How to handle volunteers walking away

When volunteers quit

One of the most frustrating roles of a leader of volunteers is when volunteers quit.

You’ve put time and effort into training and supervising them and then – poof—they’re gone.

You’re left wondering why, and if there was anything you could have done to have kept them.

There are many reasons why volunteers quit, and not all of them have to do with the leadership or the organization. A volunteer might be moving to a new city. Their school work or career work may have increased. They could have health issues. Many times, though, when volunteers quit it’s because of something the organization, or its leaders, did or didn’t do.

Once, I volunteered for an art gallery in the city where I lived at the time. I filled out the application form, was interviewed and went through an orientation. Then I showed up for my first shift, only to be met with a blank stare from the person I was supposed to report to. She had no idea I was coming, and didn’t have a clue what to do with me.

I explained what I was brought on to help with but she didn’t have anything ready. She ended up giving me some “busy work” to get me through the shift. No problem, I thought. There was just a miscommunication somewhere and the next shift will be better. Only it wasn’t.

I got the same blank stare, and did the same “busy work.” When I showed up for my third shift, a look of annoyance crossed her face when she saw me. So I turned and walked out. I never went back.

A surprising number of people have similar experiences. This person filled out an application and never heard back. That person organized a massive awareness campaign and never got thanked. A third person was so overloaded with tasks they burned out. There was little or no training, so a volunteer doesn’t feel competent or confident in their work. Some are only asked to do low-level, brainless tasks. Shifts get cancelled without volunteers being informed. And on and on.

There are many reasons why a volunteer, or potential volunteer, will walk away and you need to know what those reasons are.

People make mistakes. Stuff falls through the cracks. But without knowing why a volunteer leaves, you will never know where those cracks are. Your recruitment efforts will be like trying to fill a bathtub when the plug is missing.

Another thing about my art gallery experience was the no one ever followed up.

Don’t make that mistake. Once a volunteer is on your roster, even if only for a shift or two, when they stop showing up, reach out to them.

Not all volunteers will tell you they’re leaving. Most, in fact, will simply disappear – especially if they’re leaving because of how the organization is run. Holding an exit interview is imperative.

An exit interview is your opportunity to see the organization and the volunteer program from the volunteer’s point of view. We all are limited in our perspectives, so something we think is working well may be broken from the point of view of a volunteer. A well-conducted exit interview can identify those things.

Here are some tips:

Start with sincerely thanking the volunteer for their time and dedication.

Show empathy and support for their decision. Now is not the time to try to guilt or pressure them into staying. In fact, it is never time to guilt or pressure a volunteer. If you find you’re doing that, you may just have discovered the reason they’re quitting.

Provide an environment where the volunteer feels safe.

Explain the purpose of the interview – to make things better for everyone. Don’t become defensive at any comments the volunteer makes, even if criticism is directed at you. Simply thank them for their honesty. By remaining calm and open, you defuse any latent hostility and increase the volunteer’s sense of safety.

While I strongly suggest you do the interview in person or by video, there may be situations where having an anonymous online survey will be more likely to provide honest answers.

A live interview allows you to adjust the questions based on previous answers, but – especially if there was conflict between yourself and the volunteer – the volunteer may feel safer answering questions without you there.

Ask open-ended questions that allow the volunteer to express their thoughts and feelings freely.

Here are some sample questions, but you will likely need to tailor your questions to each specific situation.

• What prompted you to leave the organization?

• What support and/or resources could we provide to make the tasks easier?

• In what ways could the organization have utilized your skills or abilities better?

• Please describe any incident that made you uncomfortable / unwelcome.

• How could we improve our orientation / training / onboarding?

• Do you have any other suggestions to help us improve?

Asking for suggestions for improvement is important because volunteers see tasks differently than you and they may have very valuable ideas about how to make things more efficient. Be open to that.

Once the interview is over, take a hard look at the answers. Ignore any biases or snap conclusions you may have. Dig deep into the insights the volunteer gave you and use them as a learning opportunity, even if that means changing your own behaviour.

Finally, stay in touch with them. When volunteers quit, it doesn’t mean the entire relationship has to end. They may still care about your cause and be interested in fundraisers or other events your organization holds.

Once you implement the changes required to solve the problems that caused them to leave, they may just come back.

It’s frustrating when volunteers quit but it can be a learning experience and actually make your program better in the long run.

Good luck, and if you need help, let me know.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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