Volunteer Retention

Appeared as an "On Volunteers" column in The NonProfit Times

How long does the average volunteer remain committed to a volunteer position? Is there so me standard against which an organization can assess its volunteer "retention" rate? How much "turnover" is acceptable?

These sorts of questions are frequently in volunteer management workshops, though executives rarely discuss how long employees might remain in their positions. These questions imply that there is something inherent about volunteers that makes turnover inevitable.

The root of the concern is fear of wasting time: expectation that volunteers will require training and supervision, only to leave precipitously and without warning. So,here’s how you can evaluate whether or not volunteers in your organization give active service long enough to warrant the expenditure of staff effort.

First, stop looking for a standard measurement of retention. There are very few things that can be said uniformly for all volunteers because they are so diverse and do so many different things. Consider your reaction if someone asked you for the percentage of turnover among all paid workers in your state.  Wouldn't you feel uncomfortable answering with one figure that would cover bus drivers, doctors, teachers, computer programmers, etc.? The same holds for volunteering.

Second, to identify "turnover," it is first necessary to clarify expectations about volunteer “retention.” If someone, perhaps a school teacher, offers to volunteer for the summer school break, gives three months of service, and then leaves the agency to return to teaching, this volunteer has not unexpectedly dropped off. Yes, the volunteer has left, but the person has fulfilled the original commitment made.

In fact, try defining retention this way: "Retention is keeping volunteers for the amount of time for which they committed at the start of their service." Too many agencies do not ask volunteers "how long do you expect to be with us?"

Most employees do not remain on paying jobs forever, either. In fact, some social observers note that modern Americans consider five years the appropriate time to stay in any position. So, why is it a surprise that volunteers might want to move on, as well? In the U.S. it is a fact (no longer a trend) that the majority of volunteers come in asking for a "short-term," goal- or product-oriented assignment. The nice thing is that often someone initially committing for a specified period of time later asks "what can I do next?" – and ends up remaining with the organization for longer than expected.

The point is that turnover can be planned and acceptable – if an organization knows in advance that it will occur. It only becomes a problem if volunteers leave without warning or well before their commitment ends. In some ways, it keeps organizations on their toes to anticipate turnover.

When it is expected that volunteers will be with an organization forever, managers become complacent and often do not review or expand their assignments. When new volunteers arrive, managers are forced to re-examine volunteer projects and make sure they are vital and engaging.

If you believe that too many volunteers are leaving your organization prematurely, diagnose why. It may be that the organization itself is at fault. While people volunteer for a hundred different reasons, they stay for only a few. Specifically, they remain volunteers if they:

  • See that the work they do is meaningful/accomplishes something;
  • Feel recognized and appreciated for their efforts; and
  • Enjoy the work environment and the other people in the organization.

Are you certain that volunteers would express these positive feelings if asked – and for every unit or assignment in your agency? Once in a while, you might ask them. Institute an exit interview policy to see if any patterns of dissatisfaction emerge. In fact, it might be very helpful even now to contact people who left unexpectedly dur­ing the past year and discuss why they are no longer volunteers.

Look at which volunteers do stay with you for longer periods of time – and maybe at which volunteers have been around forever. Do these people share any characteristics? Are these different from the volunteers with high turnover rates?      

Evaluate what factors satisfy the first group while dissapointing the second. Which set of volunteers do you most want to attract and retain? Maybe your organization isn't appealing to new volunteers because you've gotten into a rut with those already in place. So, the real question may be: what will it take to assure that the most-desired (not just any) volunteers stay longer?

Here are a few more suggestions for assessing volunteer retention rates:

  1. Don't compare all volunteers to one another. See if volunteers in one hospital have comparable turnover rates to those in another hospital, or look at literacy tutors in one city versus another city. Another approach might be to compare teen-agers to teen-agers, or seniors to seniors.
  2. 2. Determine what the desired (and needed) retention rate is for each assignment. It may not matter if there is monthly turnover at the homeless shelter, but it may matter a lot in a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Only when a baseline of initial commitment is expressed can you decide if volunteers are leaving as planned, or unexpectedly (and unacceptably).
  3. Diagnose what the factors might be that cause different areas of your agency to have different retention rates. Is there something about the work itself that is more difficult or creates burnout? Might you need to revise the volunteer job description so that new applicants come with more realistic expectations? Or, is the problem the skill-level or even the personality of the supervisor in a given unit?
  4. When do volunteers tend to drop off? If you have high turnover after only a few weeks, perhaps the issue is disappointment between what new volunteers anticipated and what they experienced. Or. if turnover tends to occur at specific intervals, during the year, can the pattern be traced to a particular agency event that might change working conditions unacceptably?
  5. Be particularly alert for under-utilization of volunteers. More volunteers express dissatisfaction over boredom than overwork Employees may tolerate periods of inactivity since they still get paid. But volunteers rightfully resent putting in time uselessly – and will withdraw.
  6. In general, analyze the ability of your organization to plan for and manage volunteer involvement. In other words, are volunteers right to go because their time is wasted or they are treated badly?

Retention is an outcome, not an activity. You can identify tasks that lead to successful recruitment or supervision or recognition. But, there are no special techniques to "retain" volunteers.

Be realistic in your expectations of duration and then offer volunteers meaningful work in a welcoming environment. The payoff will be volunteers as committed as employees. Both may leave. But they do not have to leave you in the lurch.

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