For decades, volunteer engagement was summed up in 3 Rs: “Recruitment, Retention, and Recognition.” As the field of volunteer engagement changes and advances, these three practices are evolving and being redefined as well.


Traditionally, recruitment focused on looking outward to find and attract people to engage in activities in support of the organization’s cause. As volunteer trends have changed and new generations enter the volunteer force, organizations benefit from taking a broader view of recruitment, expanding the focus both internally and externally, cultivating relationships with potential supporters and deepening relationships with current volunteers.

On the surface, successful recruitment has been defined as “filling all volunteer slots.” But the story can be much richer than that. Successful recruitment could include the number or percent of:

Goal Plan Success
  • Positions or “slots” filled
  • New volunteers
  • Returning volunteers
  • Qualified candidates
  • Volunteers who represent or are from the communities being served
  • Current volunteers who step up for “more” or different roles

What else is part of your recruitment success story?


While recruitment efforts have evolved, so have perspectives on retention. The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the definition of retention even more dramatically. For years, volunteer retention was measured by the number or percentage of volunteers who stayed year after year, usually in the same volunteer position. Yet, even prior to the pandemic, organizations had begun to rethink how retention success was measured, shifting from a goal of keeping volunteers to one of “maximizing volunteer talent.” This definition expands the thinking beyond individuals in specific roles to one of sustaining a culture of engagement in which talent can be harnessed to drive mission-fulfillment.

Traditional Measures of Retention include:

  • Hours contributed
  • Events or shifts attended
  • Years of service
  • Fulfilling required commitments
  • Consistency of service
  • Maintaining certifications

No time in history has challenged our definitions and goals of retention as dramatically as have the past few years. Volunteers have increasingly sought shorter term and more flexible opportunities, but the unpredictable conditions of the pandemic made flexibility more of a necessity.

Thousands of volunteers discovered overnight that their regular volunteer roles were discontinued while others chose to step away from volunteering (at least in person) due to health concerns. Yet, most of those volunteers still feel connected to the organization’s mission, and act on that connection by taking virtual trainings or making financial donations. However, taking training or making donations does not show up in traditional retention reports. There is no better time than now to reconsider the definitions of recruitment and retention success.

Recruitment plans and retention strategies should be informed by a shared vision of success – clear and achievable goals that reflect both the organization’s priorities and the realities of engaging volunteers during or following a pandemic.

[This post is excerpted from the eToolkit, “Volunteer Recruitment and Retention Amid Uncertainty, available for free download from our partners at Sterling Volunteers.]