managing volunteers, NGO, non-profit, organizations, recruiting volunteers, volunteer, volunteer coordinator, volunteer management, volunteer manager, volunteer retention, volunteering, volunteers
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.
*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. (Innovation and Sustainable Volunteering)
Hello – I love this post! You’ve totally captured an issue I’ve been wrestling with for a while and re-framed volunteer management in the process. Great stuff.
Hi and thank you so much! Would love to hear more ideas on sustainability-I feel as though we are all just naturally gravitating to this idea because we value our volunteers and their time, we value good work no matter if we are providing it or not, and we value the concept of the greater good.
Tobi Johnson said:
Meridian — Great post! (and as a Master Gardener volunteer, I loved it even more!) Have you seen Brudney & Meijs conceptualization of volunteers as a natural resource?
If you have access to the e-Volunteerism Journal, you can check it out here — https://www.e-volunteerism.com/node/362 or get it from NVSQ here — http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0899764009333828
Also, I suggested in a blog post many moons ago that local orgs build networks for cross referring volunteers — http://www.tobijohnson.com/2011/07/29/volunteer-referral-network/ — I don’t think anyone took me up on the idea, but hope springs eternal!. 🙂
Thank you so much Tobi and thank you for sharing your post with us. It does seem like the natural flow of engaging volunteers is moving in this direction and the visionary ideas that seemed “radical” a time ago are now starting to make sense. Please keep those visionary ideas coming and thank goodness for social media so that more and more of us can connect, share and brainstorm to improve volunteerism.
Meridian, this is a great post. I was limited in length of my reply on Linked in, but this is exactly where I think our field should be going. It will certainly transcend volunteer management, because it requires that organizations fully adopt these principles as well. Sustainability is a concept many people grapple with understanding, because it requires that business and non-profit leadership see their company/organization as a part of a much larger system. It requires that these same leaders view their place as a contributor that has a “push-pull” effect with every decision they make. But it first begins with acknowledging and recognizing this, and transforming the lens they’re looking through, from a 70’s or 80’s era traditional mindset, to one that’s more globally oriented. Once the larger system is recognized and acknowledged, leaders in our field will see volunteers in a much different light. I’m a firm believer that the non-profit industry is about ten years behind their for-profit counterparts. So while sustainability (socially, economically and environmentally) is being greatly adopted by for-profit companies, it’ll take some time before those in our field also embrace it.
But to your point (and I fully agree), we need to start thinking in terms of volunteer “sustainability” instead of volunteer “retention.” You state it perfectly that retention at its root means to keep, hold tightly and to almost imprison something. When you think of that in terms of volunteers, we’re essentially putting volunteers in the position to be stifled, suppressed, burned out and used to the point of depletion. Once we (the nonprofit professionals) start answering some of those questions you lay out, things begin to be more evident that current practices are NOT in fact sustainable. This even brings up a good point that Barry Altland mentioned in a LinkedIn comment to one of my posts, where he said that we should get out of the “recruitment” business and begin attracting. And so to me, this same concept of “recruit” and “retain” may be draconian terms that are truly bad for business topically AND philosophically.
One of the ideas I touched on briefly through my LinkedIn comment was that organizations can begin going in this direction by looking for opportunities to collaborate in serving the same populations. Here at my organization, we serve military loss survivors, those who lost a loved one serving in the armed forces. The very volunteers who serve our organization ALSO serve the USO, Team Red White and Blue, Team Rubicon, Got Your 6 and many, many others. We all have a vested interest in “sharing” volunteers, because we all serve the SAME population, we just serve them in different ways. So there are many times where we collaborate on legislative issues, corporate partnerships AND volunteer engagement. Where as an organization, we will assemble a team of volunteers to serve Got Your 6. There are also times where the USO will pull a team of volunteers to serve the organization I work for. Collaboratively we’ve recognized serving the same families, with different services and products. We’ve graduated from hording “volunteer resources” to sharing them because we ALL benefit from it.
Anyways, great post! This is where we should be headed.
Thank you Jerome, as always, excellent comment, really appreciate all the knowledge and passion that you are bringing to the non-profit sector and specifically to volunteer engagement.
Laura Rundell said:
This was a fabulous post and one I suspect I will find myself re-reading a few times before really being able to change some of my old mind sets.
The one piece about volunteer engagement that I have noticed after having this role in a few organizations is that there is a strong co-relation between organizations that engage and value their paid staff well and organizations that engage volunteers well. I have come to believe that organizations that can not engage staff well will also struggle with volunteer engagement.
I am not sure what the overall solution is but I do think it is time for non profits as a whole to rethink how we engage all who contribute to our agency (staff, donors, volunteers and consumers)
Thank you Laura for sharing that insight and I love that you are observing and analyzing in order to find ways to improve organizations, not only for volunteers, but for staff as well. Maybe, we, volunteer managers can collectively show the way within organizations and be the example for getting the best from people by treating them as a garden to be nurtured and cultivated.
Elisa Kosarin said:
This is a wonderful post, Meridian. We’re long overdue for a shift from the volunteer retention concept to volunteer sustainability. I happened to teach a workshop on volunteers as donors yesterday where I mentioned this post. We reframed the entire discussion using the sustainability lens. Thank you for sharing ideas to put right into action!
Thanks so much Elisa! I’m so glad to hear that this subject is being talked about. I can only imagine the great ideas percolating out there!
Reblogged this on Volunteering Counts in Dudley borough and commented:
love this post and it’s spot on. The key principles are still so important, but we need to look at the bigger picture going forward 🙂
Thx Eileen I think we can move forward without destroying all that has been accomplished so far
LikeLiked by 1 person
Exactly and I have groups who don’t even think about retention at all 😱 no induction, no supervision, no anything 😱😱😱
Sue Hine said:
You’ve hit the jackpot this time Meridian, throwing out the old mindsets! ‘Sustainability’ has a much nicer ring to it than ‘retention’, and it’s not just the environment than needs sustaining. Here’s a definition of volunteer I have used in the past: “One of life’s most valuable resources”. Which has to have a strong link with ‘sustainability’.
Thanks Sue I love the definition of volunteer as a valuable resource, it makes you want to preserve and nurture them! Words, phrases and titles really do matter especially when they can evoke positive action.
Susan J. Ellis said:
Beautifully stated, Meridian! Agree wholeheartedly. I always dislike the way we talk about “retention” of volunteers — as if it’s some universal goal to never lose any of them! Fundraisers talk about “cultivating” money donors. Leaders of volunteers need the same attitude. Thanks for the post.
Thank you Susan. I’d always used the word retention until it started to feel as though retention at any cost was my main goal. It’s hard to let go of retention when you feel judged for “losing” a volunteer. I think we need to change the perception of retention being the goal within each organization to free up leaders of volunteers to be creative when cultivating volunteers. It’s daunting, but I believe we can do it.
Pingback: Sustainable Volunteering is Here, but Who is Sustaining The Leader of Volunteers? | volunteerplaintalk