I have volunteered at numerous organizations in the various areas I’ve lived in, and I’ve stuck by some very good ones while I could and left ones after the initial orientation or roadblock that barred me from moving past the orientation to official volunteer. Some of these positions have been regular weekly volunteering (such as at a shelter or with a class), and some have been one-off projects (photographing an event or working on a website). I have learnt a lot over the years in what has kept me with an organization or on a project, and what hasn’t worked out.

Because it doesn’t make any sense to just say why I don’t continue volunteering or what my problem was, I will add a recommendation on how to retain volunteers in the particular scenario. I hope that you might add your experiences and advice in the comments, too.

Here are some of the roadblocks I have encountered while volunteering.

1) Not using my skills or the work that I’ve produced

The number one thing that motivates most volunteers is feeling useful or making a difference. You are donating your time for a good cause, so if your time doesn’t make a difference… why volunteer? Why return? So it can certainly drive a volunteer away when they produce work and the organization ignores it altogether. This may sound isolated or edge case, but I can assure you it has happened quite often.

An example of this is when I have taken photos for the organization to be used in adoption pages or other areas of the website to promote the dogs or their organization. I will attend an event and take photos for several hours, and then return home to edit those photos for several more hours and upload them. Such work generally takes me upward of 8 hours total, yet I have had several organizations not even respond to the messages (plural) I send over in regards to the photo work. I had one organization have me drive 40 miles to meet with them about a major graphic design project, after which I got started and worked for about 2 days on it, only to have them not respond to any of my messages asking for further direction. Days and days wasted of my very valuable (and in any other scenario, expensive – I do this kind of work professionally!) time.

What to do: Easy, reply and use the work – even if it’s not perfect! If there is a problem with the work or you can’t use it immediately, respond and work with the volunteer instead of ignoring them. See if you can use the work for something else, or ask for changes. If this happens to you more than once, very carefully analyze why. You should never use someone’s time unless you know you need something done. See if you need to change your process so you only request work that’s needed. If you keep asking for tasks that are not meeting a need, you will risk scaring volunteers away.

Too busy to reply or move the project forward? This is a common one. But if you are bogged down and can’t do your end of the deal, reply with a timeframe with when you can respond and address whatever is needed. Delegate if possible. But do try to avoid this scenario as much as possible: if you can’t complete your deliverables on a project that you started, you should not have a volunteer start it. Wait for a period of time where you know that you can see the project through to completion and use the work.

And at all costs: do not leave your volunteer hanging or ignored.

2) Having a limited schedule or limited volunteer opportunities

I have tried to volunteer at shelters that are open during regular business hours that only allow 1 or 2 volunteers in the (sizable) building at any given time. All those shifts would fill up during the only times I could volunteer at the time (evenings and weekends). No opportunities existed outside of this, even when I approached them with my skills and other ideas of ways I could help during my available hours there wasn’t an opportunity. They refused to create an opportunity. So I couldn’t volunteer at all.

What to do: Even if your organization is “event-based” and has a very specific time that you need volunteer help, it’s almost always possible to create positions that do not fall into that very limited timeframe. For example, if your rescue organization has an adoption event on Saturday, create opportunities for volunteers to do online work for you or make items you can sell at your event during the week if they can’t help at the event. Brainstorm tasks that will help your cause, and allow your volunteers to help out in other ways.

Delegate too! There is probably something you’re doing that you don’t need to be doing. Even if it’s something you enjoy or feel you’re the best at, you may need to release the reins a little and let someone else do the task for you if they’re good at it, and give you more time at something else. What about fundraising? Marketing? Your website? Even if these things are something you’re afraid of losing a bit of control over, it could be worth it and free you up for more important tasks.

You will have the best shot at retaining a volunteer who enjoys doing whatever task they are volunteering for. So focus on letting your volunteers do what they’re most motivated to help with (which is probably what they’re also pretty good at).

3) Having long and complicated (or costly) on-boarding requirements, and not accommodating or respecting previous experience.

