I just listened to your excellent webinar, “The New Volunteer Managers Toolkit.” I am a retiring psychologist and have decided I’d like to focus some of my time and energy on volunteer retention. I’m not yet sure how to narrow the field, but I learned so much from your webinar and you sounded so receptive and encouraging, so I thought maybe I’d start by contacting you.
My interest in this goal comes from having volunteered for several organizations but having felt valued by only one. I have volunteered countless hours for my local Professional Organization and served on the Board of Directors for ten years (including six years on the Executive Committee with a year as President). This is the organization in which I felt (and continue to feel) valued. However, I would love to transfer my skills and knowledge (with lots of additional learning, I’m sure!) to a wider audience, perhaps one in which I can help a number of organizations optimize their volunteer retention.
If you have any ideas or suggestions for me, I’d love to hear them. These might include more courses and/or books. Also, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have as to how I might proceed with my goal. I’m planning to reach out to the Volunteer Coordinator for my city, but I wanted to have some training under my belt beforehand, so I have something to offer her.
Thanks so much for your time and willingness to help!
Thank you so much for attending our webinar!
You are asking some really interesting questions, and like with so many things, there isn't just a straightforward answer.
I think volunteer retention, and that feeling that you're talking about, is part planning and strategy, but also part emotional intelligence and understanding basic human needs — security/safety, belonging, pride/accomplishment, etc. There is never going to be a formula or one size fits all solution. I often talk about retention as being an outcome of building good relationships with volunteers. Some of this could be systems — pings to check in with a new volunteer after their first day, regular check-ins with supervisors, satisfaction surveys, supervisors trained in volunteer management, etc. but some of this is also about soft skills. Are supervisors — paid or volunteer staff — able to recognize volunteers who are dissatisfied or disengaged? Do they have the authority to do something about it, do volunteers feel comfortable approaching them with problems?
There's also a piece about an organization's volunteer engagement culture — are volunteers authentically recognized as contributors to the organization and its mission, or are they an afterthought, or worse — free labor? And all of this becomes compounded when volunteer engagement is not recognized as a set of professional level skills — when an organization doesn't provide resources for volunteer engagement training or doesn't recognize and hire for good management skills.
I shudder to think back on my first role working with volunteers — I was fresh out of college, thought I knew everything, and grew up in a house where authority looked like "my way or the highway." I had enough emotional intelligence to realize that I was failing and I needed to do something differently, but that type of training wasn't provided by my organization. The feedback I received was along the lines of "you need to learn how to get along with volunteers."
Retention is often framed as a problem with keeping volunteers "happy" so they won't leave, when the problem is really about understanding how to involve and invest volunteers in the organization and the work that needs to happen to make the organization be successful.
As far as additional resources — there aren't a lot. This is a really under-investigated aspect of nonprofit management. Retention is becoming an increasing concern for leaders of volunteers. Tobi Johnson has run the Volunteer Management Progress Report since 2016 and Retention is regularly at the top of the current challenges question.
And, I always recommend that leaders of volunteers also volunteer — which it sounds like you're already doing. It's always a good way to remember what it feels like to be a new volunteer and to realize how other organizations deploy and interact with volunteers so you can see and experience both the good and the bad.
I hope this helps, and good luck with your next adventure!
Hi Jennifer -
Wow - thank you SO MUCH for your reply!! I’m delighted, amazed, impressed, grateful, and awed by the time and care you took in responding to my email. You’ve given me so much to consider. I also really appreciate your sincere interest in my thoughts and questions and your willingness to share your personal story.
After listening to your webinar and reading your email, I realize that the topic of volunteer retention is complex and multi-layered. I was thinking that it was just about recognition and actions to make volunteers feel more valued. Boy - THAT was naive! And I can now see that some of the problems I encountered in my own volunteer experiences didn't just arise from not feeling valued — I now realize that part of the issue was that I wasn’t well-matched for the roles in which I served. I can now certainly understand that volunteer retention begins even before recruitment!! Also, your thoughts about the importance of an organization’s volunteer engagement culture really pique my interest.
I realize that I’m VERY early in my thinking and learning process, but at least at this moment I know that I have a strong interest in working with volunteer engagement and enhancement. I’m especially drawn to work in supporting, recognizing, and expressing value to volunteers. Clearly that motivation comes from my personal experience. Currently, I have no idea what this work will look like or in what context it will occur. As you say, there is not just one solution.
I will definitely follow up with the suggestions you gave me.
With sincere thanks,
Do you have a question about leading volunteers that you have been dying to ask? Email Jennifer at education@VolunteerMatch.org