February 29, 2024

Episode #99: Volunteer Retention Strategies: Two Big Mistakes

In this episode of the Volunteer Nation, Tobi discusses how non-profit organizations can utilize psychology for volunteer retention strategies. She explains the importance of using positive social proof and emotive communication to encourage volunteers to keep coming back. 

Tobi emphasizes the need to light up the brain by generating emotions, using clear contrast imagery, visually stimulating content, and focusing on beginnings and endings. She also highlights the two key mistakes organizations make when it comes to volunteer retention. 

Volunteer Retention Strategies – Episode Highlights 

  • [01:26] – The Role of Human Nature in Volunteer Satisfaction 
  • [03:00] – Understanding Human Behavior for Better Volunteer Retention 
  • [03:44] – Mistake 1: Communicating the Wrong Norms 
  • [05:13] – The Power of Social Norms Theory 
  • [16:40] – Mistake 2: Not Tapping the Emotional Side of the Brain 
  • [17:35] – The Role of Emotion in Decision Making 
  • [22:05] – Six Ways to Stimulate the Brain and Influence Behavior 

Volunteer Retention Strategies – Quotes from the Episode

“In our recruitment messaging, we would be better to share how volunteers are helping to bridge community gaps in services, versus saying we are in desperate need or urgent need of new volunteers.” 

“What we want to do is work with human nature, not against it when it comes to volunteers. Rather than having them do all the work of working past something that’s doesn’t feel good, is to provide things that do feel good, right?” 

About the Show

Nonprofit leadership author, trainer, consultant, and volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson shares weekly tips to help charities build, grow, and scale exceptional volunteer teams. Discover how your nonprofit can effectively coordinate volunteers who are reliable, equipped, and ready to help you bring about BIG change for the better.

If you’re ready to ditch the stress and harness the power of people to fuel your good work, you’re in exactly the right place!

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Episode #99: Volunteer Retention Strategies: Two Big Mistakes 

TOBI JOHNSON: Well, welcome my friends to another episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. Today, I want to talk about psychology, specifically how you can use psychology to improve your volunteer retention strategies. There are two big mistakes that I see organizations making over and over again. You know, I work with organizations consulting them around their volunteer recruitment, but we also want to talk about and think about our volunteer retention because when we our volunteer retention, then it makes our recruitment work much easier because we have less to do in that department. And so today I want to talk about some ways to think about how we interact and inspire and influence human beings to take action, and that action is to keep coming back and keep deciding. 

To support your organization, you know this week. I’m doing a workshop inside the volunteer pro community around psychology So psychology is big on my mind right now. I’ve been talking about how to work with human nature to enhance volunteer satisfaction So shout out to my volunteer pro community members This podcast will be a great supplement to your training inside the community So let’s talk about this. 

I’m going to share two big mistakes. I want you to ask yourself, are you making these two mistakes in your volunteer retention strategies? You know, when it comes to volunteer retention strategies, your first instinct is often when it How to encourage people to keep coming back and, you know, that instinct that you have and the way you’re approaching it may not be the best one. 

It actually is pretty counterintuitive in some ways, some of the things I’m going to share today. In fact, the strategies you’re choosing may be shooting you in the foot. What about that? It turns out that human beings aren’t really very rational in their choices. We don’t purposefully think through a course of action before taking it. 

I wish we did. There’s no I think, therefore I am. We really behave in predictable ways. We actually, or actually we do behave in predictable ways based on thousands of years of evolution and survival, but we don’t believe or behave in the predictable ways we think we should be behaving, if that makes sense. 

We are not very rational. So today I’m going to cover a couple of different ways human beings are actually apt to behave. Not how we believe we think they should behave. Based on how our brains have evolved. And I’ll point to two clear mistakes that volunteer involving organizations and leaders. of volunteers may be making that work against their own best interest and that of volunteers who want to make a difference. 

So by simply making a few shifts in your approach, you can get more out of your volunteer recruitment and retention strategies and reduce that burden of recruiting new volunteers due to turnover. So let’s get into it right away. Let’s talk about volunteer retention strategy mistake number one, which is communicating the wrong norms. You know, when we’re in deep need, of volunteers and we’re not at capacity, it may feel like the best course of action is to really paint a complete picture of our needs and vacancies and do this to engender more sympathy and support from potential supporters. 

