Episode #074: Secrets to Retaining Volunteers Revealed

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.

Hey there, buddy. Welcome to another episode of the Volunteer Nation. Today we’re going to talk about secrets to retaining volunteers revealed. So I’m going to talk a little bit about some data. I like to make decisions around management that are based on data and evidence. So I’m going to talk about an old volunteer retention study and a new volunteer experience.

Study and share some, takeaways some of the things I’ve been teaching my students, my members, and really thinking about as we build back from COVID Because I have to tell you, things are getting a little harder because people are more picky now. Why are people more picky right now? Well, partly because people are tired, they’re exhausted. They’ve also had pandemic epiphanies. There’s nothing like an existential crisis of the human race to have people reconsider their priorities. And so we’ve really got to put forth an experience. We’ve got to level up our volunteer experiences in a way that feels really good, healthy, resilient, a place that people want to be, a place that has meaning for them, purpose, a place where they belong. These are all really important, especially now because folks aren’t going to stick around very long if an experience just doesn’t feel good. Because we’re all kind of that way right now.

We’re picky. And maybe we should have been picky all along, I don’t know. But the pandemic’s definitely made us more choosy about how we spend our time. And so this is a great topic to jump into. Retaining volunteers, always a good topic. So let’s start off with why retention matters in the first place. First of all, it makes your recruitment way easier, way easier.

Here’s why volunteer satisfaction. When there is volunteered satisfaction or high volunteer satisfaction, research has shown that there’s improved retention and engagement. Now, that may be a no brainer to all of us, but there’s research that bears it out. So that’s good. Many research studies on volunteer satisfaction and retention show that they correlate. So the more happy volunteers are, the longer they stay. Now, if volunteers are happy, there’s also much more word of mouth marketing. So you’re not stuck doing all of the recruitment.

You have an army of satisfied and happy volunteers who are more than willing to help share the word about your opportunities to make a difference in the world. The second reason that volunteer retention matters is really there’s greater productivity. When volunteers are happy, volunteers are satisfied. When you have greater or you put effort into retaining your volunteers and building an environment where they are happy, you’ll have greater productivity. And often you’ll need less volunteers or fewer volunteers because people are wanting to put in more work. But they don’t do that if they’re not having a really good time. Because we got to remember that volunteering is leisure time. It’s for fun.

People do it for fun. They don’t do it to work. So that’s another reason. Third reason retention can make your recruitment way easier is that there’s less turnover, right? So you don’t have to work so hard to keep that pipeline of engaged volunteers filled and new volunteers filled because you’re just not losing people. And when you have an amazing volunteer program and people are really getting a lot out of it and they’re seeing a difference made in the community, people stick around and at some point it becomes a self fulfilling cycle and you just don’t have to do that much work, but it takes work to get there. So there are no magic wands in volunteer engagement. We all know that. But it’s worth it because if you spend time in retention, you’re going to spend less time on recruitment.

But if you don’t spend any time on retention, you’re going to spend time on both recruitment and retention. So which is the better choice? Right? So I want to talk about the research today, just a couple of research studies, because I really think, like when we come to think about retaining volunteers, we really want to think about human nature, emotions. That’s what keeps people together and keeps people coming back. So we want to learn how to work with human nature, not against it. And some of our volunteer policies in the way that we manage volunteers or support volunteers is working against human nature. So let’s take a few minutes to understand what actually drives volunteer satisfaction. Do you know? And there is a study that was done years ago, this is about 20 years ago with Rosanna Galinda Kuhn and Ruth Gusley. This is a very well known research study.

It’s called the Volunteer Satisfaction Index, and I’ll link to it in the show notes. But this is a very, very well known study. It’s been validated multiple times. And they found that there were four key things that were driving volunteer retention, and one of them is group integration. So group integration is the relationships that volunteers form as a result of their volunteer work. So if you think of, for example, I’ll give you my volunteer experience working with master gardeners here in Knox County in east Tennessee. I am friends. Over the years, I have developed strong friendships with the people I volunteer with.

Our team is very tight, so we feel so much that we have strong relationships and mutually respecting relationships. We respect one another. We don’t agree on everything and we don’t have to. But we would never leave somebody in the lurch. So when we show up to do our gardening tips live Facebook show on Saturday mornings, there’s always somebody there. Nobody just blows it off, just doesn’t happen because we have high group integration. So you’ll know it’s present in your volunteers if they spend some time, first of all, if they’re sharing personal information about each other, if they’re having fun together, if they spend time outside of their volunteer time together, then you know, there’s high group integration. You can pretty much feel it, get a sense of it.

