miss our Survey on Volunteering. Currently available in 7 languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese (traditional), Italian, Portuguese (Portugal), Russian, Korean, Persian (Farsi)

Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Is the era of volunteer retention over? Sandie Ngoma is one of the volunteers doing the door-to-door champagne to spread information about cholera and how one can protect oneself. When he was younger and was in school, the Zimbabwe Red Cross came to his school and taught first aid. “That’s when I decided that I want to be one of those people who teach and help to save lives”.

One perspective emphasizes the importance of volunteer satisfaction over retention. This approach argues that volunteers should stay only as long as they find their roles gratifying and fulfilling. The idea is to maximize the quality of their experience and contributions during their tenure without pressuring them to remain longer than they wish.

This philosophy prioritizes the well-being and personal satisfaction of volunteers, fostering an environment where they feel valued and appreciated for any amount of time they can commit. While people today prefer more flexible volunteering opportunities, those who choose to commit to a longer-term relationship with an organization often do so because they find the experience rewarding.

It should come as no surprise that the more satisfied volunteers are in their role and their experience with the Red Cross Red Crescent, the more likely they are to stay long-term. This would further imply that one of the most important things National Societies could be doing is regularly measuring volunteer satisfaction and seeking feedback on how to improve the experience.

Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Is the era of volunteer retention over? Since March 2022, the Russian Red Cross has been actively developing its psychosocial support capacities by training its staff and volunteers in basic psychosocial support, psychological first aid and psychosocial support in emergencies. Over the last two years, almost 10,000 staff and volunteers have been trained.

Acknowledging the trends towards flexible volunteering requires us to adapt our strategies to meet volunteers where they are. Offering micro-volunteering opportunities, virtual engagement options, flexible scheduling and short-term volunteering can align with volunteers’ lifestyles while still fostering a sense of long-term commitment.

Although recruiting and onboarding new volunteers require significant time and resources, especially with high turnover rates, experienced volunteers can help by taking on training roles. This peer-to-peer learning approach makes onboarding more engaging and effective than formal training sessions.

Additionally, we must recognize that the cost/benefit ratio of supporting effective voluntary action has shifted, potentially requiring greater investment in the future. This shift presents an opportunity to reassess our models, moving away from long, heavy, and expensive induction processes to embrace new, flexible approaches that align with current realities and ensure a vibrant, effective volunteer force for the future.

Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Take the Survey

Don’t miss our Survey on Your Daily Work. Currently available in 4 languages: English, French, Spanish, and Arabic.

Short-term placements are easier to fill, making it simpler for organizations to meet immediate needs. This format increases the likelihood of attracting highly experienced individuals who might not be able to commit long-term but are eager to contribute their expertise.

Additionally, short-term volunteering minimizes the risk of volunteers being drawn into service delivery, allowing them to focus on specific tasks and projects. This approach also enables organizations to cover a greater range of specialities, bringing in diverse skills and knowledge that can drive innovation and enhance the quality of service. However, it is important to streamline the recruitment process for short-term placements.

Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Is the era of volunteer retention over? Is the era of volunteer retention over? An elderly man visits a Red cross health clinic held in a tent in the village of Pokal in the Allai Valley, North western Pakistan

Organizations that adopt a flexible approach to volunteering often see an increase in their volunteer base. Allowing volunteers to “give what they can” respects their diverse reasons for volunteering and accommodates their varying life circumstances. This inclusivity can attract a broader and more diverse group of volunteers, enhancing the organization’s reach and impact.

By adapting to the needs and preferences of modern volunteers, we can create a hybrid model that values both retention and the flexibility people seek.

A contrasting opinion argues that an attitude of “drop by and stay as long as you wish” may undermine the organization. For programs requiring extensive training, it is reasonable to expect longer commitments to maintain operational efficiency and safety. Commitment fosters a deeper connection to the organization’s mission and allows volunteers to develop into mentors and leaders.

Volunteers who stay with a National Society longer bring a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge that enhances efficiency, provided that the National Society ensures that volunteers participate in the programme development and in the development of the National Society in general. Volunteers understand the organization’s mission, culture, and processes, allowing them to contribute more effectively and mentor newcomers.

Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Is the era of volunteer retention over? Zambia Red Cross visiting a farmer to learn about the drought and how it is affecting the population

Tracking retention helps to identify patterns and reasons for volunteer departure, enabling continuous improvement of volunteer management practices. Understanding why volunteers stay or leave can inform strategies to enhance volunteer motivation and program effectiveness.

For example, the Lebanese Red Cross systematically conducts an exit interview to “ensure that every volunteer who leaves the organization – or a part of the organization – does so in as healthy a way as possible and engages in a documented exit interview that will allow the organization to learn and grow.”  Data-driven insights allow organizations to adapt their training, support, and engagement practices to better meet the needs of their volunteers.

Another viewpoint suggests that setting clear expectations about the length and nature of volunteer commitments can enhance retention. By providing prospective volunteers with detailed information about what is involved, National Societies can align volunteer roles with individual capacities and interests. This clarity helps volunteers understand their value to the organization and how their contributions fit into the broader mission.

Ultimately, the debate between focusing on retention versus volunteer experience is not a matter of choosing one over the other. A balanced approach that values both retention and a positive volunteer experience can lead to a more robust and effective volunteer engagement. Volunteer retention and a positive volunteer experience are both critical components of a successful volunteer programme. By adopting a balanced approach that respects volunteer preferences and maximizes their satisfaction, National Societies can build a committed, effective, and diverse volunteer workforce.

“Retention should be seen not just as a metric of longevity but as a reflection of the quality and impact of the volunteer experience”

Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Retention should be seen not just as a metric of longevity but as a reflection of the quality and impact of the volunteer experience. In this way, National Societies can achieve their goals while fostering a fulfilling and engaging environment for their volunteers. Ensuring a stable core of committed volunteers provides numerous benefits, including operational stability, trust-building, and efficient use of resources. A balanced approach that incorporates flexibility while fostering long-term relationships will best serve our organization’s mission and the communities we support.

Emphasizing volunteer retention alongside adaptability will enable us to thrive in this dynamic environment, maintaining the integrity and impact of our collective efforts.

Despite efforts to increase volunteer retention, it is evident that retention rates are decreasing globally across the volunteer sector, not just within the RCRC, due to several key factors. Modern volunteers often face time pressures and require more flexibility, making long-term commitments challenging. Insufficient training and support leave many feeling unprepared and dissatisfied, leading to higher turnover.

Economic pressures, such as the cost-of-living crisis, also limit the ability of many to engage in long-term unpaid work. These trends will challenge our ability to reliably deliver services solely through volunteer efforts, potentially leading to broader systemic implications for our organization and society. Additionally, volunteering is becoming more expensive, and we must factor in these rising costs. As we adapt to these global trends, we must reassess our models to ensure the sustainability and effectiveness of our volunteer programs.

Authors of: Is the era of volunteer retention over?

Dive in the IFRC Strategy 2030 Intelligence Centre (also available in French, Arabic and Spanish)


  1. egwujubileetochukwu

    In the other way round volunteer is the engine room the pillar and the road leads to success of the body of ifrc because if you are not working together with your volunteer carefully your message cannot reach to the community aurora area because they’re going to go to the door to door and make sure the message the information reaching to them must surely gone to them in the example of epidemic or flood they’re going to take the responsibilities and everything that is possible to make them to get to the community members and make sure that they have a very successful delivery story .
    That means we must surely be taking the responsibility of our volunteer carefully take good care of them mobilize them give them all it takes to make them to deliver our work successfully in any round of the field work make sure we take the security conscious of our volunteers and the safety of our volunteer enable them to deliver the work not to contact the disease or to fall a victim of the work that trying to deliver

  2. SIMON Mureu

    As thing are today and i n future volunteering will always be in need.I do not see any co/org that would be able to employ all the
    staff it needs not forgetting the world population number is getting higher every day ,so the need

  3. Joyce Kofi

    Volunteering should be a mutually beneficial experience. Volunteers join an organization to donate their time and skills, it’s important to remember that their continued engagement depends not just on what they do for the organization, but also what the organization does for them. An organization should have two primary goals: first, to fulfill its mission, and second, to enrich the lives of the volunteers who support this mission. Focusing on these two aspects could largely lead to increased volunteer involvement and some degree of retention.


Leave a Reply