why volunteers quit

If you’re plagued by volunteer retention issues — or want to encourage deeper volunteer engagement — it helps to know what the research says about why volunteers quit.

You may think you understand why a volunteer quit, but they usually don’t tell us directly. Giving critical feedback is difficult. Most people won’t come right out and say you interrupted them one too many times or they didn’t feel accepted by paid staff members. It’s much easier for a volunteer to blame it on external circumstances like lack of time or family responsibility.

The Difference Between Paid and Unpaid Workers

Before we delve into plummeting volunteer retention, there are three things that set volunteerism apart from paid work. These affect volunteers’ expected experience, levels of satisfaction, and, ultimately whether or not they decide to stay.

First, volunteers have a choice. They do not have to engage with your organization (or specific tasks), and they can disengage at any point.

Second, people have all sorts of motives for volunteering – mostly for altruistic reasons. They want to help others. Employees, on the other hand, may be drawn to social conscious workplaces, but their primary motivation to work is to get paid.

Last, volunteers attach a stronger value to incidental and intrinsic rewards than paid staff. Meaning they enjoy the byproducts of volunteering: making friends and working together for the common good. Again, employees’ primary motive is money.

While there are many circumstances that lead to decreased volunteer retention, you might be overlooking a few significant contributors. So, here are five key areas, backed by research, that might explain why volunteers quit. What’s fascinating is they have little to do with the plethora of human resources management activities and organizational structures in place and more to do with the perceptions and emotions of the volunteer.

Want to increase volunteer retention? Use our free roadmap to design an exceptional experience for your volunteers:

Free [Worksheet] The Ultimate Volunteer Experience Roadmap

Design a focused plan to meet volunteer needs throughout their lifecycle.

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Why Volunteers Quit – 5 Things You May Be Missing 

When you think about designing an intervention to increase volunteer retention, consider these five areas for better results.


Volunteers must feel they have the required knowledge and skills and are adequately prepared for their assignments. Skills-based volunteering has increased over the past few years. And, with the rise of technology in the workplace, there are a number of areas in which volunteers must be competent in order to be successful.

If they don’t feel competent to the point of confidence, they will not be as satisfied with their jobs.

Questions to Ask Yourself
– Do volunteers receive adequate training to feel comfortable in their new roles?
– Do they have the right tools for the right job?
– What other tools and support can you offer?
– Is your workplace a safe place to ask questions? Are you and your staff approachable?

Participation Efficacy

Similar to competence, volunteers also need to feel effective. They want their time to be well used and their work to make a concrete difference. When a volunteer feels underused and unnecessary, they’ll find little reason to commit long-term.

Questions to Ask Yourself
– Is their work designed to be efficient with minimal bureaucracy and roadblocks?
– Do you report and celebrate when volunteers reach goals?
– Do you offer next-level learning opportunities on a regular basis?

Group Integration

This refers to the social aspects of volunteering and being part of the “in-group.” Volunteers need to feel that they have positive relationships with both their peers and paid staff.

Questions to Ask Yourself
– Do you ensure that new volunteers are fully integrated into the larger group?
– Do you actively work against the formation of cliques and “insider” groups?
– Is everyone kept in the loop with emerging information?
– Do you address volunteer-paid staff relations issues proactively?

Organizational Support Depending on Age

This refers to the ability to get help when needed, acknowledgment of work, and feedback on performance. Perhaps surprising, this need varies with age, and research shows that this support does not affect the intent to remain of those over 40 years old.

Questions to Ask Yourself
– For your younger volunteers, do you have a plan to provide more in-depth supervision and support?
– Do you have a feedback system in place to help volunteers make corrections and work more effectively?

Perception of Voice

Voice is a volunteer’s perceived opportunity to provide input and be heard. Studies show, volunteers have a much greater chance of burnout when they feel they have no say in circumstances that impact them. Burnout, as we know, is characterized by exhaustion, hopelessness, irritability, and negativity. All of which, ultimately lead to the volunteer deciding to quit.

Volunteers who feel valued and heard tend to have better decision-making skills, have positive views of authority, set more goals, and experience increased cooperation.

Questions to Ask Yourself
– Are you listening to your volunteers? Not just their voices, but their body language?
– Are you paying attention to how they interact with their peers?
– Do you have systems set in place to identify and respond to burnout before it leads to resignation?

Where to Start

By focusing on these five areas, you are more likely to increase volunteer engagement and retention.

Don’t know where to start? Why not poll your volunteers with a satisfaction survey to find out which area is the most important to them? Tackle that first. Good luck! And, let us know how it goes in the comments.

Free [Worksheet] The Ultimate Volunteer Experience Roadmap

Design a focused plan to meet volunteer needs throughout their lifecycle.

Download Now