Volunteers are the backbone of an organisation where a lot of hands-on work and local engagement needs to be done. In the Netherlands, where I live, volunteering is very popular. According to recent studies, almost half of the adult population does volunteer work. Despite this high number, organisations often struggle to attract new volunteers or keep them for a long time.
Today is International Volunteers Day, a timely opportunity to explore what makes people join and what makes them stay as volunteers.
People join because they care
There could be different reasons why people start volunteering. I have been volunteering for many nonprofits, for a variety of reasons: I felt connected to the cause or the organisation, I was looking for a community, I wanted to make a difference and share my skills. Volunteering together with colleagues helped me to get to know them. Volunteering in a new country helped me to learn the language. Other volunteers I spoke to also mentioned other motivators, such as spending their time in a productive way, joining friends to explore something new or getting an experience through volunteering that they would not have in their daily life otherwise.
Whilst there are many possible reasons, the most important one that emerged in these conversations is feeling connected to the cause or the organisation. People need to truly care about what they are contibuting to. There has to be an intrinsic motivation to regularly put in the hours and dedicate themselves to what they are doing.
People stay because someone cares
Caring about the cause is only one side of the coin. What makes people stay on the long-term, is when they get this feeling back from the organisation: when the organisation shows them that they care about them and their contribution. This is what motivates people to keep on giving.
I experienced myself the importance of this. I volunteered for many years in a shelter for wild animals, where knowing my fellow volunteers and having a chat after each shift made all the difference. At another shelter, where I was only active for a few months, the lack of interest and care towards volunteers was quite tangible. We were given instructions on how to take care of the animals and that was it; there was no feeling of belonging, no discussion, no sharing, no support. There was also not much oversight, so some volunteers only did what they liked and therefore the others needed to do much more. People were not engaged and turnover was high.
What I learnt from these experiences is that the most important thing an organisation should do is to show interest in and care for their volunteers. It can be as easy as starting with the question ‘What brings you here?’ and truly caring about the answer. Volunteering somewhere is all about connection, building a relationship. A connection with the cause and a relationship with the people. This is what it takes to build a solid volunteering community that will support you on the long term.
So if you have not yet asked the question or showed your interest, start with that today.