And so sometimes we’ll use phrases like volunteers urgently needed or volunteers desperately needed. And actually. Research really indicates the contrary, that isn’t the best approach. In fact, that approach may be shooting you in the foot. And I want to share an interesting study. 

That talks about this, that talks about the fact that desperate pleas for help from an understaffed volunteer team actually may doubts in your audience as to whether your program is worth supporting. You know, in your audience’s mind when you’re calling for desperate need and your audience and your audience’s mind, they’re thinking if others aren’t volunteering for you, it must be a good reason. 

This plants the seed about your cause or your organization to wonder whether it’s a meaningful place to contribute time and talent. After all, why aren’t other people supporting it? So, there’s a theory, a psychological theory that backs this up and that has been researched and I want to share this very interesting study about it. 

It was done years ago, but is well known in psychological circles, and it’s called social norms theory. So, I want to break this down a little bit. Further, social norms theory suggests that human behavior is influenced by perceptions of how our peers think and act. So, we are very much a clan-like species. We really pay attention to what the group is doing. 

Moreover, we are more likely to be influenced by perceived norms. What we view as the typical or standard in a group, rather than what the actual norm is, so the real beliefs and actions of a group. So, let’s talk about how this really happens in, in real life. There was an experiment that Robert Cialdini as well as some colleagues did at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, and it was so clever in terms of figuring out how we influence People either positively or negatively.  

So, the petrified forest for a long time had been suffering from theft. So, people were picking up small pieces of petrified wood and taking them. And they had been using a particular sign to stop people from doing this or deter people from doing this. And their sign said, “your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” 

And it wasn’t working. The sign was not working. The petrified wood kept disappearing. So, the researchers led by Cialdini decided that they would test the effects of alternate worrying signs and also include a zone, an area that didn’t have any sign at all, just to control for the signs. And so they placed these, these signs at different locations. 

And then they, over a five-week timeframe, counted and replaced removed wood pieces. So, they had like, they had little pieces people could steal. And people were stealing. I’m not saying they weren’t. They still stole. But there was a big difference. So, there were two signs that they used. 

One was, many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the petrified forest. So, this text was accompanied by people in the, in the act of taking stuff, right? Pictures of people taking the wood. This sign really described what researchers call or psychologists call a descriptive norm. 

So, they’re a descriptive norm is what people are doing, right? Then they had a second sign. The second sign said, “please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park to preserve the natural state of the petrified forest”, and this sign was accompanied by a lone visitor who was stealing a piece of wood. 

And there was a red circle and bar symbol superimposed over their hand. So, this type of sign was really describing what we call or what psychologists call an injunctive norm. So, an injunctive norm communicates the rules for the situation and why the rule is important. So, it is very different than describing what people are actually doing. 

You’re talking about what is the rule and why is it important? And the results were significant. I’m wondering if you could just pause for a minute and think to yourself, which one Resulted in the most theft, the one where the sign where they were describing what people are doing or the sign where they were describing the rule and why it was important. 

Well, the results were significant. The first message where the negative norm was described and the group involved, so actually what happened, resulted in a 7. 92 percent theft rate. So almost one out of 10 people took some petrified wood. I’m like, come on people, right? The second message that had a more neutral norm, only had one person involved, was really just discussing the rule and why it mattered. 

Only resulted in a 1.67 percent theft rate and the control with no sign resulted in a 2. 9 percent rate and the former signage they had was a 3 percent rate of stealing. So, no sign did better than the neutral or did worse than the neutral. So, the neutral norm with describing the, the rule and why it was important is a better way to go. 

Cialdini concluded that it’s a serious error to focus on. An audience on the descriptive norm, like what’s actually being done instead, he said messages should focus on the audience on the injunctive norm. So, what’s approved or disapproved of in these situations. So, we want to talk about not what’s actually happening, but what we would like to happen. 

In other words, let’s break this down in practical terms for volunteer coordinators and volunteer involving organizations when it comes to their volunteer retention strategies. So, communicating with an audience to influence preferred behavior, you would do better to talk about that preferred behavior and whoever is already complying rather than calling out people who aren’t. 

