Episode #045: Build a Smarter Volunteer Retention Strategy

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you.   

Well, hey there, are you looking for a little fresh inspiration for 2023? If so, I’d like to tell you about our VolunteerPro Month of Love. We’ll be showering all of our followers and listeners with free nonprofit tools, downloads and templates, and we’ll be highlighting eight quick-win tools over four weeks, all focused on engaging volunteers.  

So check us out at volpro.net/free-nonprofit-tools. That’s volpro.net/free-nonprofit-tools and get some freebies like our Miracle Mindset Worksheet, our Volunteer Resourcing Plan Template, our Cheat Sheet for Volunteer Interview Questions and more.  

Like I said, we’re going to have eight quick-win tools, so you are not going to want to miss this. All right, well, let’s get started with our episode today, Build a Smarter Volunteer Retention Strategy.  

I’m your host, Tobi Johnson, and I’m excited to be here to talk about how we can improve the volunteer experience and thus improve our volunteer retention. So last weekend my husband and I visited Asheville, North Carolina. It’s only about an hour and a half from our house. 

So it’s a nice drive sometimes for just an overnight. And I got to reflecting on the hospitality experiences we all have when we stay at different kinds of hotels and how they can differ widely. I think it’s the same for volunteer experiences.  

You know, volunteers can go from one organization to another organization and have a completely different experience. And I wonder what it would be like if nonprofits who involved volunteers got into thinking about how they can create a top shelf experience.  

I mean like a Ritz Carlton experience, like the best volunteer experience ever. And if that were to happen, how that might change how many volunteers are involved, but also how it might make volunteer recruitment easier because you’d have much more word of mouth. 

So for this episode, Build a Smarter Volunteer Retention Strategy, I want to focus on three key strategies for smarter volunteer retention and to create a volunteer retention strategy. You can choose from one of these, you don’t have to do all of them, but I do want to think about strategy.  

So strategy is big picture. It’s not tips and tricks. It’s not a quick tactic that you’re just going to run with and it’s going to create instant results. That’s really not realistic when we’re talking about reducing turnover, increasing volunteer retention.  

When we’re creating a volunteer retention strategy, it needs to have a little bit of thought behind it, and I’m hoping that these three strategies that I’m going to talk about will help you think through and choose a smarter volunteer retention strategy. 

So the three I’m going to talk through on this episode are, number one, think of yourself as an architect of the volunteer experience, and I’ll give you a little bit of more information about that. The second one is working with human nature, not against it. And again, I will talk about brain friendly strategy, a brain friendly strategy you can use. 

And then the third volunteer retention strategy I’m going to offer up is follow the data, and I’m going to talk about how we can use data to make improvements. So that’s what I’m going to talk about in this episode.  

Let’s just kick it off with volunteer retention strategy number one, think of yourself as an architect of the volunteer experience and create a more purposeful user experience. 

I talk about this a lot when I’m training my students and members around volunteer onboarding. I talk about how important it is that a new volunteer has the absolute best experience.  

You know, those first impressions really make a difference. So I recommend that you map the informational and emotional needs of volunteers at each step of their lifestyle and or lifecycle, I should say, starting with onboarding first, because it is the most valuable time and the time where first impressions really stick and really matter. 

And if you can map the information on emotional needs of your volunteers at each step, both through onboarding, but onward, make improvements, figure out how other people can get involved and how you can create greater efficiencies, you can really start to see improvement in your volunteer satisfaction.  

I also like to encourage people to bake in some surprise and delight along the way. Do something that brings your volunteers joy at each stage. Now when you’re mapping out the touchpoints or steps in your volunteer experience, that might be visiting your website. It might be completing the application process.  

It might be attending your orientation training. It might be their first day on the job. It might be at a volunteer recognition event. It might be as they say, goodbye at an event.  

There are so many touchpoints, so many opportunities to wow our volunteers, but I like to encourage people to think about, as I said, both the informational and emotional needs at each step. So, emotions change and we have to look for subtlety. 

For example, I’ll give you an example from our business. So one of my team members is rebuilding a shopping cart, which is where you go to sign up for our membership and she’s rebuilding it. And there are several steps in the process.  

First you go to our sales page where you learn more about our membership. Then when you’re ready to buy, you click join the membership, and it takes you to our shopping cart.  

And once people join and pay via the shopping cart, then they also go to a thank you page. And through that process, that process could take as little as you know, 15 seconds. Or 20 seconds. It’s not a fast process, but there are subtle differences in people’s emotions as they move through those steps. 

So for example, when someone visits our sales page around our membership, they’re curious, is this the right fit for me? Does it make sense to invest in this? What will I get out of this? What are other people saying about this?  

So it’s all about information and curiosity. Once someone gets to a shopping cart or in your case, an application form and you know, your sale quote unquote sales page is really your volunteer recruitment hub webpage, is when people get to that sales page, they start to think they need reinforcement. 