The second area that there is key driver of volunteer satisfaction is participation efficacy. And what this means is that people believe or perceive that their work is making a real difference. So you can think about people who are licking stamps doing a mailing for you. Like a big they’re licking stamps and they’re putting together a big math mailing for you that may not have very much participation efficacy unless you spend some time explaining how their labor is bringing in money and that money is helping kids or whatever, your seniors or pets or furry friends or whoever. But you need to make sure that people know that otherwise they will perceive that there’s low participation efficacy with that effort. Because we’re just sitting around doing clerical work. Now. We all know clerical work is important.

So we’ve got to communicate that as opposed to someone who’s doing mentoring or tutoring and they watch a child sit in front of them and learn how to read and learn how to and their reading monumentally improves in front of their very eyes. That has high participation efficacy. And those volunteers are going to want to stay around. So we want to make sure if there’s participation efficacy, how do you know when it’s present? Well, you ask people and facilitate self reflection and just ask people. So how do you think it’s going or what do you think the difference that your team’s made? What are you most proud of as a volunteer? That’s a great question to ask and just listen and see if people have things to say about what they’re proud about and if it’s about transformation and they can give examples, you know, that they’re feeling a sense of participation efficacy. All right, third driver of volunteer satisfaction that can help you think about better retaining volunteers and that is organization support. So adequate planning, training and support for specific tasks. So people need to know that they have access to the information.

Sometimes it’s as little as having space to do their work. So if you think about do volunteers have a place to put their stuff that’s secure? Is there a place for them to do their work? Do they have a laptop or a computer that works? If they’re doing work on computers, do they have the training or they just left to figure it out on their own? The sink or swim type of volunteer training approach is not going to be considered high organization support. Like here’s the manual, it’s like three inches thick, read it and then we’ll get going. That’s not the way to support volunteers. So we know when it’s present, when we ask. I recently did an episode on volunteer surveys that I will post in the show notes as well. And that episode I’ll have to remember to post that because I didn’t think I was going to, but I’m mentioning it now, so I will that you can ask your volunteers about all four of these things I’m mentioning, so you can ask them, how well do you feel supported? And you can use a liquor scale of one to six, from one not very supported to six very supported, and then ask them to give you information about why they gave you that rating. Yeah, that’s how you can know whether or not organizational support is present.

Fourth way is feelings of empowerment. So people do in today’s world really need to feel like they have freedom to decide how to carry out assigned tasks. Now, there are situations where folks need to follow a specific protocol. It might be some direct service that they’re providing, that there’s a client protocol and everybody needs to follow it doesn’t matter who you are. So sometimes there is not freedom to do everything their own way. It’s not that everybody can wing it all the time, but if people can have freedom in deciding the types of roles they take on their schedule, that they’re not volunteered, that’s going to help. So how do you know it’s present? Well, you can see people making decisions about things. You can see volunteers in leadership roles.

That’s when you know there’s a feeling of empowerment. When you’re giving a volunteer team, you’re sharing with them a goal and saying, go to it, see if you can get this goal. So that’s how we kind of know it’s present. I always think about empowerment. The first thing I’m looking at is how many volunteer leaders are leading other volunteers in an organization. And then I know empowerment is happening. So those are some key drivers of volunteer satisfaction that can help you when you’re thinking about new things you need to put into place to retain volunteers. Now, let’s fast forward 20 years, or 20 plus years to this year.

And NCVO in the UK before the Pandemic. They completed a very extensive study called the Time well spent Study. And I like to talk about it a lot because it has so much detail, so much detail and understanding of the volunteer experience in today’s modern world and what volunteers preferences are and what a quality experience looks like, et cetera. And they’ve done interim studies and now they’ve done volunteer Time Well Spent 2023. And by the way, NCVO, if you’re listening, we would love to interview you on this podcast. We would love to talk to you in more detail. I’m going to share a little bit about this study and I’m going to link to it in the Show Notes. But boy, would we love to talk to somebody who is involved in putting that together because there’s so much deep value there that I think insights galore we could all use.