For example, I know one of the main often heard complaints from volunteer coordinators is, hey, I can’t get volunteers to actually log their hours and we need to track volunteer effort. As well as volunteer impact, right? And so, part of the volunteer effort is understanding, you know, our capacity. 

How many people are contributing their time? And to understand, we can use that to predict. We can use that to, to compare with impact. There’re all kinds of ways to use these data. So, instead of saying, hey gang, no one is, is, or very few of you are, are logging your hours every day. We need you to do this. 

That’s sort of a negative norm, right? And that’s going to result in more people not logging in their hours. However, if you use a neutral message, like please log your hours. This is important for our tracking with our grantors or even better, 75 percent of you log your hours every week. 

And we’d like the rest of you to do it too, right? So that’s a more positive framing of that norm by talking about what is acceptable behavior, right? So similarly in our recruitment messaging, we would be better to share how volunteers are helping to bridge community gaps in services. So, hey, our 10 more youth this week, versus saying we are in desperate need or urgent need of new volunteers. You can see how that, that’s a kind of what we call negative social proof where we’re describing what people aren’t doing and that’s influencing people to follow the crowd, right? Well, if people aren’t doing this, I’m not going to do it either, right? 

It’s really important to think about social norms theory and how you can use it in your volunteer retention strategies. So, think about how this phenomenon might be harnessed for successful strategies when retention is an issue, when there’s not enough people to get the work done. You know, again, at first instinct, you might think, well, the best thing to do is to, for example, if people aren’t following through on their commitment, is to describe how people aren’t following through on the commitment. 

But that is probably going to result in more people not following through on a commitment. And so that can have a snowball effect. So alternatively, when we think about our volunteer retention strategies, if the desired behaviors promoted and injunctive norms reinforced, as we talked about earlier, then volunteers are going to be more. 

If we talk about and we highlight how volunteers are committing to their work. So, sharing volunteer testimonials and stories about positive experiences, giving shout outs for people who have dedicated service and time, they may be more effective than complaining why people don’t show up. 

In this case, using social norms theory can absolutely impact your volunteer retention results, and your messaging may make all the difference in the world. So that’s the big mistake I see, the first big mistake. After the break, I’m going to talk a little bit about a second mistake and give you some really practical tips to use both in your messaging, but also in the visual cues that you provide to volunteers. 

Also, if you want more on the psychology of better volunteer retention, check out our Volunteer Pro Blog post: How to Uncover “Hidden” Expectations for Authentic Volunteer Appreciation where I talk about Psychological Contract Theory, which is another really interesting area of volunteer using volunteer psychology to improve retention. 

I will put the links in the show notes. But let’s take a quick break and after our conversation I’ll be back again on how to tap human nature in your volunteer retention strategies. So don’t go anywhere. 

 If you enjoyed this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the Volunteer Pro Premium Membership. This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting, engaging, and supporting dedicated, high impact volunteer talent for your good cause. Volunteer Pro 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. It is the only implementation of its kind that helps your organization build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system, the volunteer strategy success path. 

If you’re interested in learning more, visit volpro.net/join 

Okay, everybody, we are back with my conversation on how to work with human nature, not against it when it comes to our volunteer retention strategies. It’s fascinating work. It just, I just find it so interesting, human nature, not always what we expect it to be. And often our instincts for how we’re going to encourage, manage, support people are actually wrong, just dead wrong in terms of how we actually behave as humans. 

Let’s talk about volunteer retention strategy mistake number two, which is not tapping the emotional side of the brain. You know, what makes volunteers continue again and again to choose your organization? 

Because when we think about volunteer retention, What people are doing is making a choice to support you on a consistent basis. And they’re making that choice over and over again, over other things in their lives. So, we often think that a rational argument, whether it’s in our recruitment or retention, a rational argument about need is the only way or the best way to reach people and influence people. 

It’s actually even more important to have emotion, to tap emotion. There’s an emotional level. Emotion drives action more than reason driving action. And yet, just go take a look at your volunteer recruitment page on your website. Is it emotion or is it reason? Is it about facts and requirements or is it about stories and inspiration? 

