The United States has a long tradition of volunteering. Back in 1737, for instance, Benjamin Franklin co-founded the nation’s first volunteer fire brigade in Philadelphia. And this custom is still going strong. About 77.4 million Americans volunteered 6.9 billion hours in 2017 – the equivalent of US$167 billion in paid work – according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, a government agency. But how Americans volunteer has changed in the last 30 years. Among those who volunteer, about 33% logged 100 or more hours in 2015, down from 40% in 1989, according to an annual Census Bureau survey.
Any decline in American volunteering may potentially hinder the work of nonprofits that rely on people who pitch in without getting paid to accomplish at least some of their work. I aim through my research regarding nonprofits to better understand what motivates people to volunteer and what organizations can do to keep their volunteers engaged over the long run. Some strategies to manage volunteers, according to what I’ve observed, work better than others.
Volunteers can often make a difference whether they show up every week or just once. But some groups and organizations could not do what they do without dedicated volunteers who stick with the same responsibilities, often for years at a time. Imagine, for instance, what would happen if the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts had to operate without troop leaders and scoutmasters who lead camping trips or organize outings.
About 1 out of 3 Americans who do volunteer work one year do not stick with it the next year.
Losing volunteers can be as tough as losing paid employees and contractors. Just like what happens in the private sector, which had a 27% turnover rate in 2018, new volunteers have to be recruited and trained. These are two very time-consuming activities.
I recently conducted a study with Ruodan Zhang, a doctoral student, and Laura Littlepage, a volunteering researcher. We took a look at the strategies nonprofits use to retain volunteers by focusing on volunteer turnover in a large Midwestern Boy Scouts Council. These councils encompass geographic areas, such as a city, county or even a state. Although they vary widely in size, they all have something in common: Volunteers do most of the work, including the job of leading the local packs and troops. As we explained in Nonprofit Management & Leadership, an academic journal, we found that the organization saw about twice as many volunteers leave than it was able to recruit for the positions left empty.
We believe the vacant spots may owe something to how the Scouts council we studied managed their volunteers. Some of the best ways to keep volunteers on board are training them for the tasks they do, acknowledging their achievements and thanking them for their efforts.
The council did conduct volunteer trainings. We found that, on average, men who were trained were 40% more likely to keep volunteering the next year than those who weren’t. This was not true with the trained women, who left at the same rate as both male and female volunteers who did not participate in the training sessions. About 30% of the volunteers for the Scouts council we studied were women. We can’t yet say why they seemed to respond differently to being trained, but we are looking into it.
The organization also gave volunteers awards, either as surprises or predictably – by following clearly defined criteria. We found that volunteers were 34% less likely to leave after they got these awards, but only when they weren’t expecting the attention. Surprising volunteers, in other words, made a difference. Achievement awards that volunteers knew were coming did not seem to make them stay on board longer.
It’s worth noting that our data preceded the decision to let girls join the Boy Scouts, which has led some entire communities to sever their ties to the organization. My colleagues and I are still very interested in what other factors may make it harder to keep volunteers on board, such as concerns about sex abuse, LGBTQ membership rules or allowing girls to join. All of these issues may well have caused some of the Boy Scouts council volunteers to move on.
To see if factors like those may not just affect public perception but hamper volunteer retention, I’m doing a separate research project. My goal is to see whether volunteers leave organizations after groups garner negative media coverage that tarnishes their reputations.
No matter how nonprofits manage their volunteers, I believe conducting exit interviews with departing volunteers is worth the effort it takes. Those conversations give leaders a sense of why volunteers decide to leave and what they experienced while supporting the organization. And based on what we observed in this study, we also think it’s worth asking volunteers for feedback after trainings and award events.