Seeds for Thought: Volunteer Retention

Volunteers are an important piece of the puzzle for any non-profit organization. Whether they’re contributing to programs and special events, helping out with fundraising and outreach, or providing guidance and leadership as members of the board, good volunteers are indispensable. As these individuals are giving their time and effort without compensation (at least of the financial kind), organizations are increasingly recognizing that they can’t take these superstars for granted.

Along those lines, this week’s entry in the Seeds for Thought category is a case study from the Stanford Social Innovation Review on volunteer retention for Girls Scouts of Northern California (GSNorCal). Like many other nonprofits focused on youth development, GSNorCal relies heavily on volunteers and as a result already uses many best practices in orientation, training, and recognition: however, broader changes within and outside of the organization has made it difficult to keep volunteers returning. In response, the organization hired a consultant, TCC Group, to “mine its data and pinpoint ways to keep volunteers engaged”. Through a survey of 1,371 current and past volunteers and follow-up focus groups, TCC Group identified factors that predicted volunteer retention and suggested improvements to GSNorCal’s practices.

This example demonstrates the value in using multiple sources of information, in this case quantitative data from a large survey, qualitative insights from small groups of volunteers, and general principles from scholarly research on the topic. If you don’t have the resources that GSNorCal (or even if you do) and want to learn more about your volunteers, what can you do?

  • Start by counting. How many volunteers do you currently have, how long have they been volunteering, how many new volunteers have come onboard recently and how many have left? How many hours are they contributing? Are there differences in these numbers based on demographic factors or what tasks they’re doing for your organization?
  • Use some simple questionnaires with both current and former volunteers. I could spend a full post or three on what a volunteer questionnaire could look like, but at the very least it should include questions around overall satisfaction, support from the organization (or lack thereof) and what keeps them volunteering and what makes them leave. Just remember to use a mix of question types and watch out for potentially misleading numbers.
  • Take a participatory approach. Include volunteers in the discussion, both long-time contributors and those who are new or in a temporary position, such as through a World Cafe: as a bonus, this approach can help improve retention by demonstrating to volunteers that their opinion is valued by the organization. Another idea – have a staff member step into the shoes of a volunteer for a shift to get a firsthand perspective!
  • Partner with organizations that can provide a broader view. Many cities have a volunteer centre (either standalone or part of a larger organization like the United Way) or a professional association of volunteer administrators such as PAVRO liaisons in Ontario that can link you with resources on volunteering and keep you in the loop about new developments in the field. Volunteerism is also becoming increasingly recognized as a topic of scholarly research, so look into partnerships with universities: programs related to community development, organizational studies, public policy, and even business are good starting points.
  • A bit of self-interest here: consultants can help! If resources are tight, use consulting expertise for specific tasks that may be impractical to do in-house, such as analyzing complex statistical data or acting as a neutral party to collect feedback (current and even former volunteers may be hesitant to provide criticism directly to staff). Volunteer management, especially as it relates to research and evaluation, is one of Strong Roots’ strengths, so drop us a line if you want to have a chat about how to learn more about your volunteers!

Question: What are some strategies that you have seen successfully used to engage volunteers and improve retention?

Seeds for Thought: The Case for Strategic Plans

Ever have the experience where you read a blog post or article online and immediately say “That captures my thoughts perfectly! Why didn’t I write that?”. This week the honour goes to my friend and colleague Natalie Brown Kivell of Common Thread Consulting, specifically her post making the case for the humble strategic plan. Contrasting the view of strategic planning as a quick fix or a pointless activity done solely to please funders, Natalie provides five solid reasons for why planning should be part of your organization’s lifecycle and how both the process and the final product can provide tangible benefits.

For me, the key takeaway from Natalie’s post is that the strategic plan should be co-created through a participatory process, working with your organization’s diverse stakeholders. That term, “stakeholders”, gets thrown around a lot in the social change sector to the point of cliche, but think for a minute about the root of the term. Everybody – program participants, staff, volunteers, leadership, partnering agencies, funders, the broader community – has a stake in the success of the organization and its efforts. Every stakeholder stands to benefit in some way, but they also risk the loss of time, energy, resources, or even hope if things don’t work out. Stakeholders also commit in some way to the project, whether in terms of providing tangible resources, participating in good faith, or by providing indirect support such as a community playing host to a social service. With these diverse groups all having a stake in the non-profit’s success, it makes sense for all of them to be involved right from the beginning in the planning process.

At the end of this article Natalie mentioned that she’ll be writing some future posts on strategic planning, so be sure to keep an eye on her site!

Seeds for Thought: Scale

Today’s Seed for Thought comes from the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s blog, a site that covers (as the name suggests) social innovation and related conepts like philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, and nonprofit organizational development. In the latter category, an article today provided a five-question checklist for nonprofits to assess their readiness to scale and increase their impact. The second question asked whether your program model has been tested: according to a survey of American nonprofits, “only 39 percent of nonprofits that are scaling or intending to scale have evaluated the impact of their work”. To me, that’s a surprising result – in my mind, before growing a program or initiative you should take some time to make sure it’s actually achieving the results that you think it is!

Although I’m glad that evaluation is included in the list, I think there’s a danger that evaluation and research is relegated to a one-time “check it off the list” task. In scaling a program to new communities or populations, organizations are bound to run into unexpected challenges. Elements and approaches that were beneficial in the initial program may be less useful or even detrimental in new situations. One example from my own experience was with an educational support program that had its roots in a dense urban core and was being scaled to other smaller cities. The new site I was involved with was very different from the original program site in terms of geography, history, and demographics: for example, the original site was very ethnically diverse, while the families in the catchment area for the new site were primarily white and had lived in Canada for multiple generations. As a result, our new site did not have to do much work around English as a Second/Additional Language, but we did face unique challenges such as around parent and family engagement. Collecting and analyzing information about our neighbourhood, both government sources like the Census and on-the-ground knowledge from teachers, service providers, and community members, helped us to understand the context and respond appropriately.

Funds, resources, and organizational practices are important elements to consider when scaling up: at the same time, nonprofits need the capacity to recognize the changes that come with growth and adapt accordingly. One tool that can be helpful in this case is developmental evaluation, which as recognized in Michael Quinn Patton’s handbook on the subject, can help organizations identify effective principles from earlier work and determine when it’s better to adapt to local conditions rather than adhere to acontextual “best practices”. By integrating relevant and timely data collection and sense-making into the process, developmental evaluation can help nonprofits learn more about the new situations they are entering, avoid potential pitfalls, and successfully scale.

What else would you add to the checklist?