Retaining volunteers: lessons from responding to children’s holiday hunger

Stephanie Denning is a Human Geography researcher at the University of Bristol, with particular interests in the role of volunteers in responding to poverty, and how people are motivated by religious faith to volunteer.

Up to three million children are at risk of food poverty during school holidays – creating a crisis of holiday hunger. Volunteers are an essential part of the response to this crisis, and for volunteer managers the job is not just to recruit, but also to find ways to motivate and retain those volunteers.

The MakeLunch project

As a researcher at the University of Bristol, I carried out three years of research with a charity responding to holiday hunger called MakeLunch. MakeLunch is a network of churches and community groups filling the holiday hunger gap by providing the equivalent of a free school meal in the school holidays.

During the research, I established and ran one MakeLunch kitchen over a 20-month period. The project ran each school holiday and was open to local primary school aged children, with a time of play followed by children and volunteers sitting together for a hot and healthy lunch. I have since handed over the project which continues to run successfully.

The project relied on 10 volunteers a day, with 78 people volunteering in total over the project. My research looked at volunteers’ experiences – from how faith motivates people to volunteer, to how people persist in volunteering over time. Half of the volunteers wrote diaries or completed interviews about their experiences.

Retaining volunteers

Projects like MakeLunch rely on volunteers to be sustainable, so it’s crucial that we know how to best retain volunteers. Based on experiences of volunteers and my own reflections of leading a MakeLunch Kitchen, the research makes four key recommendations to volunteer managers for volunteer retention:

1. Understanding volunteers’ motivations, expectations and volunteering experiences will help voluntary groups to develop positive relationships with volunteers and gain their longer-term support

People volunteer for a variety of reasons. How much do you ask people about their motivations when they start volunteering? If we can understand why people are volunteering we can then reflect with them on whether their motivations are being met by the experience they are having, and how their motivation may be changing. At the MakeLunch kitchen, volunteers kept diaries for the research process, which helped us to to learn more about what people wanted to get out of volunteering.

2. It is vital that volunteers feel appreciated and valued, otherwise it is likely that they will stop volunteering or seek a different opportunity

Even with a strong motivation to volunteer it is likely that a person will look for some personal enjoyment or benefit, for example feeling appreciated by the project leader. If an experience remains unenjoyable it can encourage a person to volunteer elsewhere; it is likely that there will be other projects that can meet their motivations. We responded to this by holding an annual volunteer celebration to thank our volunteers, and to give a chance for volunteers to socialise together.

3. Maintaining a personal relationship with volunteers is as important as volunteer recruitment

This follows from the previous two points: if we can get to know our volunteers, what motivates them, and how they are finding volunteering, then this will help to retain them as volunteers. Do you give volunteers the opportunity to reflect on their experiences with you as the project leader?

If we can retain volunteers, then the strain of volunteer recruitment can be eased. Again, we learned more about people’s volunteering experiences from their research diaries than otherwise would have occurred.

4. If voluntary work is to be sustainable, then voluntary groups need to give as much attention to volunteers as to those a project is serving

Clearly, the need that a project is responding to is important. However, if we rely upon volunteers for this response, then we need to give as much attention to volunteers to ensure we have their support to maintain this response. At MakeLunch, this research has contributed to workshops at their Annual Conferences on volunteer recruitment and retainment, and planning for the longer term.

If you are managing volunteers, it’s important to consider how well you know them. Spend some time reflecting with them on their motivations and experiences in order to build your understanding and relationship with the team. It is easy to focus our efforts and energy on the aim of a project and on recruiting volunteers, but we need to retain volunteers too if voluntary sector projects are to be sustainable.

For more information about Stephanie’s research, follow @SJ_Denning or email

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