And that makes all the difference. So, it turns out that the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive part of our brain, is responsible for personality, reasoning, abstract thought, goals, planning. We think that this is the most the part of the brain that’s most responsible for a volunteer’s desire to contribute, but rather. 

Psychologists know that it’s our limbic system that triggers empathy and develops a person’s willingness to help. And our limbic system is what we consider our old brain. It’s an older part of our brain. It’s more, it was a earlier development in our evolution as human beings, as a species. So, what they found is that only when the limbic system is triggered, only then does the prefrontal cortex get to work rationalizing our choices. 

So, in a way, you know, they talk about two brains. Your gut is one of your brains. In the end, the heart decides first and then the intellect justifies. And so. We need to start tapping the emotional side of the brain to start or continue a conversation with our supporters about helping and service in extending that invitation. 

And we first must capture the brain’s attention and light it up with emotion. For people to act, they really must feel emotion. So, if you go to your website or you look at your materials or you look at your messaging, your newsletter, your emails, your phone calls, whatever they are, your training, if there’s no emotion there. 

The brain in its systems cannot make decisions. We also know that even our hormones that are, some of our hormones anyway, are supportive of taking action. Some aren’t, like adrenaline is a hormone that’s not really, you know. Flight, fight or flight. Sometimes adrenaline, when people are really stressed out, they’re not going to take, take action, let’s get back to this topic of how do we light up the brain with emotion so that the prefrontal cortex gets involved and says, yes, we’re going to do this because again, the heart decides, the intellect justifies. 

So, whatever people feel in their gut is going to cue to them. Yeah. Whether or not they should take and unfortunately, our brains are very lazy. They’re very lazy. We respond in very stereotypical ways. Our brains take shortcuts all the time. Because if we were to process every piece of data that came into our brains, our brains would explode. 

And so, our brains are really good at shortcutting data. When we feel an emotion that doesn’t feel good, we just shortcut it to say, eh, not even sending it to the prefrontal cortex. We’re not taking any action on this. It doesn’t feel good. And you know, if you think about working through getting outside of your comfort zone, that’s when you are actually actively moving past that negative emotion, getting it into your prefrontal cortex and, and mulling it over. 

You must take specific careful steps to make that happen. And how often do we just, you know, unconsciously say, not doing that, that doesn’t feel good. So, certainly we can move past things that don’t make us feel good, but there has to be a lot of motivation to do so. So, really what we want to do is work with human nature, not against it when it comes to volunteers. 

And rather than having them do all the work of working past something that’s doesn’t feel good, is to provide things that do feel good, right? So let me talk about six things that Robert Cialdini in his book influence. And he actually recently updated in 2021. This is very classic. Book on psychology. 

There’s a new and expanded version of the psychology of persuasion. in this book, he pinpoints six things that stimulate the brain, grab attention and can influence predictable behavior. In other words, people taking positive action. And so. To guide the way there are certain things that light up the brain and make us pay attention, as I said, in other words, we want to prime people to act. 

It’s not about manipulation. It’s about helping people take action who already want to take action, who already feel that volunteerism is a good thing. This probably will not work for people who don’t believe volunteerism is a worthwhile endeavor. You know, if they’ve already made that decision, they’re not even going to pay attention to your messaging. 

This is for people who already believe volunteerism is good. And perhaps I want to participate or I’m already participating and I’m going to continue to make the decision to participate, which is what we’re talking about, volunteer retention strategies. let’s dive into this. The first thing that stimulates the brain is we are very selfish. 

So, the brain is centered on self. The old brain, our limbic system is completely self-centered. It wants to know what’s in it for me. If something isn’t relevant to us personally, we’re not going to be that interested. So, when you think about your volunteer recruitment strategies, explain the direct rewards of continuing service. 

We have a lot of conversations about our organization’s needs and what our policies and how things happen and our training and this and that. And we’re not using volunteer centric messaging. So, we should be using the word you a lot in our conversations with volunteers, and we should be, when we talk about volunteer retention, we need to talk about meeting their needs – So, helping them understand how volunteerism is impacting them; centered on self is the first one. Clear contrast. If things are vague or gray, people don’t pay attention. Our old brain, again, we want to speak to our limbic system. Our old brain is sensitive to clear contrast. to survive, we’ve developed a very honed skill to be able to see contrast in the world around us. 