Does it make sense for me to really, I’m thinking again, should I invest now? For members, it’s about investing in their professional development, investing in their organization’s traction around volunteer engagement.  

But for your volunteers, if they’re completing an application form, it’s an investment of their time, does it make sense for them to invest their time? There is plenty of evidence that there is buyer’s remorse after shopping carts.  

So people will purchase something. They’ll go from the sales page, gee, I’m curious to the shopping cart. Okay, just confirming that I’m committed to this. And once they hit join and they’ve paid, they get sent to a thank you page. 

And that thank you page, people are wonder, ooh, did I make the right decision here? Now we know they made the right decision. So on that thank you page, we make sure to reinforce yes, you are in the right place. We are really excited.  

Go ahead and then we send a welcome email. Go ahead and set up a welcome call with our team. We’ll walk you through the platform, we’ll get to know you and understand your needs. 

It’s a very high touch experience, and we do this purposefully to help our new members acclimate and to help them move through the process fairly smoothly. And so I want you to think about this with your volunteers at each step of their process, whether it’s going from your recruitment webpage, which might be curiosity, what’s here to offer?  

Should this be something I should get involved in? To their application form, they’re really starting to consider whether or not, and then once they submit their application form, they’re often the next emotion is confusion. What happens next? 

So you want, may want to send people to a thank you page or send them an automated email that says like, Hey, you’re in the right place. We’re so excited. Here are your next steps.  

So you can see through these short processes, each step really does represent a slightly different emotion. And even a slightly different informational need. And so if you can really drill down to those separate needs at each step, at each discrete step, you’re going to be better at analyzing and understanding what needs to improve at each of those steps. 

So it’s really about the subtleties. And I’ve got an episode, Volunteer Nation episode 19, where I really talk dive into how to create the journey map for volunteers. It’s called Improve the Volunteer Experience with the Journey Map.  

So if you want to dive in and try this strategy, I suggest you listen to that episode, it will help walk you through. Also, if you’re wondering, well, where do I have all my steps? Where can I make improvements?  

Also check out episode 31, rethinking the Volunteer Engagement Cycle with Lori Gotlieb. If you’re kind of curious where might you make improvements, what steps should you think of in your volunteer engagement cycle. 

So that’s volunteer retention strategy number one. Let’s talk about volunteer retention strategy number two, work with human nature, not against it by meeting three core human needs.  

I took a online class on the mindfulness app with Rick Hansen about sort of remapping your brain, and he’s an expert, he’s a psychologist and expert on mindfulness. 

And he is just amazing at thinking about the core human needs and how we can basically train our brains to ensure that we have happiness by making sure we have these three needs met.  

So he says every human being has three basic needs: safety, satisfaction, and connection. They are grounded in our ancient evolutionary history. While our circumstances have changed enormously over the past 200,000 years, our brains have remained largely the same. 

The neural machinery that enabled our ancestors to satisfy their need for safety by finding shelter, for satisfaction by getting food, and for connection by bonding with others is alive in our brains.  

And in the episode show notes, I’ll link to one of his articles called “The Lizard, The Mouse, and The Monkey” that really talks about the sort of evolutionary history and how our brains have evolved and not evolved. 

We’re still pretty basic, so we have three key human needs: safety, satisfaction, and connection. And that goes for all human beings, no matter what language, what neighborhood, what background, what country you come from, doesn’t matter.  

We all have these basic needs, and I believe volunteers are also driven by these key core human needs. So safety is all about avoiding harm, avoiding emotional and physical harm.  

When you think about mapping the volunteer journey, are there places where people feel less safe? Now I’m not talking about, you know, people feeling like they’re going to be physically accosted or anything, but there is emotional safety. 

You know, when you, for example, when you go to a new volunteer orientation and you don’t know a single person there, you might feel slightly nervous about that, especially if you’re super introverted.  

So there are times in any life cycle of any experience where people will not feel safe because they’re not accustomed, they don’t know all the unwritten rules, for example. So think about safety and how you can meet that for your volunteers, and that will improve their experience.  

The second area of satisfaction is about approaching rewards with purpose and progress. Human beings want to be achieving. On small scale, on big scale – depends on the person, but nobody likes to feel like they’re stuck in a rut even if your work is difficult and challenging.  

For example, those of you who work in advocacy with volunteers, it’s very difficult sometimes to feel like you’re making movement forward, because if you’re trying to change big legislation, sometimes that can take decades. So we really want to help our volunteers understand the micro steps, the small wins, as well as the big. 

And help them understand how they are growing as humans as well. So that’s an area of satisfaction that you can think about. How can you communicate this more or more clearly?  

The third area, the third core human need is connection, attaching to others, belonging, friendship, et cetera. And you know, in my episode 27 of Volunteer Nation, Building a Sense of Community with Volunteers, I talk just about that, like how do we build connections with one another?  

Because when volunteers make friends, they tend to stick around because they like hanging out with their friends and nobody is going to not show up for a fellow volunteer who’s a friend. When people have friendships, they don’t like to let their friends down.  

