apple Volunteer Retention

“I wanted to see the difference I was able to make and have an effect on that person’s life, rather than donating money to a good cause.” (A literacy volunteer)

Retention and Motivation

When asked by Community Literacy of Ontario what motivates them to continue volunteering with their literacy agencies, the top reasons identified by volunteers were:

  • I feel that I am making a difference in another person’s life
  • I feel that I am contributing to increasing literacy skills in my community
  • I feel supported by program staff
  • I enjoy the challenge offered by my volunteer work
  • I enjoy the warm and encouraging atmosphere
  • I enjoy the social interaction
  • I am growing personally
  • I enjoy the flexible hours

Volunteer retention is all about creating an environment where volunteers feel supported, valued and welcomed. It is about providing volunteers with the information, resources and training they need to succeed in their positions. It is about supporting volunteers so that they can make a difference. Often, agencies put considerable effort into volunteer recruitment and less effort into retention. However, in the long run it takes more time and energy to recruit, screen and train new volunteers than it does to keep the ones you have. Focusing energy on nurturing your relationships with existing volunteers will be time and effort well spent. Your payback will be quality volunteers who are loyal to the organization and a joy to work with.

When CLO asked literacy volunteers what supports they most needed to help them do their work, here is what they told us:

  • Open communication with agency staff
  • Information, tools and resources
  • Supervision and support
  • Clear policies and position descriptions
  • Orientation and training

How well does your agency provide all of these things to volunteers? Here are some suggestions that may help.

Open communication with agency staff

Ongoing communication will help volunteers feel more connected to the organization. Although the onus should be on program staff to communicate with volunteers on a regular basis, be sure your volunteers know they can contact you at any time for help or advice!

Let volunteers know that you will call or email them regularly. For tutors you may want to contact them more frequently when they are first matched with a student. Check in with board or committee members after meetings to thank them for their help or ask if they have any questions. Set up a regular check in time with volunteers involved in providing technical or administrative support.

It can be difficult to reach volunteers during the day. Contacting them would be easier if you ensure you get a current email address (where available). Also, in the application form, you can ask volunteers to give you both an evening and daytime telephone number.

Information / tools of the trade / resources

Make sure that you give all volunteers the information and resources they need to do their jobs effectively. For tutors, this could be printed materials, workbooks or websites. It could also be copies of sample forms that you have collected. Remind tutors to refer to their tutor training manual and handouts from training. For boards and committees, it could be past policies, minutes and other background materials. Work with the chair of the board or committee to ensure that everyone has the information they need. In addition, tell volunteers how and where they can access additional material. Let them know about the resources at the local library or via AlphaPlus Centre and the National Adult Literacy Database. Also let volunteers know that they can contact the program at any time to get suggestions about resources or other needed material.

Supervision and support

Through ongoing supervision and support, you will not only help volunteers to feel more connected to the organization, you may be able to spot “burn-out”, or be able to give volunteers the acknowledgement that they are on-track and are doing a good job, or you may be able to provide them with needed resources and other supports. The more comfortable volunteers are with you, the more likely they are to approach you for help if they feel things are not going well.

A good idea for new tutors is to have an experienced volunteer or a staff person sit in on the first couple of tutoring sessions. They can then provide feedback to new tutors, and this will also help tutors gain confidence in their new role.

Clear polices and position descriptions

Clear polices and position descriptions will help everyone involved with the literacy agency to understand their roles and responsibilities. One of the best sources for sample policies and procedures is CLO’s “Guide to the Development of Policies and Procedures“, Volumes One and Two. Copies of these two resources were sent to every community-based agency several years ago. They were so popular that they are now out-of-print. But check your shelves for this little gold mine of information! For more information on position descriptions, please refer to the previous section, “Screening and Intake“.

Orientation and training

You should take the time to give training and orientation to allvolunteers (tutors, board and committee members and administrative volunteers). All agencies have a structured process for training tutors but may not have the same type of process in place for other volunteer positions.

When asked in CLO’s survey how satisfied they were with the training they received, here is what literacy volunteers had to say:

  • 44% of volunteers were very satisfied
  • 28% were mostly satisfied
  • 20% were satisfied
  • 6% were somewhat satisfied
  • 2% were very unsatisfied

How satisfied do you think your volunteers are with the training they have received?

While volunteer training is extremely important, it is a sizable topic that cannot be covered in sufficient detail in this module. However, Community Literacy of Ontario has done considerable research in this area. For example, CLO has developed a “Provincial Standard for the Training of Volunteer Tutors“. It is CLO’s hope that this standard will set the bar and increase recognition of the professionalism and skill of those involved in Ontario’s community literacy agencies. The complete standard can be found

You can also view two CLO research reports, “Skills for the Future, Phases One and Two” at: These two reports provide a variety of research information about tutor training in Ontario.

In addition, here are some great online sources of information on tutor training:

The Ottawa-Carleton Coalition for Literacy has produced a series of valuable resources for tutor training. They can be found through theNALD library.

One of the best sources of information on board training is hosted by United Way Canada and can be found at:

Literacy agencies and retention

We have heard what the volunteers had to say about retention, now you might be interested in hearing from your fellow literacy agencies!

According to CLO’s volunteer survey, literacy agencies offer the following supports to help retain volunteers:

  • 92% offer ongoing support from agency staff
  • 81% provide opportunities to meet with other volunteers
  • 79% offer training to strengthen volunteer skills
  • 74% hold regular meetings in person or over the telephone
  • 68% provide opportunities to learn new skills
  • 53% offer new opportunities and tasks to challenge and encourage growth
  • 49% provide employment experience
  • 49% survey their needs

We will end this section on volunteer retention where we began. The number one reason literacy volunteers chose to give their time to literacy is to make a difference in another person’s life. Does your agency provide volunteers with the information, training and supports that encourage this to happen?

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. What effective strategies does your agency use to retain volunteers?
  2. What additional support could your organization provide to increase volunteer retention?
  3. Ask five volunteers to tell you what they like best about volunteering with your organization and what they like the least. What do their answers tell you?
  4. What additional training would you like to provide to your volunteers?
  5. Do you think that your volunteers would say that your agency is making the most of their time and skills? If not, why not? How could you change this?
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