If something looks different Oh. Those grasses are moving differently. Oh, maybe there’s a lion over there that’s, or a predator that’s going to take me out, right? You know, we’re kind of skittish. Human beings are still skittish. And especially in our limbic system, our old brain. So, we’re scanning the surroundings, looking for disruptions to the norm of the way things are. 

So, how do you use this in volunteer retention strategies? Well, you need to paint a picture. Of transformation. So we want to talk about sharing examples of before and after, for example, of volunteer involvement. What happens? Make it clear what happens. What’s the difference? What’s the future that people can expect? 

What changes happened? And paint it in very clear terms so there’s a contrast. This is what happened when we didn’t have volunteers, or when you were involved, and this is the change. So, it is about communicating impact, but you’ve got to do this on an emotional level. You’ve got to use emotional words about how people feel about the transformation as well. 

So, we’re again tapping that limbic system. The third area is tangible input. So, our brain again processes information quickly and if it, it will either ignore something that is confusing, or it will forward information that’s confusing to the prefrontal cortex. So, we’re talking about our limbic system first, then it sends to the prefrontal cortex. 

And sometimes that new brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is actually in the front of our heads. It will slow down the process of decision making and if the, you know, it’s like analysis to paralysis, right? Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe we’re not going to make a decision. So, to remove those, I call it speed bumps in the brain, to remove those speed bumps in the brain, you’ve got to check all of your volunteer communications to remove jargon, acronyms, any insider speak, anything that’s just the general public would not understand. 

Now, I know your current volunteers do understand your insider speak. But unless it’s something that brings the team together, like it’s a code name, or not, not really a code name, but maybe there are nicknames that different teams have, something like that, then that might be something you want to use. 

But really you should stay away from all of that and use plain language and you want to communicate what’s being requested, what’s needing, also your injunctive social norms, like, so your you know, what is being expected and why and who is following through. You want to do that in very concrete terms. 

Volunteers are not employees. A lot of people say treat volunteers like employees. No, don’t treat like employees. They’re not the same. They’re not even motivated by the same thing. So, we don’t want to treat volunteers like employees. We want to treat volunteers like volunteers, like valued supporters from the community. 

We want to really explain things in plain language that they can understand. So that their brain, their limbic system. It doesn’t send things to the prefrontal cortex for massive processing, and then it gets lost, and people don’t take action. We can really work with human nature, this is the fourth way, is really focusing on beginnings and endings. 

It’s really interesting, if you ever track on Zoom, when people are paying attention or on any webcasting, Software, you can kind of track engagement. You will find that people are engaged at the beginning of your webinar and at the end. Human beings, again, the brain’s kind of lazy and it’s only going to pay attention when it thinks there’s going to be information it needs. 

So, that people will pay a lot more attention at the beginning and a lot more attention at the end. The brain’s going to conserve energy in the middle. It’s not that people aren’t paying attention at all if your content is interesting and helpful. But. It really tunes in in beginnings and endings. 

In this case, think about beginnings and endings for volunteers, for volunteer recruitment strategies, improving onboarding. And those very first touches at the very beginning of a volunteer experience can have a huge impact because at that point people are paying a lot of attention, more attention than they will once they get involved. 

When we think about our strategies, we really want to make sure those are wow experiences. Every single step at the very beginning is a wow experience. You know, don’t leave those volunteer induction. activities up to chance. Make sure there’s personal touch points there.  

Let’s talk about our fifth area to light up the brain and prime people for action, and that is visual stimulation. So, the optic nerve is 40 times faster than our auditory nerve. And so Sometimes we think, well, we’re just going to tell people you must show people the use of photos, videos, visuals. They not only grab people’s attention, and they are thumb stoppers if you’re talking digital communications, but they also trigger emotions in a way that written words cannot. And so, if you think about, you know, if you’re using, for example, injunctive norms, you’re, you’re sharing guidelines and what people are doing right. Include pictures with that. Include pictures. Videos of volunteers talking about why they serve. 

Now you think, oh, we only need to share those with people we’re trying to recruit. Not at all. You need to continue to share those stories. Why I serve, what surprised me, is the biggest delight I’ve had volunteering is continuing to share those stories with existing volunteers, and then you’re giving them visual stimuli as well as auditory. 