But let’s go over some of the key takeaways. So, we know that volunteering in the UK as well as in the US has declined. In the UK. The people who volunteered at least once a month in 2021 and 22 was 16%, but that’s down from 23% in 2019 and 2020. So the COVID-19 impact Pandemic has had an impact globally on volunteer participation and it hasn’t recovered yet. And also the likelihood to continue to volunteer decline slightly from 80% in 2018% to 77% in 2022. So we’re seeing lower rate of volunteerism as well as a lower intention to volunteer. Now, here’s where it gets really interesting in terms of volunteer satisfaction and intent to continue, which is the most important metric we want to follow when retaining a volunteer, is both satisfaction and intent to continue, right? We want to know that.

So the couple of things that people said in this study were the main reasons why these were active volunteers. Why were they were discontinuing their volunteerism? One was that they had less time due to changes in their circumstances. And then one was being unhappy with the way their volunteering group was managed or organized. But that was really less common, that was about 10%. So mostly it was about changes in personal circumstances. Overall, satisfaction had decreased slightly from 96% who were very or fairly satisfied with their experience in 2018% to 92% in 2022. So satisfaction is also dropping. So if you think about the correlation between satisfaction and people saying they don’t have time because of changing circumstances, you start to think, well, is that really why they’re leaving and why they’re not prioritizing volunteering anymore? So here’s the thing about surveys.

People lie. They will tell you the least. People want to be nice, they don’t want to hurt your feelings, even though the survey might be anonymous. And they also don’t want people to feel bad. They also don’t always want to give an answer that they think is the wrong answer. So surveys aren’t 100% accurate. So when I see the correlation of satisfaction levels dropping and more people saying changes in circumstance, now that might be legitimate. It might also be that, hey, I’m prioritizing this other thing.

But my question is the decision to prioritize in our lives is largely based on the enjoyment of the task. So let me repeat myself here. The decisions to prioritize certain activities in our lives is largely related to the amount of joy or pleasure, et cetera, that those give. Now certainly we need to prioritize our spouses and we need to prioritize our kids and we need to prioritize our jobs. There are certain practical and things that make us feel good, right? Our spouses, our kids sometimes, our jobs sometimes. But when there’s extra time that we’re devoting to things, we make choices. Now, people can make choices between all kinds of things. Like I’m going to spend my weekend binge watching premier league football games and I do that when it’s premier league football season because I’m a fan and I love watching football.

And so I’ve been playing soccer my whole life and I just love that’s a relaxing way for me to spend my weekend and not worry about work and just lay on the couch and soak it up. Right now I could be spending that time with volunteerism, but volunteerism has to feel as good as me laying on the couch. And so somebody’s got to come up with a pretty good that feels meaningful, that feels know it doesn’t have to all be fun and games meaning in our lives and purpose in our lives can feel as good as just lounging around watching Netflix, right? Dopamine comes from a lot of different places in our lives and volunteering can produce dopamine in the pleasure hormone in our brains. As you know, when people say they don’t have enough time to volunteer, I’m always like what are they replacing volunteerism with? Now, some people again have practical reasons. They’re working multiple jobs. We are and have been struggling with the economy around the world. And so people have legitimate reasons. But there also we need to think about is it that the experience just isn’t all that, they’re just not into you anymore, right? So here are a few things that are impacting satisfaction according to the time well spent 2023 study.

One is that their volunteering is becoming too much like paid work. This went from 19% in 2018% to 26% in 2022. Let me repeat that from I think it was 19% to 26%, up seven percentage points. 26% is more than one in four volunteers in the Time Well spent study in 2023. Actually it was 2022 when the data was collected but still felt like volunteering is becoming too much like paid work. Now, does paid work as a volunteer when it feels like paid work? Does it feel like fun anymore? Probably not, right? So also more volunteers felt their volunteering group or organization had unreasonable expectations of how much they did. So, 17% in 2018 compared to 24% in 2022. Again, nearly one in four feel like their organizations have unrealistic expectations.

So it’s feeling like drudgery y’all, that’s what’s feeling like. And so we’ve got to start to think about our role design a little bit better. And then in terms of diversity in 2018, 73% of volunteers said they were people from a wide range of backgrounds and cultures in their group. In 2022 this dropped to 66%. 66%. So that is 7% drop no let’s see 673 -66 7% yeah, fewer people felt that there were volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds, and cultures in their group. Now, some people might see that as a positive. Many of us would question that and say, you know what, actually I like working with people who are different than me.

