Understanding Volunteer Retention

Donna Lockhart, December 17, 2009
(as it appeared in Charity Village)

Finding volunteers is hard enough for most organizations these days, and keeping them is equally challenging. Most organizations do not track volunteer retention rates. They seem to know, however, that volunteers appear to be staying for shorter periods of time. Most do not ask why volunteers leave. Research shows that volunteers are indeed staying for shorter periods of time, as well as committing fewer hours when they are volunteering. This "episodic" phenomenon has become commonplace. Is your organization responding to this in your job design? Or are you ignoring it, hoping that those dedicated long-term volunteers are still out there but just hiding for the time being...they will resurface, won’t they?

I get constant questions from many organizations about keeping or retaining volunteers. We need to pay attention when we consider engaging new volunteers so they stay beyond the orientation, as well as nurturing the existing volunteers. "I spend all this time recruiting, orienting and supporting volunteers...but they are just not staying with us. Sometimes they don’t show up for their first shift, or if they do, they do it and then we never hear from them again." Or this scenario: "I spend all this time getting volunteers, only to have other volunteers or staff say something/mistreat them and they are gone."

In the last article, I talked about recruitment, which is a process. Although recruitment and retention are very clearly connected, retention is an outcome, not a task, like recruitment. Retention happens when successful recruitment strategies - fitting the right person with an opportunity - align with internal supportive strategies. What does it take to make this happen?

Three ideas to improve volunteer retention


Number one. Keep a list of the reasons your volunteers leave so you know whether it was something you could or could not control. There are many things we cannot control. Retention is a very individual and complex thing. Volunteers leave for a variety of reasons, such as moving away and job changes. They don’t stay forever no matter what you do, and they are staying for shorter periods of time anyway. They may lose interest or quite simply their commitment is finished, such as community involvement with youth (40 hours completed). Volunteers are always going to leave and they may be leaving faster than we are used to/want them to.

Number two. There are factors that you can control, so take control over what you can. Retention is related to the right volunteer doing the right work in the right organization. In the key question above, where the volunteer does not show up for the first shift or never comes back after completing the first shift, I believe this is a question of both commitment and match.

  • If the match of volunteer to work is not right then volunteers will not be back. If this is a consistent challenge in an organization, then the organization needs to re-examine the nature of the work that volunteers are asked to do. No one wants to do boring work. Manning the front desk, answering phones, filing, and general office duties may no longer be stimulating to the newly emerging volunteer of today. Youth and baby boomers may not find this work attractive no matter how important it is to the organization. I think this is a wake-up call to the organization. Volunteers are telling you that the work is not appealing. "How else can the work get done?" or "Who might we target that would benefit from experience in this type of work?" are questions the organization needs to ask and answer.

  • If the work meets the expectations of the volunteer as well as the organization then we hope that greater retention occurs. We need to interview potential volunteers (no matter how informal) to make sure we understand what the volunteer needs in order to be successful. When we create a win-win (volunteer needs and our needs get met) then we aim for better retention rates.

  • Provide a supportive environment. Provide support where necessary, engage the volunteer for ideas and decision making, build relationships, make them part of the team to accomplish the mission of the organization. And if staff treat volunteers poorly, it is time to step back and do some training and education with staff. It is difficult to leave an organization that you care deeply about when you see the impact of your assistance and when people care about you.


Number three. Short-term commitment is different from long-term commitment. In order to gain long-term commitment, we have to be successful in the short term. Doesn’t this make sense? Short-term for me is that they are coming in to do their volunteer work where all the steps have been taken to ensure a good match, skills to work, orientation, etc. How to move this to a longer term engagement requires additional support.

Recent research indicates four top retention strategies:

  1. Create a quality volunteer experience.
  2. Develop a "true believer" in the cause.
  3. Provide organizational support.
  4. Ensure the volunteer "gets more than they give."

Summary
After spending lots of time recruiting volunteers, it is heartbreaking when they leave shortly after they start. This is an organizational issue. You need to examine the volunteer work that is being offered, the climate where it is being offered, and the support given to volunteers. Take control and change those aspects that negatively impact on volunteers. Keep track of why volunteers leave and make changes to eliminate those reasons that are within your control.
Understand and expect that volunteers may stay for shorter periods of time. Celebrate whatever time/talents they provide. A happy volunteer is a happy customer who may provide referrals to others looking for volunteer involvement.

Some additional resources:
www.nonprofitscan.ca

  • Recruitment and retention of volunteers. c2006. (PDF)
  • Volunteer management practices (PDF)
  • The Urban Institute: Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers, Mark Hager and Jeffrey Brudney. June 2004.
  • 4-H checklist from Best Practices for Volunteer Programs, (Vineyard & McCurley)
  • Adjust your thinking: Shifting your focus to Volunteer Retention by Donna Lockhart.
  • Keep those volunteers around by Dr. Bill Wittich.

Donna Lockhart is a trainer and consultant with The RETHINK Group. Her focus is on "developing volunteer capacity." Donna designed the CharityVillage Building a Great Volunteer Program campus course. She facilitates a wide range of workshops and training sessions in volunteer engagement. For more information visit: www.rethinkgroup.ca.

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