When I first started out as a volunteer manager, way back in 2001, volunteer retention was seen as key evidence of good practice and a sign of a successful volunteer programme. It wasn’t necessarily the focus of funders, who were often more interested in the number of volunteers recruited/involved, rather than how enduring the relationship was. But at events and training courses I attended for volunteer managers, retention was often highly prized.
What I’ve noticed, is that over the last 15 years, the nature of volunteers and volunteering has changed, and I’m interested to hear about other people’s thoughts and experiences around volunteer retention. In the 21st century, is it still a helpful for volunteer managers to aspire to retain volunteers, and how does retention dovetail with the expectations and lives of our 21st century volunteers?
This isn’t a new area for debate; Rob Jackson was blogging about it back in 2013, when he argued:
“It’s time to ditch the word retention…I think the idea of retention is fundamentally flawed. Try and retain volunteers in the traditional sense (keep them as long as possible) and watch your volunteer base dwindle like sand slipping through your fingers”
But my sense is that the word is still very much in common currency and that many see retention as a the hallmark of a well functioning and successful volunteer programme.
Reading the first part of NFP Synergy’s 2014 volunteering report, “The New Alchemy”, it’s clear that there’s been huge shifts in our political, economic, social and technological landscape. These shifts in turn are shaping and moulding both the lives of our volunteers and the needs of our organisations and the people/communities we serve. For example:
- welfare reforms that aim to move people back into the marketplace for paid work apply pressure to spend a large number of hours each week job seeking or attending schemes such as the work programme. This can affect people’s ability to continue volunteering.
- changed working patterns, less job security, more erratic working hours and shorter term/zero hours contracts mean less predictability in people’s availability and ability to commit to long term volunteering.
- baby boomers have different expectations of retirement and an income level that enables them to travel or engage in leisure activities. Many also want to use their skills in volunteering and this may lend itself more to shorter term “volunteer assignments” with organisations. Changing family structuresand work demands also mean that grandparents often carry some childcare responsibilities.
- technology has the potential to mobilise and facilitate shorter term participation with less resource.
These are just a few of the many, many factors that are shaping volunteering today. I’m sure you’ll have other examples from your own experience of volunteer management and volunteer involvement.
Some questions to think about:
- do you think “retention” is still a useful aim for volunteer managers?
- what’s your experience of volunteer retention within your organisation/amongst the volunteers you manage?
- how is our changing world impacting on volunteering?
- is there a different word we should be using, instead of retention?