Some Truths About Volunteer Retention

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersI’ve been trying to draft a blog about volunteer retention… and then read the latest update from Susan Ellis and Energize, Inc. and her article said it better than I can say it myself. This is reposted online with permission from Susan:

SOME TRUTHS ABOUT VOLUNTEER RETENTION

Schools used to focus on the 3 Rs (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic), but in volunteer management we have the 2 Rs: recruitment and retention. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked to speak on both in a single session! Apart from this request minimizing what it takes to do all the critical tasks of volunteer management, the real problem is that recruitment and retention do not mirror each other.

You can do activities to recruit volunteers, interview them, train them, etc. But you cannot spend Tuesday mornings “retaining” them. Retention happens when everything else is going right. It is an outcome, not a task.

One of the problems with retention is defining it. People often ask me what a “good rate” of retention is, as though there is some external standard for all volunteer programs. Of course there is no such thing.

The desire to measure effective retention is tied to the fervent wish that volunteers might stay forever! Turnover has to be anticipated and planned for (and I might mention that there is lots of turnover among employees, too). How realistic are your expectations for the length of time volunteers will remain with your organization?

Some volunteers leave because things have changed in their own lives…and you had nothing to do with it. People get married, have babies, move away, change jobs, become ill – that’s life. The only thing you can do is leave the door open for a possible return. A volunteer who is forced to leave for external reasons may be willing to remain involved as a trainer of new volunteers, as an on-call substitute in a pinch, or at least as a reader of your newsletter. If the person is moving to another city, might you refer them to a counterpart program in the new location?

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

  • Retention can only be defined in relation to the commitment made by each volunteer at the start of service. So your recordkeeping system should show the amount of time the volunteer promised during the interview and then, if the person stays to that point, you have “retained” them! Anything afterwards is additional.
  • Do you clearly state the minimum commitment that is needed from a volunteer to make the training period worthwhile or to be able to make a difference to the client or cause? (This may be a different amount of time for each volunteer position.) Then, when you interview applicants, do you discuss anticipated length of stay? If neither of these things happen, how can you possibly know what volunteers intend to do in terms of longevity?
  • If a lot of volunteers leave in the first months of their work, it’s a symptom that what they expected and what they experienced did not match. Recruiting and interviewing are the start of the retention process!
  • Is there a pattern to when and from where volunteers drop off? Does one unit seem to keep people happy for a long time while another unit has a revolving door of new recruits? Analyze why and problem solve the situation.
  • Who is staying? Are you keeping long-time volunteers or the best volunteers? These may not be the same people! Again, assess what is going on. If newer recruits or people with top skills seem to become disenchanted with the program, why? How can you re-commit them?

The list of reasons why people volunteer in the first place is very long. After time, however, the reasons volunteers remain committed to your organization distills down to four factors:

  • The work they are doing is visibly meaningful
  • They feel appreciated for their service
  • They continue to learn and grow
  • They enjoy it
  • Quite simple, really – and the outcome of a welcoming, well-run volunteer program.

This outstanding blog content comes from Susan J. Ellis, President of Energize, Inc. More of Susan’s wisdom via her amazing books and services. It is HIGHLY recommended you subscribe to Energize Inc.’s FREE Monthly Volunteer Management E-mail Update for more great stuff!

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