Volunteer retention – keep old friends

Published July 31, 2019

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Training a new volunteer is time-consuming and costly. And that’s only one of many reasons why you want to hold on to your volunteers once you bring them into your organization.

Their value is high

When you consider the value of volunteers, it’s easy to see how they’re like paid employees. After all, the value of the average American volunteer has been estimated at $24.69 per hour, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Independent Sector. Volunteers who perform specialized services — for example, a marketing director who volunteers to revamp your social media presence — are, arguably, even more valuable. So why not “professionalize” your volunteer program? A well-run program can provide participants with a sense of ownership and “job” satisfaction.

Volunteers entering your program should receive a formal orientation and participate in one or more training sessions, depending on the complexity of the work they’ll be performing. Even if they’ll be contributing only a couple of hours a week or month, ask them to commit to at least a loose schedule. And, as with your paid staffers, volunteers should set annual performance goals. For example, a volunteer might decide to redesign your website, learn enough about your mission to speak publicly on the subject or work a total of 100 hours.

If volunteers accomplish their goals, you must recognize and reward them. Publicizing the fact that they have achieved certain objectives is important, but don’t stop there. Also “promote” individuals who’ve proved they’re capable of assuming greater responsibility. For instance, award the job of volunteer coordinator to someone who’s exhibited strong communication and organization skills.

Their interests must be piqued

A formal program won’t keep volunteers engaged if it doesn’t take advantage of their talents or acknowledge their interests. What’s more, most volunteers want to further your nonprofit’s cause. So even if they must occasionally perform menial tasks such as cleaning up after a fundraiser, tell them how others benefit from those efforts.

To the extent you can, give volunteers assignments they want, in areas where they can make a difference. During the training process, inventory each volunteer’s experience, education, skills and interests and be sure to ask if there’s a project that attracts them. Don’t just assume that they want to use the skills they already have. Many people volunteer to learn something new. Some even volunteer to get experience in a field they want to enter.

Make it fun

Although most people volunteer with the understanding that you’ll put them to work, they also expect to enjoy the process — and even have fun. So be careful not to make the same demands on volunteers that you would on employees. Obviously, you don’t want to waste time on high-maintenance individuals but try to build some flexibility into their scheduling. Professional and family demands sometimes interfere, so try to accommodate them cheerfully.

Many volunteers are motivated by the opportunity to meet like-minded people. So, include socializing in your program. Newbies should be introduced to other volunteers and assigned to work alongside someone who knows the ropes — at least in the beginning. Also schedule on- and off-site social activities so volunteers can get to know one another outside “work” hours.

Be the leader that you would want to follow

Lead your volunteers by example. Don’t demand anything from your volunteers that you yourself wouldn’t be willing to do. Additionally, don’t merely sit around barking out orders and then park yourself in a chair while they work hard. By all means, feel free to give direction, but it is equally important to jump in and get your hands dirty with your volunteers to show them you are willing to work hard, too.

When a manager establishes themselves as a near authoritarian leader, they lose the faith and trust of their volunteers. It is important to walk the line between being the boss and being an accessible individual. Work hard to ensure that volunteers feel comfortable coming to you with questions, concerns and input; and try to check-in with them from time to time, as well.

What are they thinking?

Volunteer surveys address volunteer satisfaction and can help you to isolate potential problems that may cause attrition. They also can measure the impact of volunteers on your organization and the community it serves.

Consider including questions such as “What feedback have you received from clients and other stakeholders about the value of your work?” and “What can we do to help you be a more impactful volunteer?” Help your volunteers tell their own stories.

If you invest time and energy into making volunteers feel invaluable, they’re likely to make a long-term investment in you.

For more information on volunteer retention, contact your MCM professional or reach out to Senior Tax Manager Bob Moreland via e-mail or phone (502.882.4658).