Reduce High Volunteer Turnover Rate with This Surprising Retention Tip

Results of the Pathways to Participation study, a two-year project of the National Council for Voluntary Organizations (NCVO) and the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR), both located in the UK, show what stimulates civic engagement, and also points to organizational issues that can affect volunteer turnover rates. 

Fortunately, they are issues you can address directly.

The project’s goal was to improve the understanding of people’s experience of participation over the course of their lives, either through volunteering or involvement in a cause.  Although participation is widespread, those interviewed also pointed to reasons why they quit specific activities and moved on to the next thing.  Not surprisingly, unforeseen life events impacted the ability to participate.  

There were also areas that had more to do with their perceived ability to make a difference within their current situation.

“Some people demonstrated seemingly endless energy and commitment to the cause,” notes the study, “but they also frequently showed their dissatisfaction and frustration when barriers were encountered or change was not possible.”

Two Key Findings That Impact Participation and Volunteer Turnover Rate

Changes in personal circumstances aside, the following were the two most frequently cited reasons for discontinuing involvement in a cause.

1) Poor Team Culture — Participants are adversely affected by negative relationships within groups, including those that are unwelcoming, insular or cliquey and feeling unappreciated, disempowered, disillusioned, frustrated or cynical about their involvement.

2) Poor Program Operations — Participants were turned off by poor group structures and processes, including poorly-run meetings that are tedious and do not result in any action, and the absence of support (including training, access to opportunities, emotional or psychological support).

You Have the Power to Change 

The good news is that both of these areas can be addressed directly by you and your organization.  If you survey your volunteers and get their candid feedback, you can discover what, exactly, is at the heart of any discontent.  You can then take direct steps to address it, such as staff training, program re-design, implementing process improvements, etc. 

You don’t have much control over which specific causes potential supporters might choose to support.  You may have influence over whether or not a person who supports your cause will also join your organization’s efforts.  But, improving with the environment that your supporters encounter once they cross your threshold is well within your sphere of influence.  How well you welcome and support them will directly affect whether or not they feel as though they can make a bona fide difference.

“Participation needs to fulfill the meaning an individual ascribes to it,” the report states,  “they want to see that it is having the impact they desire, for themselves, their networks and communities, or further afield.”

Keep Volunteers Coming Back

All volunteers need some sort of training.  In fact, training has a big impact on your organization’s volunteer retention rate.  According to “Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers,” a study by the Urban Institute, “Charities that say they have adopted to a large degree the practice of hosting recognition activities for volunteers have a higher rate of retention, as do those that offer training and professional development opportunities for volunteers.”  So, why do so many organizations leave it up to chance?

Good Training Means Better Volunteer Retention

Whether it be a simple orientation to the policies, procedures, and mission of the organization or a five-day boot camp of complex technical information volunteers must master before they are able to provide direct service, all volunteers need be provided information that will help them do their job to the best of their ability.   An effective training program will not only improve your program outcomes, but it will also help create a smooth onboarding process for volunteers as they acclimate to their new environment.  The successful initiation of volunteers promotes higher job satisfaction and, ultimately, greater retention.  

And Yet, Learning is Left to Chance

Unfortunately, some organizations haven’t invested the time necessary to develop a solid training program that adequately prepares their volunteers for success.  Often, the training content development is left to well-meaning ad hoc trainers with little experience.  They fire up the powerpoint and start making slides based on what they believe to be important.  The final training materials will inevitably vary, depending on who’s training and the topic du jour.  In the end, participant learning is inconsistent at best.

Develop Curriculum Like a Pro

On the flip side, it is possible to develop training materials the ensure that your volunteers learn the critical “need to know” content at your organization.  For less intensive volunteer jobs, your content may focus on your organization’s mission and vision for the future. 

High-Quality training experiences will result in volunteers who are knowledgeable ambassadors for you.  For more intensive volunteer positions, a training process combined with a certification test may be what’s in order.  Regardless of the length and level of intensity, any team can develop training like a pro using the process below. 

Curriculum Development in 8 Steps

1)  Develop Your Work Plan — Decide who will be on your training development team, what are the key tasks they will complete, and when should they be done.  You may also want to set up an advisory group of end-users to give feedback on the materials you develop.  Better yet, include some of your key volunteers on the development team.

2)  Determine Tasks & Priorities — Create a comprehensive list of all the possible tasks a volunteer might be responsible for.  THen group similar tasks and prioritize the,  Which are the most important and hardest to learn?  They should be the ones you focus on in your training program.

3)  Write Task Analyses — Break your priority responsibilities into step-by-step task analyses that describe exactly how the task should be accomplished.  Task analyses are the blueprints that you will develop your training from.

4)  Structure Course & Objectives — One you know exactly what you will be training, as identified in the task analyses, develop your course structure.  Will your training be broken into discrete modules?  How long will they last? What will be their topics? And, what are the learning objectives for each module?  In other words, what will people know how to do (not just have an awareness of) when they leave the training?

5)  Select Methods & Develop Materials — Only after you’ve figured out exactly what the end goals of the training are, can you begin to develop your materials.  You’ll need to decide how you will deliver the training (in person, self-study, online, etc.).  Once that’s decided you can develop the materials that make the most sense given the delivery.

