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Retaining Volunteers: Providing Feedback

By Daniel C. Olsen, Senior Consultant, Special Districts Association of Oregon 

We encourage our staff to provide feedback to our volunteers.  Sometimes it seems to work well.  Sometimes it does not go so well.  Is feedback helpful in in our ability to retain volunteers?

Yes, providing feedback helps you to retain volunteers. Feedback will help your volunteers and the organization grow and improve.  Greater satisfaction, better rate of retention.

Providing feedback is an interesting subject.  You hear a lot about it.  You are encouraged as a manager, to provide feedback to your members.  Yet, it is not a simple task as many find out. 

What is feedback
Providing feedback is a form of coaching your volunteers.

It is a conversation about an individual’s job performance.   You tell them what they are doing well. You suggest ways of improving where they can.  You tell them when they must stop doing something. The benefit is allowing a person to identify strengths or what they do well and shortcomings with the ability to improve future performance.

The purpose of feedback is to assist the volunteer to improve and perform better in the future.

Challenges of providing effective feedback.

Here are some of the challenges of providing feedback to your volunteers:

  • Most people do not get enough practice giving feedback. 
    They do not give feedback often enough.
  • People think superficial compliments are feedback.
    Comments such as “you’re doing okay”, “looking’ good” or “way to go” are nice.  However, comments such as these are vague and can leave the volunteer with questions on how they are really doing.
  • Vague or confusing message
    Like superficial comments, the feedback is not specific.
  • Too much information
    You can give too much feedback.  This happens when a person “dumps” on a volunteer with more information they can easily understand or work on.
  • Miscommunication
    Communication is a two-way process.  It involves conveying a clear, simple message.  It should be delivered with the appropriate tone. Imagine the message if the words are right but said in a sarcastic tone?
  • Criticism
    Criticism points out an employee’s weaknesses without any suggestions for improvement or support for moving forward.  This can place the volunteer on the defensive, making them feel badly about their work. And it does not provide advice on how to improve or correct.
  • Poor timing 
    Information that is too late is not necessarily beneficial.
  • Emotions
    Emotions can cause miscommunication.  When a person is angry, upset, fearful or distracted, these emotions can become barriers to providing feedback.

Categories of feedback

Feedback can be generally categorized into two groups:

  1. Positive feedback
  2. Constructive feedback

Positive feedback/Reinforcing behavior that is beneficial
Positive feedback is the identification of the volunteer’s strengths and accomplishments. Sharing positive feedback helps them know where they’re excelling and boost their morale.

When a volunteer has done exemplary work or gone above and beyond to help someone, a thank you and congratulations can go a long way.

By acknowledging their work and showing your appreciation, you help to reinforce these types of actions.

Constructive feedback is the type of feedback aimed at achieving a positive outcome by providing someone with comments, advice, or suggestions that are useful for their work or their future.

Constructive feedback focuses on areas for improvement and how to get better at a certain skill or task. While the initial identification of a weakness may cause your volunteer to feel embarrassed or upset, they should feel supported and able to improve their work with suggestions and a plan. 


Delivering the Feedback

  • Message
    Know what you are going to say to the volunteer. 
  • Reason for the feedback
    - Is it praise and reinforce positive a positive behavior?
    - Is it a constructive suggestion to modify and/or make improvements?
    - Is it to stop and/or prevent further actions that are inappropriate or unproductive?
  • Timeliness
    It is desirable to provide feedback as soon as possible after the action occurs or is observed.
    Other considerations
  • Be specific and provide descriptive details.
  • Be focused. “A bite at a time”. Don’t overload your volunteer with too much feedback.
  • Be accurate.  Get your facts correct.
  • Focus on the behavior not the person.
  • Be prescriptive – identify future action steps to improve.
  • Emphasize positive work of volunteer has performed.
  • Be respectful of the volunteer. 
  • Praise in public; provide constructive feedback in private.
  • Use empathy. Receiving feedback can be uncomfortable. Consider how you might feel and react to mistakes, missteps or other feedback about your performance.
  • Provide an explanation for your feedback. Let your volunteers know that you believe the volunteer has the ability to improve and you want to see them succeed with your organization.
  • Ask questions and listen carefully.
  • Discuss, confirm and clarify your feedback as needed.



Give feedback regularly.

1.      Be clear on what you are going to say.

2.      Be clear on the reason you are giving feedback.

3.      Be timely. Sooner the better.

4.      Deliver feedback that is specific, accurate, description and prescriptive.

5.      Emphasize the positive aspects or work of the volunteer


Feedback should build and encourage the volunteer. This will help the volunteer and the organization grow and improve with greater satisfaction and a better rate of retention.