Animal Care Expo 2017: Improving the Experience for Shelter Volunteers


Engaged volunteers are crucial to the overall success of animal shelters, and improvements are needed across the board. The suggestions provided here for increasing satisfaction among shelter volunteers can improve the productivity of animal shelters and veterinary practices alike.

Animal shelters perform critically important work for their communities. Although some shelter workers are paid employees, volunteers are often needed to help shelters meet their daily obligations and long-term goals. Unfortunately, some shelter volunteers experience dissatisfaction with their work, which can impact the overall effectiveness of the shelter operation.

At the 2017 Animal Care Expo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, an interactive workshop sponsored by ShelterBuddy highlighted some of the issues shelter volunteers face as well as some of the things they like about the work they do. This lively session was moderated by Steven Rogelberg, PhD, director of organizational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and two of the university’s doctoral students, Eleanor Williams and Haley Woznyi.

The moderators presented data from a large survey of shelter volunteers conducted by the Volunteer Program Assessment (VPA) and worked with session attendees to identify solutions for addressing the issues volunteers face and improving the overall volunteer experience. VPA surveyed approximately 19,000 shelter volunteers at 175 shelter organizations to generate the data discussed.

Although the session focused on animal shelter workers, many of the recommendations can improve work satisfaction for veterinary team members as well.

What Are Shelters Doing Well?

Survey respondents noted several positive things about their volunteer experience, including:

  • Feeling that their work is meaningful to the organization’s mission
  • Feeling committed to the organization and its mission, and believing in what they are doing
  • Having confidence in the quality of their work
  • Satisfaction with the volunteer coordinators at the shelter

Which Areas Need Work?

Survey respondents also indicated several areas of concern, including:

  • Role ambiguity: volunteers often don’t feel like they know what they’re supposed to be doing and which tasks should be prioritized
  • Feeling unrecognized and unappreciated for donating their time and resources to help the shelter’s cause
  • Dissatisfaction with relationships with paid staff
  • Dissatisfaction with communication
  • Lacking a voice or the chance to participate in decision making, and not feeling like their input has value

Suggestions for Improvement

The rest of the session focused on ways to help improve the difficulties shelter volunteers face. Suggestions for shelter management to increase the satisfaction level of volunteers included:

  • Producing written job descriptions and a daily checklist of duties, so volunteers understand what is expected of them
  • Conducting shift meetings so volunteers and other employees have a voice and a sense of teamwork
  • Developing mentor programs to help volunteers better understand the organization and their role in it
  • Improving training for volunteers before they start working, and offering retraining opportunities for volunteers who have experience but want to grow in the organization with additional duties and responsibilities
  • Promoting volunteer appreciation by learning the volunteers’ names, thanking them when they arrive for work, and thanking them again when they leave; and working to build a culture of mutual appreciation between volunteers and employees
  • Initiating a volunteer-of-the-month program, featuring the selected volunteer in the organization’s newsletter, and presenting the designated volunteer with a plaque or reward
  • Recognizing milestones, such as offering a small pin for completing a certain number of volunteer hours
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