One shelter I tried to volunteer at required prospective volunteers to pay money to attend a short meeting about volunteering position details. They didn’t even share information about the training process or position details until after you paid money and were “accepted” to the orientation, and then they outlined the months long process of training to be a dog walker. When I explained my experience as a dog training assistant, my courses in dog training and behavior (enough education and experience to actually apply at that very same shelter as a paid trainer!), and that I had volunteered at six different shelters in previous years… I was told that I would still benefit from the two months long course and had to take it. In order to walk their dogs on property. Know what I was thinking in my head? It’d be quicker and easier to leave and submit an application for a job there! Not to mention… I’d get money for my time, help pay off that orientation!

The other shelter with the limited schedule noted in #2 would not even listen to the possibility of a program to walk their dogs, even around their own (quiet, empty, large, out-of-the-way) parking lot. Given with the opportunity to just hear me out or lose me altogether, they tossed me out the door.

While I understand that some dogs can be a handful, this inflexibility and/or over-the-top requirements (in my opinion and shelter experience anyway) probably do not help an organization enough to warrant them. Yes, training is fantastic and beneficial to those without experience, but what about those who do? Wouldn’t they be a good choice to retain, even if it took a half hour extra time to accommodate an outlier? It would have resulted in hundreds of hours of volunteer time from someone good enough to “pay” were they to hire me.

What to do: While a shelter may not be able to listen to every request or suggestion, it could pay to at least take a few minutes to chat to someone as long as that person approaches them with respect and good reason. Maybe prioritize prospective volunteers who are making an honest effort, perhaps especially if they come from a place of shelter and/or dog experience.

I probably sound a bit high-and-mighty here, but I would hope that years of experience as a shelter volunteer and dog behavior nerd was worth something. Heck, I traveled all the way to India at some cost for a dog training course just because I wanted to become a better dog volunteer and be more useful to the system! I returned home to no shelter wanting me or willing to give me a few minutes of their time. Yes, that’s incredibly discouraging. I would have hoped spending 10 minutes with me would be worth the hundreds of hours I wanted to spend helping at their shelter or organization.

4) Making political or other “charged” statements during orientation

Many of my orientations have included charged political statements, to making fun of people who wear certain articles of clothing. That’s right, the person giving the orientation mocked people who wore sandals with socks, and my eyes shifted down to scan the room and the person sitting right in front of me was wearing that combination. No, this is not make or break for me but it could be for someone else… and it’s so, so easy to remedy! And most shelters I have been to will make charged comments against certain animal welfare movements or other politics during their orientations.

What to do: Don’t. Keep it professional, treat it like a business. Save the political comments or attempts at sass for friends and family, or keep them to yourself. Remain neutral, and stick to facts and details about the task at hand.

5)Taking volunteers for granted

Volunteers are an asset, something you’re lucky to have at your organization. They can leave at a drop of a hat, even if you have time requirements in place. A volunteer doesn’t need to be there, they aren’t getting any glory or recognition from the world, they just want to help and make a difference. This feeling should start from the second they show up at your organization, be it the orientation or first meeting one on one. A volunteer is making an assessment of whether they want to spend their hours with you. Chances are most volunteers will make many other things a priority (family, health, and so on), so you want to make sure your time out of their week is as high of a priority as possible. Doing many of the things mentioned in this post may cause that priority level to drop. Treating a volunteer well and instilling a feeling of good will causes it to rise.

What to do: Remember this every day and thank that volunteer when they arrive and leave, or whenever it’s possible. Use their work, tell them how it’s making a difference. Show them the difference they’re making. Tell them a story about how the organization overall is making an impact. Randomly appreciate them, even if it’s just an email or e-card. Treat them like a friend, not as a worker or someone expendable because they’re not paid. Did the volunteer disappear for a while? Check in! Maybe life got rough, perhaps your organization is their main social outlet and your message will make or break their return… or just make their day. Make your volunteers feel good and understand the impact they’re making, and they will return and continue to be by your side.

The social element may not be top of the priority list, but think of it this way: this small act could make your organization stand out beyond the others in your volunteer’s mind, and keep them with you for the long-haul. Saving time training new volunteers year-round is time you get to spend on your organization: and that’s gold. So smile and give thanks! So easy and free to do, and so much to potentially gain in return.

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.