So consider how can you, what can you do to boost volunteers’ perceptions of safety satisfaction, connection? And how can you involve volunteers and coworkers in the process? It can’t just all be on you.  

So think about that when you’re thinking about volunteer retention strategy. Just think about how can we meet three core human needs, these specific safety, satisfaction, and connection throughout the volunteer life cycle, and when are they most vulnerable?  

When are they most vulnerable to not be met? And again, I’ll, I’ll link to Rick Hansen’s article, “The Lizard, The Mouse, and The Monkey,” so you can learn more about how the brain works and how we can work with it, not against it. 

All right, so let’s take a quick pause and a break from my ideas on how to build a smarter volunteer retention strategy. Right after the break, I’m going to talk about our third and final strategy. Don’t go anywhere and stick around.  

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VolunteerPro Premium Membership helps you build or renovate an effective what’s-working-now volunteer program with less stress and more joy, so that you can ditch the overwhelm and confidently carry your vision forward. 

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Alright, we’re back with my third and final way to build a smarter volunteer retention strategy. This one is all about data. So volunteer retention strategy number three, follow the data. 

Set benchmarks, test, reflect, and tweak. So you want to figure out, you know, I gave you two possible retention strategies. One was mapping the volunteer journey, and the other was meeting volunteers’ emotional and informational needs at every step of their lifecycle. 

You can also figure out at each point in the volunteer journey, or through surveys to figure out if volunteers are actually having these needs met. So there’s a couple of, you can use data for the previous two volunteer retention strategies I mentioned. 

But I also just want to talk about some of the strategic goals or key performance metrics you might track to see where you can improve the volunteer experience and, and thus improve your retention.  

So participation metrics are one way to start to see, they’re sort of a leading indicator. They can let you know ahead of time if there’s going to be trouble on the horizon.  

So participation metrics are like your show rates for shifts, your email, open rates, et cetera. So are people, are your volunteers participating in your engagement activities? Conversion metrics are really about changing behaviors. 

So how many volunteers convert to active service members, or how many regular volunteers become volunteer leaders? Those are all conversion metrics, so you can start to track that as a proxy for volunteer satisfaction.  

And when you have higher conversion metrics, it means your volunteers are more engaged and you’re more likely to retain them. Satisfaction metrics are another kind of metric that’s a precursor to volunteer retention.  

There’s been plenty of research that’s connected and correlates volunteer satisfaction, positive volunteer satisfaction with positive retention. And that makes sense. So you might ask questions around net promoter score. 

So how many would you recommend volunteering to a friend or family member? You can also set 30, 60 and/or 90 day satisfaction polls or surveys to continue to track through a volunteer’s early onboarding experiences to see if satisfaction starts to waver at any step of the way.  

So I like, I’m a fan of shorter, more frequent volunteer surveys, but they need to be like, you know, two questions long, just little polls that you can pulse, check along their journey to see where there’s a problem. Right?  

So that’s another metric for retention. So participation metrics, conversion metrics, satisfaction metrics and retention metrics. Things you might want to track to follow the data and see where you can make improvements.  

And I believe data is a very strong volunteer retention strategy. I believe when you can use data to reflect on how volunteers are progressing to reflect on their perceptions about their experience, and to see what the end results are in terms of your retention metrics, you really can start to diagnose where there are pain points and you can take steps.  

So I see it as a strategy. I see it as absolute strategy. It could certainly be a tactic within the other two strategies I mentioned, but I also like it as a standalone strategy. I also have more info on nonprofit metrics and key performance indicators. 

So you can check out episode 36, 5 nonprofit KPIs Your Volunteer Program Should be Tracking, and it’ll give you a little bit deeper information if data isn’t your thing. Okay?  

So those are our three key volunteer retention strategies. I hope you’ve found them helpful. The first one was think of yourself as an architect of the volunteer experience. The second was one was work with human nature, not against it. And the third one was follow the data.  

So I hope you enjoyed these. I hope you’re thinking to yourself about, if you’re not using one of these, maybe a different retention strategy you might use. But think beyond tips and tricks.  

I like the idea of an overarching strategy that involves a variety of different activities or things to make it strong. And, one last promotion for our VolunteerPro Month of Love and free nonprofit tools, downloads and templates. I talked about it at the beginning of this episode.  

Don’t miss out. It’s a wonderful thing to see all of these helpful tools coming down the pike. So visit volpro.net/free-nonprofit-tools and let us shower you with a little bit of love. 

So thanks for joining us for this episode of The Volunteer Nation. I hope this has given you fresh ideas for how to build a smarter volunteer retention strategy. If you liked it, please share it with a friend or colleague who might need some recruitment or retention inspiration, and a better approach that gets them traction. 

So I hope to see you next time. I’ll be here. Same time, same place on the Volunteer Nation.  

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review so we can reach people like you who want to improve the impact of their good cause.  

For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at TobiJohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.