volunteer retention

Managing the Volunteer Turnover Tsunami 

The cover of this month’s Talent Development, the flagship magazine of the global Association for Talent Development (ATD), is emblazoned with the title “Manage the Resignation Tsunami.” This immediately brings to mind current issues around volunteer retention and what might be done to reduce turnover.  

It may surprise some people that employers, like volunteer organizations, are facing a shortage of highly-engaged long-term talent. In fact, according to the article’s author, “employee turnover rates are at their highest levels in nearly 18 years, companies are experiencing a small tsunami of resignations.”

The same might be said for volunteer organizations; however, data is scarce. In our Volunteer Management Progress Report survey, we’ve been able to track volunteer retention issues as a notable trend in respondent challenges.

Volunteer recruitment has remained the most often cited issue when we ask “What’s your #1 biggest challenge when it comes to managing volunteers?” Respect and reliability comes in second as the most consistently mentioned challenges in open-ended comments year after year.

Retention comes in third as a top obstacle. Two years ago, the number of times it was mentioned doubled to 13%, and last year it fell 4%. Still, nearly one out of ten noted the issue, and it remains in third place. This reinforces what many leaders of volunteers report anecdotally – there is evidence that it may be getting harder to find and keep volunteers engaged, particularly over longer periods of service.

Use High-Impact Offboarding to Increase Volunteer Retention

According to ATD, “Offboarding is gaining increased attention as more data reveal the numerous HR areas that it affects. Those impact areas include reducing turnover, enhancing recruiting, and identifying toxic work environment issues.”

They also note that “recent Work Institute research estimates that employers can prevent nearly 77 percent of turnover.” Perhaps a significant amount of volunteer turnover can be prevented, as well. Maybe it’s more within our control than we realize.

At first glance, it seems counter-intuitive that getting better at helping volunteers leave would help more of them stay. But, the use of what’s called “high-impact offboarding” may prove a helpful management strategy to reduce turnover.

High-impact offboarding is gaining traction in human resources circles because it has a positive impact. This is also a strategy that may prove helpful to nonprofits who rely on volunteers.  

High-Impact Offboarding vs Traditional Offboarding

High-impact offboarding is not the same as regular offboarding, so it’s helpful to understand the differences.

In traditional offboarding, employees leave the organization without any expectation of a continuing relationship. They may participate in an exit interview or survey, but only at the moment of separation.

Conversely, with high-impact offboarding, high-talent employees are invited to maintain a relationship with the organization as part of an alumni group. They also participate in a post-exit interview that is scheduled three to six months after an employee leaves. In both cases, the relationship with the employee is maintained.

In fact, in some cases employers use a “never-give-up” approach to employees who wish to leave. It works like this — “When a stunningly effective critical employee announces that she is leaving for an opportunity that does not appear to be a perfect fit for her, the employee’s senior manager tells her, “I am considering your new opportunity as if it were a sabbatical.” The manager can then explain that if she finds her new job to be completely different than promised, she is welcome to return during the next six months.”

The employer then follows up with periodic check in calls, and they keep the employee’s former job open. Even if the employee doesn’t return, this open invitation may make the employee a long-term friend of the company.

Using This Approach with Volunteers

Along a similar vein, in the VolunteerPro community, members have struck up a discussion thread around the idea of developing alumni groups for volunteers. This is a way to keep valuable talent within the fold without losing their insights or contributions altogether.

And, while exit interviews or surveys at the time of separation may help nonprofits gather feedback, most often volunteers are reluctant to criticize the organization, its employees, or fellow volunteers openly. Or, they may wish to gain a positive recommendation from the agency. So instead of making a fuss, they prefer to move on quietly leaving the organization to guess why they resigned.  

Post-exit interviews or survey questionnaires, scheduled further out, may allow volunteers enough distance to offer more in-depth insights and critical feedback. This can be highly valuable to organizations that want to diagnose the root causes of low volunteer retention rates.

Finally, while this may seem like a lot of extra work, high-impact offboarding is most often focused on leaders, high performers, innovators, and those for which it’s difficult to find replacements.  

Similarly, nonprofit leaders who are strapped for time might choose to apply this strategy to volunteers who have made significant contributions to the agency’s work, rather than the entire volunteer population.

3 Ways to Boost Volunteer Retention With Purposeful Offboarding

A chief aim of high-impact offboarding is to engage in continuous learning and improvement. Candid information gathered from volunteers with real experience with your operations is as good as gold in terms of preventing future attrition. Below are a few areas you may want to explore using surveys or exit interviews.

1. Identify Unhealthy or Toxic Work Environments

If you suspect harassment, bullying, or discrimination may be occuring at your agency, post-service phone interviews or surveys can help unearth sensitive issues that former volunteers may have felt were unsafe to mention during their tenure. 

Even if the situation isn’t as egregious as illegal or unethical behavior in the workplace, the simple lack of teamwork or support is helpful to know and can impact whether volunteers stay or leave. Is gossip or territorialism a problem? Is there a lack of support or encouragement? If you don’t know, you can’t fix it.

2. Assess Your Brand Image

Whether nonprofits want to admit it or not, volunteers post comments about them online and your brand reputation can be tarnished by disgruntled former volunteers. One way to assess your current level of brand satisfaction is to pose the Net Promoter question to volunteers who are leaving — How likely is it that you would recommend volunteering with us to a friend or colleague? 

You can calculate your Net Promoter Score (NPS) using a 0-10 scale and then track your aggregated results and progress over time. To make this approach even more powerful, follow it up with a question that asks why they rated you that way. If you suspect you have a reputation issue, address it as soon as you can. It is likely impacting both volunteer retention and your ability to recruit new supporters.

3. Ask How They Want to Stay in Touch

While the volunteer may not be able to contribute the same amount of time and talent as they have in the past, use post-exit surveys to explore other ways they may want to support your cause. 

Do they want to join your alumni group? Are they interested in supporting your agency through regular donations? Would they like to be invited to participate in short, episodic volunteering events from time to time? Are they willing to mention your opportunities to other volunteers? They may be willing and able to help your organization in new ways, but had not considered them before. Keep the doors open.

Track Your Investment & Results

While implementing high-impact offboarding won’t address your volunteer retention woes over night, it’s important to understand when your interventions start gaining traction. This can help you decide whether or not to invest further in the strategy and perhaps expand it to your volunteers at large, or continue to focus on the most highly engaged.

Consider tracking some or all of the following:

  • Your Net Promoter Score
  • Your 60-day, 6-month, and annual volunteer retention rates
  • The number of word of mouth new volunteer referrals
  • The number of times negative incidents are mentioned in exit interviews or surveys

Finally, while high-impact offboarding can help you understand why a volunteer leaves and may prevent future attrition, that shouldn’t be your only management strategy to keep volunteers happy and engaged.

If at all possible, don’t wait until a volunteer leaves to find out what’s wrong. It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to recruit, onboard, and train new volunteers. So, it makes good sense to optimize their experience, while you have them. If you hear about an issue, address it directly with an empathetic conversation. Conduct regular, purposeful feedback surveys that help you make informed management decisions and act on the advice you receive. 

Let all new volunteers know that you welcome their feedback both during and after their service. Advise them on exactly how you’ll be in touch and when. Tell them what you’ve done recently to respond to feedback and how much you valued it. When volunteers know what to expect, they’ll more likely be ready and willing to help you improve…and to stick around to see it through. 

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