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I was reading this article on how volunteering helped a volunteer through her grief and it gave me this warm, familiar feeling, like the cracked and stained coffee cup I reach for every morning. It makes me think of all the volunteers with a story similar to this young woman’s who have applied volunteering as an ointment of sorts on their wounds while they heal.

I think of Paul, whose beloved wife died so young. His gaping open grief was covered by a thin bandage of keeping busy. Helping others, focusing on someone else’s pain and being surrounded by kind people allowed him a chance to slather on the soothing volunteering ointment each time he came. And he stayed for almost ten years as the  ointment became less necessary, but more of a routine that he was used to and so so good at.

I think of Judy, whose loss was long ago, but unresolved and ever fresh, who talked about the death of her son as though it had happened twenty minutes before. I think of how she instinctively avoided working with any clients, as though she knew her rawness would just get in the way. But while volunteering behind the scenes, she smeared herself in the listening ears of ever patient staff and volunteers who heard her pain and with encouragement, Judy sought out grief counseling.

I think of Claire, who had been let go from a long-term and secure job. Her wound was to her psyche, and her face showed the lines of deep self-doubt. Every skill she possessed was slashed open, and each job rejection opened her wound again and again. Claire sought out volunteering like a lost pet who puts its nose against a stranger’s patio door in desperation. Her feelings of worth grew very slowly, but steadily until she shook the mantle of worthlessness and viewed each job rejection as a sign of the times. Eventually she gained employment and was more prepared to walk into her new place with confidence on the mend.

It’s ironic, because each one of these volunteers was not “retained.” Each one of these “wounded healers” used volunteering as salve while delivering extraordinary work to the organizations they served.

But they did not stay forever. Their retention lasted as long as the ointment helped them to heal enough that they did not need us anymore. Yes, they left not because we did not need them anymore but because they did not need us anymore.

And just as we celebrate the release of a rehabilitated injured bird back into the wild, we can celebrate the fact that these volunteers were ready to fly. And we can take some solace in the fact that volunteering helped these wonderful hurting people begin to heal.

So, should we continue to say that volunteer retention is our end game?  I don’t think so, because personally, I’ll take a soul on the mend over retention any day.