6 tips for not-for-profit board members to improve volunteer retention

Serving on a not-for-profit board can be a rewarding experience, as board members’ involvement in organizational planning can help the not-for-profit fulfill its mission. To achieve this, it’s important for board members to consider a core element of many not-for-profit organizations: the volunteers.

Why do volunteers matter? Not-for-profits cannot always depend on extensive financial resources and paid employees, so they often rely on a solid base of volunteers. Volunteers help offset the heavy workloads and potential burnout of a lean group of paid management and staff. But how does an organization build a successful volunteer base? It starts with a strong, robust volunteer orientation, which can promote bonding, performance, and longevity.

Volunteer orientations are a powerful tool but are often not used to their full potential. Volunteer Program Assessment (VPA), sponsored by Maddie’s Fund, is a not-for-profit volunteer engagement consulting group based at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that works with hundreds of not-for-profits across the country to understand the issues facing volunteer programs. Through consultations and intake surveys from volunteer coordinators, VPA consultants have uncovered a consistent dilemma: Volunteers, who are eager to get involved and give back to their communities, attend their initial orientation but then never actually return for another shift. In other words, orientations are highly ineffective at retaining new volunteers. This leaves volunteer coordinators with long lists of contact information for one-time volunteers, but very few dedicated, core individuals who return week after week. This is problematic for covering basic work shifts, hosting fundraising events, and achieving the not-for-profit’s goals. It also can negatively affect internal controls that are so important to not-for-profits.

Not-for-profit board members can help break this cycle by becoming involved in the recommendation, design, or even the actual process of volunteer orientation. Before anything else, of course, board members should understand their own role and the organization’s mission. They should be capable of clearly communicating this information to current and potential volunteers. Assuming this basic level of competence, the board can help review and revise guidelines for volunteer orientation and onboarding to ensure that a solid foundation is established and volunteers are retained. These six data-driven, evidence-based tips can assist in establishing and maintaining a successful volunteer base.

Manage volunteer expectations

Choosing a new job is a big decision. When considering job candidates, employers often provide a realistic job preview to demonstrate what the day-to-day work will look like. Why not allow volunteers this same opportunity? In analyzing feedback from tens of thousands of volunteers who provided comments on their volunteer programs, results from VPA surveys at hundreds of not-for-profits suggest many volunteers report being told one thing at orientation but end up doing another when they are “on the job.” For example, volunteers may register in anticipation of socializing kittens and walking dogs, only to find that the majority of shifts needed by the organization are administrative tasks such as filling out paperwork or cleaning kennels. This failure to meet expectations creates a negative experience for the volunteer and may even damage volunteers’ trust in the organization.

To minimize this disconnect, a realistic job preview can be incorporated into the volunteer orientation. Avoid highlighting only the most attractive parts of the volunteer experience in order to “sell” it. Instead, volunteer managers should intentionally provide a comprehensive and realistic picture of the types of activities and conditions in which the volunteers will be working. This will clearly convey what they will be expected to do and allow them to make an informed decision about whether those duties align with their interests and goals. At the same time, it’s important that assigned projects match the volunteers’ skill level so they are competent and comfortable with the tasks they are performing.

A realistic job preview can come in many forms: spoken, written, pictures, video, or a combination of these methods. It may help to consult with experienced volunteers to understand their typical experience and use that information to develop and present a realistic preview to new volunteers.

Leverage experienced volunteers

One easy way to build relationships that will keep volunteers engaged is to pair them with experienced volunteers. At orientation, there may be one or two staff members presenting to a large group of new volunteers. New volunteers can be assigned a go-to person (someone other than the volunteer manager, who is often already pulled in many directions) for volunteering-related questions and advice. This type of mentoring system can increase volunteers’ contributions and confidence in their own abilities. For new volunteers, having a designated resource can alleviate confusion or anxiety that may accompany a new role. For the experienced volunteers, serving as a mentor to newcomers can build confidence and a sense of responsibility.

It is also important to note the social benefits that can result from a mentoring program. Based on aggregated VPA survey data, one of the most favorable aspects of the volunteer experience is often “satisfaction with volunteer colleagues.” The initial structured conversations around training and orientation can spark social connections that lead to meaningful relationships.

