Without question, a dedicated staff of volunteers is the backbone of any nonprofit organization. There is something special about people who give their time and labor to a worthy cause! Oftentimes, however, the challenge doesn’t come with recruiting volunteers, but keeping them long-term. According to the Corporation of National and Community Service, the retention rate of volunteers in the United States is 66 percent, meaning only one out of three return the following year to continue service. In Hawaii, the retention rate is 52.8 percent, the lowest ranked among the states. Also, ranking low is Hawaii’s millennial volunteer retention, 17.8 percent. Large volunteer turnover is costly and burdensome on nonprofits. How do we provide the best environment to keep volunteers? Let’s start with identifying potential obstacles. In no particular order, here are the top four challenges to nonprofit volunteer retention.
Training and Resources
Even the most go-getting worker could use some help! One thing that makes someone’s volunteering time impactful is the training that comes with it. Training makes people feel comfortable and confident in their ability to complete given tasks. Also, any professional training, especially geared towards certain skills, are valuable items on a resume, but more on that later.
Supplemental resources, like literature or staff dedicated to managing volunteers, are just as important. That would show volunteers they are in good hands and any concerns or problems they might have are easy to overcome.
Unfortunately, the big issue here is cost and time management. Extra resources may not be affordable or training may not be as involved as volunteers might like it to be. This means cutting corners or finding other ways to make up for that special attention.
The concept of valuable “experience” for volunteers is an significant one, and here it has two meanings. First, experience refers to the tasks volunteers find meaningful. This involves not only doing work that feels worthwhile in the moment, but also seeing the fruits of their labor within the success of the organization. Feeling impactful within a community trying to make a difference is a natural impulse. Doing useful work matters, and people will return to continue it if they feel useful.
Also, there is the desire for literal work experience. In other words, is there anything they are learning or doing that they can use in the future? A study for the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows young adults are the least likely age group to volunteer in the United States with 20-24 year olds at 18 percent. One reason could be that millennials are just getting into the job market and work experience is vital at that those beginning stages. Offering the type of job experience they can put on a resume could motivate young people to volunteer.
What’s challenging is that rigorous, hands-on or highly desirable work in a nonprofit just isn’t plentiful. Sometimes the work is menial or not glamorous because that’s what needs to get done. Making the connection between the necessity of a task and its significance in the bigger picture can be tough in these cases and might contribute to the retention rate within an organization.
But what happens when you have a volunteer with plenty of experience to offer already?
Utilizing Volunteer’s Skills
Some volunteers aren’t looking to obtain new skills. Instead, they expressly want to pull from their own toolbox. Maybe a certified teacher wants to tutor, or a carpenter wants to build or repair. It’s fantastic that people come with abilities and experience they want to apply to our cause!
Unfortunately, not every organization has the openings available to take advantage of such an opportunity. Sometimes those spots are competitive or nonexistent. Luckily, many volunteers are informed about the organization they are applying to, so this is often avoided early on. That doesn’t mean, however, that things don’t change over time. Skilled volunteers may seek opportunities elsewhere that fit their desired experience.
Clear and Consistent Communication
This is a big one. Especially within larger organizations, maintaining direct and consistent communication to volunteers is crucial but sometimes hard to do. This goes back to the training and resources issue. Without support, volunteers can feel overwhelmed or unsuccessful. More informal encouragement, showing gratitude in some way, is a good start for morale. Unfortunately, that will not be enough in the long run.
A culture of community and collaboration is important in a nonprofit organization. Without it, concerns or questions might be overlooked. Assignments might be mismatched with volunteers, creating a nonproductive environment. Most of all, volunteers will sour to the experience and leave. Doing the best job at managing communication and flow of information will be to the benefit of everyone involved and create higher volunteer retention.
It is difficult for nonprofits to determine where to make concessions and find the right ways to make up for what you cannot provide. Remember that low volunteer retention is costly in itself and that providing solutions to these challenges will pay off down the road. Every organization is different, and every volunteer is different. The hope is that the dedication, passion and enthusiasm for the cause will rub off on those who gave up their time for the same purpose.