So that could be an impact. And then finally, among those who had considered volunteering in the last twelve months, the most common barriers were thinking it involved more time than they could commit, 21% it wasn’t flexible, 14% and the opportunities didn’t match their skills, interests, or experience. 14% so we’re talking about a real mismatch between what volunteers are perceiving or what is actually being offered them and what they want. And as nonprofits, we don’t get to be choosy as choosy as volunteers get to be because we’re asking people to give us free labor and we’re asking people to sacrifice part of their time. And it is a sacrifice time and sometimes money to give to our organizations. So we need to lean into what their preferences are and see how it can match better with what our needs are as well. And it’s going to take some creativity. So these data really suggest we need to focus on retaining volunteers by providing a meaningful experience that still has a priority in their lives.

So it has to be fun, it has to be meaningful but also fun and by giving people flexible opportunities that can match their energy and availability levels. So I want you to think about what I’ve talked about. I’ve talked about 20 years ago what volunteer experience needed to look like or what were key drivers of satisfaction. And fast forward to today. I think today there’s more of an onus for flexibility, there’s more of an onus for resilient or regenerative volunteering. I think I just made that up. Regenerative volunteering. And what I mean by that is volunteering that when we leave our volunteering role, we feel better than when we came and it’s giving us more energy versus taking away.

It is not overfilling our cups, right? So with too much overwhelm. Right? So regenerative volunteering is really about people being able to heal through volunteerism. And we know that’s possible. Lots of research on volunteerism and our health. So let’s pause and take a quick break from talking about our conversation about and secrets to volunteer retention. And after the break, we’ll get back to some key secrets I’ll share my recommendations for retaining volunteers. So don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.

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Welcome back, everybody. We’re talking about retaining volunteers. Our secrets revealed. And so before the break, I was talking about a couple of studies, one from 20 years ago and fast forwarding to one from this year. And I think both of those studies, I don’t think that anything is the study from 20 years ago. I don’t think things have changed that much. I think people, in terms of those key drivers that I talked about, I think those are still important to volunteers. But I think there’s a key. COVID has really impacted things, maybe even more than we imagined. And so we’ve got to think about, as I said before the break, regenerative volunteering. What does it mean to create a volunteer experience that supports wellness, that supports resilience, that supports healing? So we can stop being exhausted all the time, right? So I promised I would share some strategies and tactics, so I’m going to do that.

So as I said before the break, we can’t ignore the impact of COVID-19 on how we approach retaining volunteers. So if that’s the case, what should we do? And I’ve got some recommendations, some secrets revealed. So let’s do it. So one is offer a menu of flexible roles. I talked about this over the break or before the break. Episodic project based, ongoing. Every opportunity you offer should have a beginning, middle and end. Even if people have the opportunity at the end to re up or to switch roles, it is really important.

I have talked to volunteers and asked them why they don’t volunteer. And they say, because I don’t want to sign my life away. Now, if volunteers are worried that our organizations have unrealistic expectations, then we need to communicate some realistic expectations and we need to ask them, so what’s realistic for you? What can you give? So it’s a two way street. So offering that menu, that’s a key thing. Menu means choice. Second thing map a volunteer journey and look for sticking points. Now in Episode 19, I talked about how to improve the volunteer experience with a journey map. So I’m not going to go into deep detail on about how to do that, check that out.

But really it’s about tracking every step of the volunteer journey and analyzing the emotional and informational needs of volunteers at each step because they change over time. Evaluating them and then coming up with new ways to meet those needs. It’s also about tracking the data of these steps, the micro conversions, and seeing if you can establish a baseline and then make improvements and improve the percentage of volunteers who make it through each of those steps. Again, episode 19, I teach you all about how to develop a volunteer journey map. I love doing this with my consulting clients. It’s just a lot of fun, very creative. Third thing, validate your hunches. I talked about data on micro conversions.

Create feedback loops at specific steps, really inflection points or vulnerable spots in the volunteer’s experience their 1st 30 days after their first shift when they complete training, whatever it is, and get some feedback loops going so you can validate your hunches about what’s not working. Because often we have bias, something we don’t like, or we hear one squeaky wheel complain about it, and we assume with a broad brushstroke that everybody has this issue and it turns out to be only that one volunteer. And so we’ve got to validate our hunches by doing some surveying of our volunteers. And in episode 72, volunteer surveys, are you making these mistakes? You can check that out. And actually I have it listed in my list of links, so check that out. We will have it in the show notes. But I just recently did that episode. So volunteer surveys, are you making these mistakes? You can start to get some ideas about how to put together your survey.

