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March 13, 2013 / christinazuniga

Case Study: Volunteer Retention Boom and Bust Cycle

RetentionVolunteer retention is a significant issue for every non-profit organization. Once you’ve identified, recruited and trained your volunteers how do you keep them involved with your organization?

The CSUN Helpline – a crisis phone hotline – offered an in depth, 10 week volunteer training twice a year. Within two months of each training completion, we experienced a significant turnover of new members. This caused considerable problems covering all shifts and meeting call demands. To retain volunteers, I followed four steps of problem solving:

1. Analyze the problem
I reviewed years of member data and discovered that there was a correlation between new volunteers who did not complete a shift within their first two months, and reduced (or non-existent) participation by those members in future months.

It appeared that post-training resulted in a huge influx of new members which caused massive competition for limited volunteer shifts. I contacted previous members and asked their reason for leaving. An overwhelming majority responded that they stopped volunteering when they could not attend any shifts. When shifts weren’t available, new members became disheartened, they lost interest, and no longer participated in the organization which eventually led to too few volunteers. It was a bi-annual boom and bust cycle.

Volunteer_Retention_Graph1

2. Brainstorm solutions
Additional shifts could not be added since we operated standard hours that we could not change. We capped the number of volunteers so that the ratio of volunteers to phones was 1:1. I suggested that we have a few new members share a phone, marginally increasing the number of people on a shift. This would result in:

  • Confidence: lack of shifts caused volunteers to feel that their skills had degraded. Attending more shifts, even with fewer overall calls, caused volunteers to remain confident in their skills.
  • Relationships: provided the ability to meet and build friendships with other members.
  • Additional Training: sharing a phone gave new members the chance to review further training materials and develop additional skills.

This also prevented us from expanding during boom seasons that could not be sustained at other points throughout the year.

3. Implement a solution
Supervisors were briefed and given the opportunity to provide feedback. Within the first few trial shifts, no problems occurred and responses appeared positive. Since new phones (and therefore more calls) were not being added, supervisors did not find themselves with more tasks. It was an insignificant administrative change to update the calendar and sign ups sheets which ensured that Operations were not burdened with additional work.

4. Review the results
The change was swiftly adopted and it became a normal part of the cycle – after training was complete it was expected that extra spots would be available for two to three months with the possibility of additional slots added in random months after a certain number of shifts had been filled. The organization became proactive when we expected demand and reactive to rare months where demand was unexpectedly high.

Volunteer_Retention_Graph2

By identifying the constraint (number of shifts) and changing our process to form a solution (more people per shift), we were able to retain more volunteers in more consistent numbers throughout the year without spending money or drastically expanding our operations.

If you’re having problems retaining volunteers, determine if there is a factor that causes even the most motivated volunteer to leave (perhaps after volunteering a certain length of time or feeling like their contributions are not making a difference), review your existing processes and brainstorm new ideas to keep your members interested and happy to continue helping.

Have you had any problems with volunteer retention or do you have a success story? Share it in the comments!

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