Tap into the power of recognition

VPA client surveys have shown that recognition is essential for a positive volunteer experience. To be effective, recognition must be a reinforced cultural norm within the organization. It must be authentic and consistent across multiple levels of authority and functionality. The not-for-profit’s tone at the top sets the standard for recognition. Paid staff should be trained to recognize the volunteers, and upper management should be trained to recognize the paid staff. Because volunteers are not compensated for their time, a reward in the form of a simple “thank you” can go a long way. It is critical that new and veteran volunteers be recognized on a consistent basis, beginning at their first orientation.

One of the simplest, most effective ways to recognize volunteers is to learn their names and use them. Use volunteers’ names at orientation so that each individual feels seen, heard, and recognized for their efforts. Employees should make a concerted effort to learn the names of the volunteers, and using name tags can help tremendously. Further, board members are uniquely positioned to participate in this culture of recognition by interacting with volunteers and staff, learning their names, and thanking them for their time.

Communicate intentionally

Clear, consistent communication with volunteers is essential. Orientation may be used to disseminate key information, but staff must also make it a point to check in with volunteers regularly. An easy way to do this is to designate a specific time (e.g., after three days, one week, or two weeks) to follow up with new volunteers after orientation. This could be done by the volunteer manager, another staff member, or an experienced volunteer. The follow-up does not need to be extensive; it could be a brief email or a phone call. The conversation should include a genuine expression of gratitude for their time, a request for feedback on the orientation, and encouragement for volunteers to sign up for their next shift or event.

Because they are not paid employees, volunteers are not obligated to come back for their next shift. Staff should check in with volunteers periodically to ensure they have the resources to succeed at their volunteer duties. As described in the discussion of keeping training fresh, this feedback can and should be used to refine orientation training on a consistent basis.

Create volunteer progression systems

Even the most eager volunteers (and employees) may start to lose motivation after the excitement of a new job wears off. It is important to consider the different aspects of volunteering that motivate people to keep coming back. Some volunteers are driven by the cause; that is, they volunteer to serve the greater purpose of the not-for-profit. Some value connections; people often volunteer for the social relationships they develop with others. Other volunteers are skill-based in their motivation; these folks may seek out opportunities to progress and master new skills through volunteering.

An innovative way to meet these motivational needs is to introduce a progression system for volunteers that is tailored to their preferences and the organization’s needs. Consider introducing a system in which volunteers “advance” to different, recognized levels with more experience and tenure. Some organizations use systems based on the number of hours or days spent with the organization, milestones when specialized trainings are completed, or badges for doing specific tasks. At each new “level,” volunteers may earn either physical or symbolic rewards, depending on their preferences. For example, one group may be motivated to earn T-shirts or buttons to promote the organization, while another may desire more responsibility, such as leading volunteer shifts or assisting with training and orientation.

The progression system should be introduced at orientation to give new volunteers an idea about their long-term potential with the organization. Introducing a system that is meaningful to volunteers will increase the chance of its success. Also, remember to recognize volunteers as they progress through levels.

Poorly executed volunteer orientations can create huge problems for not-for-profits. Without a strong volunteer base, many not-for-profit organizations simply cannot meet their goals. Volunteer orientation and onboarding are critical because first impressions often dictate the future of a relationship. Board members, properly trained, can play an important role in making recommendations, providing guidance around program design, or even actively participating in volunteer orientations from time to time.

Through these techniques, board members can help staff set up volunteers for success and increase the chances that they will become committed, long-lasting members of the organizations they serve.

By Brittany Ernst; Katie Kavanagh; Erika Lopina, Ph.D.; Jack Flinchum; Allison Chandler; Lea Williams; and Steven Rogelberg, Ph.D.

Brittany Ernst, Lea Williams, and Allison Chandler are senior organizational effectiveness consultants for not-for-profits at VPA and doctoral candidates at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Erika Lopina, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Elon University in Burlington, N.C.; Katie Kavanagh and Jack Flinchum are organizational effectiveness consultants at VPA and Ph.D. students at UNC Charlotte; Steven Rogelberg, Ph.D., is chancellor’s professor and director of Organizational Science at UNC Charlotte. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA’s editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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