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Sustainability and Volunteerism

Retention: the continued possession, use, or control of something.

Does that sound like the volunteerism you know? Not to me either. Maybe it’s time to rethink using the phrase “volunteer retention,” because it conjures up images of a stagnant retention pond. It also rhymes with detention which is closely related to imprisonment. (shudder)

So, if we stop using that phrase, then do we have to rethink the old principles behind it such as:

  • make the volunteers feel welcomed
  • say thank you a lot
  • be mindful of their time

What???? But wait. Just because these principles are fluffy and nice, it  doesn’t mean they are still the best for the changing landscape of volunteerism. Maybe it’s time to retire volunteer retention and instead, embrace volunteer sustainability. Ok, so swapping phrases does not make for innovation. I get that.

What is the difference then, between retention and sustainability? Well, we’ve all been moving away from the strategies that worked with the WWII generation for some time now.  Why not update our verbiage to match the creative ideas being implemented out there by so many forward thinking visionaries. And while we are embracing these changes, let’s go even further.

Volunteer Sustainability vs Volunteer Retention

 

*This is where sustainability is radically different from volunteer retention. Sustainability, unlike retention is the ability to maintain a healthy balance while avoiding depletion.  Sustainability, as it is being applied to agriculture, economics and ecosystems implementation implies that there is a larger network to be considered. It implies that resources are not hoarded (retention) and depleted.

What larger network is there to consider when engaging volunteers? The larger network is all volunteer organizations and individual volunteer satisfaction. With that in mind, let’s ask these questions:

  • Why do we keep volunteers on waiting lists if we cannot use them in a timely manner or cannot find roles for their passions?
  • Why do more volunteers equal better volunteer engagement even if some volunteers are in name only?
  • Why do we stuff volunteers with specialized skill sets and interests into non-matching roles? Or try to tweak a role just to keep the volunteer?
  • Why do we cling to volunteers as though they are 23 year old offspring and we just can’t bear to see them fly?
  • Why do we blame ourselves when volunteers leave?

It is time we, volunteer managers, think of other volunteer managers, our volunteers, all volunteer opportunities, all clients in our area, and all missions as a network serving the greater good.

It is time we viewed volunteerism as a regenerating community garden that needs tending by all of us so that the bounty of volunteers is nurtured, regrown and sustained.

It is time we added collective volunteer engagement, sharing and referral to our innovative methods in order to cultivate volunteer sustainability.

How many times does a volunteer get frustrated and drop out when they have to wait too long to share their time and skill? Or how many volunteers quit because their passion is not being fully utilized? How are we serving our communities when we deplete our volunteer base by clinging to the archaic notion of volunteer retention?

Next time: We can be the leaders of a sustainable movement.

-Meridian