Volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofit organisations, and it is important that they are satisfied with their experiences

How to keep shelter volunteers happy: Insights from a Michigan study

How can animal shelters create a welcoming environment for their volunteers? Discover the policies and practices that lead to volunteer satisfaction.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofit organisations, and it is important that they are satisfied with their experiences. Animal shelter volunteering can be particularly challenging because of the caring-killing paradox, where volunteers often interact with animals they know may be euthanised. It also involves β€œdirty work” with living beings that can be physically risky, challenging, and require special skills. Little research has comprehensively examined volunteer satisfaction under these challenging conditions. To fully understand what leads to volunteer satisfaction, an integrative approach was used that considered the characteristics and motivations of the volunteers as well as the policies and practices of the animal shelters where they donate their time and effort. The key focus of the research was identifying what leads to more satisfied volunteers and whether organisational policies or traits of the volunteers themselves were more important.

The data on the perceptions of shelter volunteers

The research employed a survey sent to all volunteers at 15 animal shelters in the State of Michigan.  Based on a comparison of responding shelter traits and all licensed shelters in the State reporting to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, all shelter types were represented: nonprofit/municipal, open/limited intake (whether a shelter can pick the animals to be admitted or whether all animals from a service area must be taken in); types of animals served (dog, cats, small mammals); and capacity. Volunteers were asked questions about themselves, their activities, their motivations for volunteering, and their satisfaction with shelter policies.  Specific policies explored were avenues for volunteer input or β€œvoice”, transparency of outcomes for animals and volunteers and the extent of training received. Structural equation modeling (SEM) was employed to test a system of potential relationships running from the volunteer to their motivations and the nature of the shelter they chose to work at, to the types of policies used, and finally on to volunteer satisfaction.

Shelter volunteers on an urban pack hike
Figure 1. A research model used in this study at the Michigan State University
Credit. Taylor & Francis

Why is it all about the organisation?

The data suggested that traits internal to volunteers (age, gender, education, for example) are less important in contributing to satisfaction than are factors related to the organisation they volunteer with. The nature of the animal shelter is related to both the internal policies employed and the volunteers’ satisfaction. Limited intake shelters can pick and choose the animals admitted, and those with lower intake and higher adoption rates are more likely to have attributes related to volunteer satisfaction, specifically: more positive staff/volunteer relations, more training for volunteers, opportunities for volunteer input into decision-making, and greater transparency.  Volunteers at limited intake shelters and those with higher adoption rates are significantly more satisfied regardless of policies.

Shelter volunteers on an urban pack hike
Figure 2. Shelter volunteers on an urban pack hike
Credit. Author

How to increase volunteer satisfaction?

The finding that organisational traits and policies are more important to satisfaction than factors internal to volunteers calls for greater focus on how organisations can contribute to satisfaction through interpersonal relationships, training, and volunteer voice. Limited intake shelters have more control over the number and nature of animals in their care and are more likely to emphasise the optimal policies and practices.  Resource constraints (capacity, money, staffing) likely limit the extent that open intake shelters feel they can act to enhance relationships, train volunteers, and take the time to allow them to voice opinions and ideas.  Yet any type of organisation can invest in such practices.  Allowing volunteers to have a voice can be as simple as regular meetings, suggestion boxes, or creating a volunteer input committee.  Staff and volunteer relationships can be improved through staff actions such as greeting volunteers, being willing to answer questions and provide assistance, and having an area for staff and volunteers to mingle informally.  While none of these actions is particularly costly, they require staff time, which can be scarce.  

Limited intake nonprofit shelter
Figure 3. Limited intake nonprofit shelter
Credit. Author

Volunteers at shelters with limited intakes and higher adoption rates are more satisfied regardless of internal policies. These findings support work pointing to the high stakes and stressful nature of volunteering in animal shelters. The caring/killing paradox is likely less of a concern in shelters with high savings rates. Those volunteers are less satisfied at open intake shelters has several implications. Open intake shelters are more likely to house cruelty victims and animals on bite quarantines or that are otherwise involved in legal cases (Reese, 2018).  Further, open intake shelters also have more stray animals that may be harder to adopt because they have spent less time in a home.  As a result, volunteers are exposed to animals that have experienced greater trauma and are less likely to be adopted, which can add to stress and compassion fatigue.

Open intake municipal shelter
Figure 4. Open intake municipal shelter
Credit. Author

The impact of shelter policies

Internal shelter policies have the strongest impact on animal shelter volunteer satisfaction among all the variables in the model.  Having higher quality staff/volunteer relationships, providing advanced training, and allowing volunteers to have input into organisational policies and procedures are practices that can be applied in any type of organisation that uses volunteers. But these policies may be particularly important in animal shelters due to the high risk for stress and burnout and in open intake shelters with higher euthanasia rates.  Positive staff/volunteer relationships strongly correlate with volunteer satisfaction among the internal practices explored here.  Thus, while voice and training are important to volunteer satisfaction, shelters’ most critical actions may be as simple as creating a welcoming environment for their volunteers.

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Journal reference

Reese, L. A., Vertalka, J., & Jacobs, J. (2023). Modeling Animal Shelter Volunteer Satisfaction: The Importance of Internal Policies. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2023.2173011

Laura A. Reese is a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University. She is also an editor for the journal Animals. Dr. Reese is the President of Professional Animal Welfare Services, a consulting firm focusing on animal welfare, shelter management, and policy. Her main research and teaching areas are urban public policy, economic development, and animal welfare policy. She has written or edited seventeen books and over 100 articles and book chapters. Dr. Reese has worked with various public and nonprofit entities, including the International City/County Management Association, The Pedigree Foundation, and several shelters and rescues.