The 3 R’s of Effective Volunteer Programs: Recruitment, Retention, Responsibility

The 3 R’s of Effective Volunteer Programs: Recruitment, Retention, Responsibility
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Understanding and impacting the lifecycle of volunteer programs—from recruitment and retention to engagement and beyond—is critical to the association business model. Without engaged volunteers, associations cease to function. And without a proper strategy for managing their “volunteer experience,” associations risk their member-volunteers becoming disengaged—putting their likelihood to renew membership and, in turn, the financial stability of your organization, in question.

To ensure your association is making the most of its volunteer management approach, McKinley captured survey data from 96 association executives representing a broad range of industries, volunteer structures and organizational sizes on the state of volunteer programs and practices across the association landscape.

Here are the volunteer program benchmarks, strategies and best practices we uncovered.


Volunteer recruitment focuses on transitioning individual members from “rank and file” involvement to contributing their time and expertise toward advancing your organization’s mission. Eighty eight percent (88%) of the associations we surveyed stated that they utilized organic word-of-mouth referrals to bring in new member-volunteers, while 86% responded that referrals from current volunteers were a preferred method.

These methods rely heavily on “volunteer experience” and leveraging your current volunteers as “ambassadors” for spreading the word to peers and colleagues. Beyond encouraging your most engaged volunteers to share their experiences to build your volunteer pipeline, keeping a tight pulse on your volunteer Net Promoter Score (NPS) serves as an effective proxy for program satisfaction.


Following recruitment comes engaging your volunteers to ensure they continue to renew membership and actively seek involvement opportunities every term. Despite the fact that retention (51%) and engagement (53%) were cited as the top metrics collected by associations across the landscape, many reported challenges in actually leveraging that data. Whether trying to spread awareness of volunteer opportunities, compete against other individual volunteer priorities or diversify their base, associations struggled to adopt winning strategies.

But sometimes, you just have to get creative. One mid-sized association used the little data they did have to address the problem as they saw it—getting back to being a top priority in the eyes of their volunteers. By creating segmented volunteer communications—which combined personalized volunteer opportunities (based on their engagement data) with trending technologies (such as push notifications from mobile applications)—they grew engagement and, ultimately, expanded the lifecycle of their volunteers.


Developing a robust onboarding and tracking system that instills accountability in your volunteers to fulfill their commitments—and allows your staff to track success over time—serves as an effective tactic in reinforcing volunteers’ responsibilities to your association.

Written documentation (75%) and in-person training (68%) were cited to be the most popular forms of onboarding new volunteers. And yet, while 65% reported offering just a single onboarding session, only 31% reported giving volunteers any formal feedback on their performance.

Seventy-four percent (74%) of association respondents stated that they collected some level of volunteer program data, typically through annual surveys. The 17% of associations who feel they are successful in tracking volunteers find engagement data (such as the type of activities individuals participate in and with what frequency) to be more valuable than demographic data (such as age, location, gender and other descriptive markers).

By developing tracking processes and implementing formal accountability tools, you can ensure your members are growing as volunteers through positive experiences and association goals are being met.

In Summary

Each one of these critical components to your volunteer program is undeniably important, but their interdependence is what is striking. Without recruitment, you can not grow your base, but if you are not effectively retaining, then your recruitment efforts go to waste. And even if you are, without proper responsibility, you can not be sure that the volunteer efforts will help you reach your larger goals.

While there may not be a simple answer to running a great volunteer program, a better understanding of the components makes a big difference. Knowing the industry benchmarks, best practices and winning strategies of others offers you a playbook for creating long-term gains for your association.

To see how your association stacks up in the landscape—and discover which other strategies are waiting for you—fill out the form below to download our full Volunteer Program Benchmarking Study.

Fill out the form to download the Association Volunteer Program Benchmarking Study:

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