Another way to help with your retaining volunteers is to really lean into nurturing relationships. This is a part of regenerative volunteering as well. When you think about relationships and being social as a wellness and anti, a lot of people talk about this as a way to prevent burnout, is to spend more social time. And I know when I spend time, even though my friends don’t all live near me, we’re often on zoom together. We have regular zoom calls. My girlfriends I get together, we’ll have a girlfriend zoom call about once a month and we just all catch up and it just keeps us all sane. So, definitely want to nurture relationships by hosting social gatherings, making time for socializing and friend making during trainings and events, sending email campaigns, or vulnerable inflection points that are relationship oriented. You’re not always making an ask, you’re entertaining, you’re thanking, you’re showing gratitude, you’re calling out, you’re adding value.

You’re helping volunteers learn more and have greater insights. You’re reporting out impact. These are the kinds of things that these email campaigns, short series of emails can help to nurture relationships. Yes, email can nurture relationships if it’s done well. Connecting volunteers with other people in your organization, whether it’s fellow volunteers, board members, employees that they think would have common interest, that’s always another way to nurture relationships. And then checking in with people individually. I think now in today’s world, people are more fragile, at least for the moment. We’re still building back our strength.

So if you don’t see somebody for a while and maybe you need to put together a volunteer care team, volunteers that are reaching out to people that you don’t hear from and just checking in, making sure they’re okay. If you’re interested in email campaigns, I have a couple of episodes on Volunteer Nation 64 and 65, using email to improve volunteer retention. Parts one and two. It’s a two parter. I had so much to say about that. So if you want to learn more about email communication, those will be helpful and then finally focus on volunteer wellness. So regenerative volunteering. I don’t know, I’m like obsessed with that term now.

I just made it up. I don’t know, maybe somebody else said it at some point, I don’t know. But I like the concept, right, that we are focusing on volunteer wellness now. I’ve been thinking about this for a while because I wrote a blog way back when in 2021, which feels like forever ago, why you need to Create a Wellness program for volunteers. And we also on the Time and Talent podcast, we interviewed Megan Vixie of Beach City’s Health District and she talked to us about it’s a wellness organization and she talked about volunteer wellness as well. So you can check that out. I’ll link to it in the notes as well. This was a few seasons ago, so it’s a perennial topic that I think now has even more important need, right, more vital need.

So create a wellness plan for your volunteers. I also wrote a blog a while ago called how to prevent Burnout for yourself and Your volunteers. I’ll also link to that in the show notes as well. But think about how you can create a wellness plan so that volunteers are able to stay resilient. And you know what, it’s kind of a perk. It’s a great way to when you offer volunteer opportunities to offer a perk of hey, we have a volunteer wellness plan that you can participate in maybe once a month you have yoga or maybe you do group meditation or maybe who knows what. Or maybe you just have happy hours once in a while or whatever you want to make your wellness plan about. I think that would be an interesting perk for your volunteers.

So I hope this is giving you some ideas. Before the break, I talked a lot about research from 20 years ago and then fast forward to now. And then after the break I’ve talked about a lot of different of my secrets revealed for volunteer retention. Volunteer retention is not a tip or a trick. That’s not what it is. It’s a systematic way of orchestrating and designing an experience so that your volunteers come out better in the end. That’s really what it’s about. And when volunteers are happy, when they’re seeing purpose in their work, they’re seeing change happen.

And we know change doesn’t always happen overnight. Otherwise we nonprofits would be out of business if things were that easy. They’re not. But if volunteers can feel connected that they don’t feel like they’re being asked to do more than they can handle, if they are given some freedom, if they are making connections with one another and with you, those things go a long way. And so we just need to be more purposeful right now because gang post COVID everybody’s picky. So that’s my show for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you did, I hope you’ll share it with somebody else who.

Might use a little or could use a little inspiration. And if volunteer turnover is an issue for you and you just don’t know what to do, and you want to learn more about tactics for retaining volunteers, be sure to check out our VolunteerPro Volunteer Management Fundamentals Course at volpro.net/begin. We will walk you through in 10 hours of online content with tons of tools and downloads. And you can jump on a q and a call with me once a month with the group and ask any questions that are coming up. But this program will help you develop a very solid volunteer strategy, and it doesn’t take a ton of time to do it. Yeah, doesn’t take ten months, six months. Go through the program. Start implementing immediately.

So if retention is a huge deal for you, come join us and you can get moving really quickly towards reducing that volunteer turnover. So thanks again for joining us for this episode of the volunteer nation. I will see you next week, same time, same place, and take care, everybody. 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.