6)  Orient Trainers — Make sure the folks who will be responsible for presenting the training (paid and/or volunteer) are given an opportunity to get to know the materials and how they work.  If they’ve been in on the development form the beginning, you can skip this step.

7)  Pilot & Revise Course — No matter how experienced you are, there’s always something that doesn’t work according to plan.  When you pilot test, make sure you ahve at least one observer who is not presenting training.  They should be timing the various sections of the training module as well as observing participants to see if there are moments where they appear confused or unhappy.  Also, participants should be encouraged to give their feedback on training evaluations.  The training should be revised as needed to improve the experience for both learners and trainers.

8)  Present Course & Evaluate Results — Once the training is revised, it is good to go.  But, you aren’t finished yet.  Plan to conduct ongoing evaluation of your training program.  Are the volunteers learning what is being trained?  Does the training content still reflect the current volunteer tasks and priorities?  What is the feedback you are getting from learners on training evaluations?  Are there any significant trends?  If you keep a running file of your observations, you’ll be ready for the next update of your training program.

Four Practical Strategies to Design a Volunteer Training Program

Based on how our brains learn, try these strategies to help volunteers navigate your training program without being overwhelmed by it.

1) Integrate Practice Into Training
If we practice the wrong thing for too long, we form ”bad habits” that become ingrained. So, it is very important to get timely feedback before those dendrites solidify.

The “stair step” structure is the most effective architecture for the transfer of learning for novices and is a great way to integrate the timely practice into learning. With this approach, the instructor explains the concept, illustrates how to do the skill, invites learners to try it, and finally gives supportive feedback.

Interactivity is the key, not conforming to individual “learning styles” (a long-held training myth that has been debunked by research). The goal of training is to generate knowledge and change, not just to file away info that can somehow be pulled out when needed.

Case studies and scenarios lend themselves to this type of architecture and give volunteers the chance to practice before they try their new skills out in the real world.

2) Feed the Right Emotions
Learning is also an emotional process that is fueled by hormones, three in particular.

  • Adrenaline, fueled by anxiety and our “fight or flight” response, makes it hard for the neurotransmitters to carry messages across the synapses in your brain; this causes learners to “blank out” on tests.
  • Endorphins are produced when we relax, exercise, laugh, or learn new things. If we produce calming hormones, they can counteract the limiting effects of stress.
  • Dopamine is released in the brain when something is perceived as new, exciting, or rewarding. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses; it enables us not only to see rewards but to also take action to move toward them. For many volunteers, learning new things is very rewarding; so, the training itself can help them retain new information. On the other hand, if dopamine levels are low new information goes in one ear and out the other.

With this in mind, build activities into your volunteer training program that help volunteers relax and have fun, and be sure to reward them for achievements with praise as well as new information that piques their interest.

3) Reduce Cognitive Overload
When we are encoding knowledge, our working memory is used first. But, its capacity is limited. If we flood it with too much information, mental overload occurs. Research estimates that only 3-5 pieces of information can be stored in the working memory at a time.

If our working memory is corrupted by cognitive overload, we are unable to transfer knowledge into our long-term memory, which has a much greater capacity for information storage. To improve how this process works, do everything you can to simplify work for the brain upfront:

  • Remove any content that is not absolutely “need to know” (give learners links to additional optional info they can read on their own)
  • Relate new information to existing knowledge learners may have (icebreakers are great ways for learners to share their own personal experiences with the topic at hand)
  • Maintain a consistent look and feel to the training materials (fonts, colors, graphics, etc.)
  • Use simple, flat graphics and visuals versus those that are complex and overly detailed (cartoons are great, if they are done well)
  • To extend the capacity of the working memory, explain visuals with audio (versus text, which uses too much “brain bandwidth”)

4) Support Metacognitive Skill Building
Metacognitive skills make us aware of our own knowledge, the ability to understand, control and manipulate our own cognitive process. In short, they are what we learn in order to be able to learn.

Volunteers, like many of us, are often overwhelmed because they have not developed sufficient metacognitive skills. To help volunteers learn how to learn better use tactics to build metacognitive skills such as:

  • Categorized, chunked, and highlighted text
  • Gradually increased complexity of topics
  • Sequenced content for frequent practice
  • Both confirming (“yes, that’s correct because…”) and corrective feedback (“no, that’s incorrect because…”)
  • Opportunities for self-reflection that focus on how and why volunteers arrived at an answer
  • Planning tools that help volunteers put together a personal training and study plan
  • Tip sheets, worksheets, and observation checklists that help volunteers transfer classroom learning to the real world
  • Answer keys for learning activities so that volunteers can check their work and make corrections

Want to Learn More?

If you want to read state-of-the art info about evidence-based training methods, check out these three excellent books on the topic:

Training is directly related to volunteer retention.  You spend a lot of time and energy finding and welcoming your new volunteers.  Don’t make the mistake of offering sub-par volunteer training that deflates their enthusiasm or makes them feel inadequate.  Instead, provide them with a high quality learning experience that builds confidence and a deeper connection to your good cause.