Retention of Volunteers

By Susan J. Ellis and Rob Jackson
From From the Top Down, UK Edition, Energize, Inc.

It is common to look for uniform, universal standards for volunteer involvement in order to compare one organisation’s situation against external benchmarks and thereby measure success. The best example is the question, “What’s a successful retention rate for volunteers?” Well, obviously the answer is, “It depends.”

Studying retention (how long volunteers remain with you) or attrition (how many volunteers leave over time) as something external to your organisation implies that either is a characteristic of the volunteers themselves (or something in the air that infects everyone). There may be commonalities among certain types of volunteers, but high turnover is also likely to be a reaction to something going on in that institution. In which case, inter-agency comparisons would be useless.

It makes much more sense to compare turnover within your own organisation, department to department or assignment to assignment. That has the potential to uncover which areas require redesigning, retraining, or some other action. Further, you cannot analyse the meaning of your “retention” data until you identify the following:

What you need or expect as a minimum duration of volunteer service
What amount of time the volunteer promised to commit when first interviewed

In other words, if you plan (wish) for, say, five years of service and volunteers leave earlier, the problem may not be attrition but unrealistic expectations! Or, if you never ask volunteers for an initial commitment of time (e.g., one year), then you have no idea if one person only intends to stay six weeks and another for six years. We generally advise using the following definition of retention:

Retention is when a volunteer remains with you for the period of time to which s/he committed when beginning service.

So retention is an individual measure. It may also be a recruitment goal, since you will need to bring on board volunteers who are willing and able to commit for whatever time you have determined is your minimum need.

It also matters which volunteers you retain. If you have a revolving door through which the newest or most well-trained volunteers leave faster than you can replace them, while long-time volunteers sit entrenched in roles that have lost their priority, you have a problem. On the other hand, if you actively recruit college/university students for a summer programme and they all complete their assignment and leave for school in the autumn, they honoured their commitment to you even though the data will show a group of volunteers leaving all at once.

Retention is a useful measure of volunteer satisfaction in that unhappy or bored volunteers will simply leave. Therefore, low rates of unplanned turnover can be interpreted as a positive indicator and vice versa. But retention by itself is usually not useful in determining whether volunteers have contributed anything of value to the organisation, its clientele, or its staff. In the same vein, the volunteer you award a twenty-five-year ‘thank you’ badge has certainly been devoted, but whether their service has been effective or meaningful must be assessed by criteria other than duration.

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