Even just photos of smiling faces make a big difference. So, think about that in your emails, you know, in your newsletter, on your website, in your training, all that good stuff. Okay. The sixth and final way to light up the brain and encourage folks to take action is, we’ve talked about it already, but I’m going to talk about it one more time, emotion. 

Again, the old brain is triggered by emotions and actually will remember events when they are accompanied by strong feelings. So, think back to your life on your very first memories as a child, whatever age they were. Usually, it was some type of significant event that had strong emotions tied to it, you know, like riding your bike for the first time. 

The feeling of elation of being on wheels and doing it yourself. The minute whoever was supporting you on learning to ride that bike, let go. And you were free. A lot of people remember their first bike ride because it was fraught with great emotion, right? It was imbued with emotion. So when it comes to volunteer retention strategies, you really want to talk about stories of change and transformation and then link them back to The work and the impact that volunteers are making through continued service and dedication to the cause Celebrate a lot celebrate success and wins small and large make volunteering a joyful enterprise Not drudgery not stress not lack, you know in the nonprofit sector. 

We focus a lot on sort of a poverty or scarcity mindset. We simply don’t have enough. Well, actually we do have enough. We have an abundance. The universe is full of abundance. All we have to do is tap it. And again, if we’re talking to volunteers about the abundance they’re bringing, we’re celebrating the abundance they’re bringing to our organizations, we’re going to bring more abundance because people are feeling joyful, and they want to keep coming back. 

I hope this episode has been really helpful. You know, by using these tactics, you are directly stimulating the brain. You can reach volunteers on an emotional level and you can help them feel more deeply engaged with your organization. There are key takeaways here and I want to wrap up with some key takeaways. 

Our brains have been hardwired for thousands of years. There is no hacking the brain. We evolve really slowly as a species. So, working against the brain is really like trying to stop a waterfall. You can’t stand under a waterfall and stop it. There’s no way. Rather, why not work with human nature, not against it, to keep volunteers coming back in natural ways that work for everybody, that feel good for everybody. 

So, in this episode, I covered two brain-based mistakes that many organizations make when it comes to human psychology. And I offered practical ways to address them. So, the first was and remember this. Change how you communicate the norms and guidelines for volunteers. No longer make calls for urgent need for, we’re desperate for volunteers to you know, add hours to their schedules. 

This is not where you should be coming from. You could come from a gap and how you are closing the gap. We have 10 more kids who need help next week. And you also want to celebrate and describe. The people who are taking action. So that positive social proof. And then the other area is secondly, focus on lighting up that human brain and triggering emotions that lead, actually lead to rational decisions that keep volunteers returning. 

So again, the heart decides, the intellect justifies. We’ve got to reach the emotions first and then talk reason. If you think about even the progression of your volunteer appeals or your asks of your current volunteers, does it start with an emotional appeal and then talk about sort of the nuts and bolts and logistics. 

It’s amazing stuff. It can make huge differences just simply by changing how we communicate. I hope this has been a helpful episode for you. Really, just by making these two simple shifts to your volunteer retention strategies, you can deepen engagement, reduce turnover, and boost the impact volunteers have on your organization. 

And not only do that, but also improve the quality of their experience and their work in the community at large, which is a good thing. So, if you want to learn more about working with human nature, you can also check out Volunteer Nation Episode 74, Secrets to Retaining Volunteers Revealed. Check that out. 

I’ve got more on retention strategies, but I hope this has been interesting. You know, I think psychology is fascinating. The brain decides, or the brain directs. What the body does. The brain directs what the body does. So, we’ve got to talk to people’s brains. We’ve got to know how psychology works, hence we’re doing a workshop on it this week in the volunteer pro community. So, thank you again for joining us. For this episode of the Volunteer Nation, I hope this has given you some new insights and inspiration. If you liked it, would you share it with a friend? And please rate and review. That’s how we reach a larger audience and give more non-profit and volunteer driven organizations a little bit more inspiration on how to engage volunteers successfully. 

I hope you’ll join us next week, same time, same place, on The Volunteer Nation. Thanks, everybody.