10 Actions Every Nonprofit Should Take to Retain Volunteers
My last blog post addressed volunteer recruitment. This blog post discusses the 10 actions every nonprofit should take to retain volunteers.
Employee turnover is expensive. A study released by the Society for Human Resource Management estimates that the average cost to hire an employee is $4,129. The average tenure of an employee is 8 years. Turnover rates are about 19%, with involuntary turnover hovering at about 8%.
How do these figures compare to your organization’s volunteer recruiting and retention efforts?
While I couldn’t find similar statistics relative to volunteerism, my guess is that the tenure of most nonprofit volunteers is shorter and turnover is higher. This probably means the average cost of a new volunteer is similar to or higher than that of an employee.
Even if you don’t advertise or have paid staff who help recruit volunteers on behalf of your organization, your volunteers spend their time recruiting for you. The cost of those efforts is significant, as they can’t spend those hours doing other work on your behalf.
However, turnover rates can be even more dangerous to a nonprofit’s health. High turnover means existing volunteers don’t get the help they need, spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to recruit peers to participate, and may burn out. This further increases turnover and causes inconsistency in program delivery.
The key to reducing the cost of recruiting volunteers is to minimize turnover, and that requires a carefully constructed volunteer retention plan.
What to Include
A strong volunteer retention plan includes the following elements:
1. Job Descriptions.
In my last blog post, I discussed the importance of job descriptions to volunteer recruiting. Prospective volunteers want to know what they’re being asked to do. Job descriptions are equally important for retention. They prevent frustration through clear communications about expectations.
2. Assign Volunteers a Manager.
People don’t connect with an organization. They connect with other people. Research done by my company for a broad number of nonprofit organizations has consistently suggested that volunteers need to make personal connections or they are more likely to leave. To retain volunteers, assign a manager to whom the volunteer can turn with questions or for support.
There are times that a less substantial relationship may be acceptable to the organization. For example, if a church group volunteers a day of service to clean up a Boys and Girls Club, the organization may decide they don’t have the bandwidth to build relationships with all the volunteers involved, or that the organization’s members are unlikely to volunteer beyond their organization’s commitment. In these cases, a manager may be assigned only to the group leader or leaders, and not to each volunteer.
3. Understand Your Volunteers’ Needs.
People volunteer for different reasons. For example, they may hope to meet like-minded individuals or prospective clients, gain job skills or leadership experience, or feel they are making a meaningful impact on something important to them.
Don’t assume you know what they would like to do based on their profession. For example, a CPA might prefer a chance at a committee other than audit or finance! Ask the individual where they would like to contribute – and what they would like to learn.
Organizations that take the time to understand what volunteers want in exchange for their time are more likely to be able to deliver on that exchange. Volunteers who see the benefit of their time investment are more likely to continue volunteering as a result.
4. Onboard Volunteers Like You Would Employees.
Most employers have a structured program for new employees joining their organization. They tell them about the organization, why it exists, and how they will impact their market. They provide required resources, information about benefits, and help them understand how to do their job effectively. And they introduce them to others within the organization.
Nonprofits should adopt this same approach relative to onboarding volunteers. Many already do, of course! It isn’t unusual for a board of directors to provide a briefing to new members.
However, many organizations simply throw new volunteers into the chaos of activity as soon as they raise their hand to volunteer. This can result in a volunteer who feels lost, frustrated, inadequately prepared to talk to the public about the organization, and, in some cases, ready to walk away.
Nonprofits should give careful thought to how they onboard new volunteers. It does not need to be a lengthy process. For example, volunteers at a 10k event might meet at the beginning of the day to learn from the executive director what the organization does, why the event matters, and how their volunteer hours make a difference. The key is to give the volunteers a solid understanding of why they are there, what they need to know in order to do their job, and how their work will make a difference.
5. Have Something for them to Do.
Sometimes, particularly after a high-profile event, a nonprofit will have a rush of new volunteers ready to help. If the nonprofit doesn’t engage them effectively soon after they volunteered, they are more likely to move on and find other organizations who need their help.
Be prepared for volunteers! Have a variety of projects, ranging from small activities that take an hour or two to more substantial commitments, and don’t let time pass before they are actively engaged.
Similarly, anticipate how you will use volunteers whose current commitments are wrapping up. If you are ready with the next volunteer commitment, and you plan for a transition before the volunteer has burned out in his or her role, your chances of retaining that volunteer increase significantly.
6. Make Needed Resources Accessible.
One of the quickest ways to frustrate a volunteer is to fail to give him or her the tools and resources required to do his or her job. Sometimes the issue isn’t even general resource availability. It may be that the resources are available if he or she calls during work hours and requests them. But volunteers often do volunteer work during non-business hours.
Make sure your volunteers have easy access to the resource they need, when they needed, wherever they are. For example, make sure documents that are needed after hours are readily available online. Consider offering video training or refresher courses. Schedule volunteer events when volunteers are available, which may be early in the morning, during the lunch hour, or later in the evening.
7. Communicate Regularly.
Make sure to keep in touch with your volunteers before, during and after their volunteer service. Offer new opportunities to engage that build on what they have done. Provide tips and training to help them perform their volunteer jobs more effectively and efficiently.
On the other hand, be cautious about over-communicating. No one likes spam or irrelevant correspondence cluttering up their inbox, mail box or text stream.
And remember, communication is a two-way behavior. Provide a means for volunteers to reach out to you to ask questions, get additional direction, or simply feel more connected. Better yet, ask your volunteers for their opinions, advice and feedback, then tell them how you plan to use what you’ve learned. Of course, if you don’t plan to use their input, don’t ask for it.
8. Show Your Appreciation.
Make sure your volunteers know you appreciate them by saying thanks in a way that is meaningful to them. Some will want public acknowledgement of their work, while others prefer personal and quiet recognition, so you will need a variety of approaches in your arsenal.
If you are developing a volunteer recognition program, there is no shortage of examples on the internet. For some good ideas, check out these resources:
Appreciate Volunteers, a blog dedicated to volunteer appreciation ideas
VolunteerMatch.org’s 7 Ways to Appreciate Your Volunteers
NonprofitHub.org’s Top 8 Ways to Show Volunteer Appreciation
9. Conduct Satisfaction Surveys and Take Action.
Once a year, or at the end of a major project or event involving volunteers, send out a volunteer survey. Ask them how it went and what could be improved. Be sure to include both multiple choice and open-ended questions, as some people will only respond to one or the other.
As you design the survey, consider how you will use the feedback. This will help you to craft a survey that will provide you with actionable information.
Once you have received the responses and discussed the implications, communicate with your volunteers. Tell them how you will be improving the volunteer experience because of their feedback, and thank them for participating.
10. Conduct Exit Interviews and Make Changes.
Similarly, when someone leaves a volunteer role, whether it is because their term is ending or because they simply no longer wish to volunteer, reach out to ask for their feedback. Exit interviews can be conducted in person or through a survey. The key, again, is to ask for information that provides you with actionable insights.
What Works for You?
Do you measure volunteer retention? If so, please add a comment to this blog to let us know what you’ve learned.
Have you discovered something that has allowed you to improve retention rates? Please share it so that other organizations can improve their performance as well!
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