MORE than 21 million people — about two-fifths of adults in the UK — volunteer at least once a year, research carried out in 2016 by nfpSynergy suggests. Many churches and faith groups rely on volunteers, and focus a great deal of time and energy on recruiting new ones. But a crucial area that can be neglected is how to ensure that the volunteers that they already have continue to volunteer: retention, not just recruitment.
The key question that churches and other groups must ask themselves is what motivates people to volunteer, and what encourages them to persist in volunteering. Research that I have carried out points to several answers.
Over three years of research at the University of Bristol, I established and ran a MakeLunch Kitchen in an inner-city C of E church. MakeLunch is a national Christian charity that responds to holiday hunger, a dimension of food poverty when children do not have enough (nutritionally valuable) food to eat in the school holidays. MakeLunch Kitchens provide the equivalent of a free school meal in the school holidays, often as part of a holiday club. And the Lunch Kitchens rely on volunteers.
In the research, I made use of volunteers’ diaries and interviews to explore their experiences of volunteering (recounted here using pseudonyms). Some important lessons were learnt.
FIRST, volunteers’ motivations. People came together to volunteer at the Lunch Kitchen from a variety of backgrounds, and from across different parts of the diocese. Many were motivated to volunteer by their Christian faith. Amelia, for example, said that volunteering at the Lunch Kitchen was “a way of living out what I believe”.
For others, such as Violet, faith combined with a political motivation. “The theological aspect is to do with the hospitality of Jesus,” she said. “The political motivation comes from my absolute horror at the outcome of the  General Election, and the implications of the benefits cuts, as well as the lack of compassion people seem to be showing to anyone they perceive as different to themselves.”
Faith was a strong motivator at the Lunch Kitchen, but it was distinct for each volunteer. Leaders of volunteer groups can draw several lessons.
Lesson one: understanding volunteers’ motivations, expectations, and volunteering experiences will help voluntary groups to develop positive relationships with volunteers, and gain their longer-term support.
Why did people persist in volunteering at the Lunch Kitchen? Volunteers’ motivations did not necessarily change, but they were affected by their experiences there. In particular, volunteers were affected by how relationships developed among the volunteer team, and with children attending the Lunch Kitchen. “I’ve got to know lots of the volunteers; got to know the children and their families,” Amelia said. “It’s good to be recognised, and to be able to recognise them when they come back.”
In turn, Violet reflected: “I think things like the Lunch Kitchen mean we all become more human. Rather than acting like cogs in a machine, we all give, we all receive, and we become a community.”
HOW people reflect on their experience of volunteering is crucial for how their motivation to volunteer, and perception of a project develops — and, ultimately, whether they will continue to volunteer.
It is crucial, therefore, to note lesson two: maintaining a personal relationship with volunteers is as important as volunteer recruitment.
If people do not enjoy the experience, or feel a benefit of some form, then, even with a strong faith motivation, they will turn to a different volunteering opportunity — there will be plenty of other projects that meet that same motivation.
This leads on to lesson three: it is vital that volunteers feel appreciated and valued. Otherwise, it is likely that they will stop volunteering or seek a different opportunity.
Overall, lesson four is that, if voluntary work is to be sustainable, then voluntary groups need to give as much attention to volunteers as to the people whom a project is serving. This is because we need to understand what motivated people to volunteer, their experiences, and their expectations — and building on these so that they feel valued.
One example of how to do this is to hold an annual volunteer celebration: give volunteers a time to socialise, thank them, and give awards to volunteers. Another is to ask volunteers for feedback: do they feel able to be open about things that they feel could be done differently?
Ultimately, for a project to be sustainable, understanding and acting on volunteer retention is as important as the need that a project is serving.
Stephanie Denning is a researcher at the University of Bristol. For more information about her research, follow @SJ_Denning on Twitter or email firstname.lastname@example.org.