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Is Flexibility the Secret to Volunteer Retention?

Holly D Daniels | Published on 7/27/2022

At our 7.13.22 Northeast MN District Council meeting, we talked about how to retain volunteers. What if the secret is as easy as being flexible and inviting them to share power with you?

Flexibility = Volunteer Retention

My icebreaker question was “What’s something you or your organization does really effectively with volunteers? What are you an expert in?”

One volunteer coordinator said she was proud of their person-to-person communication with volunteers. She went on to explain that they hold a value of flexibility. “Volunteers are so apologetic when they can’t make it, and we respond with understanding,” she said. “They are choosing to volunteer with us, and they could choose not to come back.”

Another example of a people-centered approach: A volunteer coordinator had a volunteer ask if she could bring her four kids to a meeting and her response was “Great! Bring them on in!” And some other volunteers acted as surrogate grandparents during the meeting.

We wrapped up the District Council meeting by sharing meaningful relationships with volunteers. One participant shared a story about his friend Denny who lives in a tiny town, about 45 minutes away from the organization. He said, “Denny does not have technology. He does not know how to run a computer. He’s got a heart of gold. He drives people to doctor’s appointments and listens to their stories on the way. He’s the only one who doesn’t have an email address, yet he’s a vital part of our programming in that part of our service area.” No email address? No problem!

How do you get volunteers invested?

Aside from taking a people-centered approach, multiple volunteer coordinators mentioned sharing power with volunteers, as a way to get them invested.

One spoke of practicing horizontal leadership, which sounds like “I’m not the boss. We make decisions and plan events together.”

She also told a story about a committed volunteer named Noreen, who began very hesitantly by attending meetings yet insisting she wasn’t part of the organization. “Noreen just stuck her toe in a little bit to see how things were going, and we allowed her to be part of it on her own terms, without any commitment. And now she’s like my accomplice!”

Another participant at the meeting mentioned that their organization (Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth) is in a post-race season of thank-yous and feedback. She said, “Our volunteers really appreciate sharing what they thought about the event, and how we might improve for next year."

Sincere requests for volunteer feedback can make them feel valued, invested, and recognized!


  • How flexible are you with volunteers who need to cancel their shift? With volunteers who have disabilities? With volunteers who want to bring their kids? With volunteers who don't have an email address or access to the internet?

  • What leadership model do you use with volunteers? Are you the boss? 

  • Are you using requests for volunteer feedback to share power with them and recognize their wisdom?

  • Do you allow volunteers to commit to your organization in their own time? Or do you ask for their commitment upfront?