Tag Archives: volunteers

Retention Refresh: Recapping Our Last Think Tank Conversation

by Sharon Mvundura

Think Tank Conversations are bi-monthly meetups of those who manage, coordinate and engage volunteers in Edmonton. The space we’ve created is one of discussion, networking and working through the trends, challenges and success volunteer coordinators face in their roles. Our May session was the last one before a summer break. Read on for what Think Tankers had to say about volunteer retention.

Organizations are experiencing a variety of challenges when it comes to volunteer retention. Time was the buzzword of the morning and played an important role in the strain organizations feel. They’re experiencing high turnover rates, volunteers leaving for paid employment, and are investing in volunteer training and orientation only to have volunteers leave.

I thought the majority of the morning would be spent talking about challenges, but organizations were quickly producing questions and possible solutions to their volunteer retention woes. Some that came out of our framing conversation were:

  • Who is your audience?
  • How can we meet volunteers where they are?
  • How can we instill ownership and accountability in volunteers?

First: audience.

Volunteer managers admitted that in order to retain volunteers it is important to recruit the right volunteers first. It just doesn’t cut it to fill volunteer spots.

During the recruitment process, identify what type of volunteer your organization needs and wants. Ensure skill sets match the needs of the program and screen out unsuitable candidates. One volunteer manager shared their story of recruiting volunteers in a rush to fill spots only to reflect later that some of those volunteers just weren’t the right fit. It’s time to get strategic about the recruitment process.

Second: meeting volunteers where they’re at.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • How can your program and roles be more flexible?
  • What are the goals of your volunteers?
  • How can you help them fulfill or find their passion or purpose through your organization?
  •  Is there room for volunteers to grow in your organization?

You can explore those questions in the recruitment process with potential volunteers.  In this Think Tank, we used Volunteer Alberta’s handy “Window of Work” tool. This is a one page worksheet that can be used by organizations to discover volunteer’s motives, their intentions and non-negotiables when it comes to volunteer work. Try it! It got great response in the room.

But what about volunteers who have been in your organization for many years? It’s never too late to check in with them. Doing check-ins, one-on-one feedback sessions to gauge volunteer engagement is a great way to know where there’s room for improvement and how you can continue to provide a rewarding experience for all volunteers.

Lastly: ownership and accountability.

The truth is we’ll never get the volunteer retention thing down to a science. Volunteers will always leave at some point, but there are ways to increase buy-in and engagement. It starts with training and orientation, ensuring that they have what they need to be successful. Besides having volunteer appreciation events and methods, it’s important to nurture and build relationships. This might come in the form of increasing face to face interaction with your volunteers, or creating a buddy system, allowing shadow shifts at your organization or other formal ways for strong relationships to be the foundation of your volunteer program.

One aha! moment happened when one Think Tanker said “Our organization has changed, but we didn’t bring volunteers along with us.”

My biggest takeaway from the morning was: those who manage and coordinate volunteers are ready to make their programs engaging and inviting for volunteers.  They even all committed to one incremental change that they would make in their organization. Here are some of the commitments:

  • Explore other ways to collect feedback in my organization
  • Train staff on how to maintain positive relationships with volunteers
  • Find more opportunities to give face to face feedback with other volunteers
  • Check in with long term volunteers on their satisfaction
  • Pull together a focus group of volunteers to give feedback

We’ll be back in the fall with more Think Tanks and engaging mornings filled with learning and connection.

Read our other Think Tank recaps:

Volunteer Recruitment

Volunteer Recognition

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What you need to know about working in the nonprofit sector

In some ways, working in the nonprofit is similar to working for a typical business: they maintain similar departments like administration, human resources and management and employees are expected to have the same skill sets as they would working for-profit. The major difference of course, is the bottom line. A nonprofit’s goal is to further their mission while a typical business aims to make a profit.

If you’re thinking about dipping your toes in the nonprofit sector, here are a few things you should know before you apply.

  1. Increased job satisfaction: Those who choose to work in the nonprofit sector are typically passionate about helping others and bettering their community. If you’re hired at an organization that’s mission you are genuinely interested in, you’ll experience immense job satisfaction when you see your hard work come to fruition. For instance, if you’ve had a hand in creating an initiative to decrease homelessness in your city, you’ll be gratified to see those numbers reduce.
  2. Your skills are transferable: Before you dismiss a nonprofit position because you don’t have experience in the sector, understand that past work or university experience is valuable to the sector. While it is useful to be knowledgeable of the sector and acquire special skills such as fundraising, capacity-building and grant-writing, nonprofit organizations operate similar to businesses and therefore, need individuals with similar skills. Do you have experience in a management or leadership role? Apply to be a volunteer manager. Are you an English or Communication major interested in working for a nonprofit? Organizations need people like you to further their message and reach their target audience.
  3. Relationships are vital: This is standard in any organization, but in the nonprofit sector, relationships are crucial to move your organization’s mission forward. Nonprofits cannot operate sufficiently if they are sequestered into their own bubble. Prepare to become familiar with those working towards similar goals, meet workers in your field you can bounce ideas off of and maintain relationships through networking events. It makes all the difference when you need help spreading your message!
  4. Be wary of burnout: Because nonprofit employees are so passionate about the cause they are working for, they often don’t know when to slow down. Employees can only work at full capacity if they’re well rested and anxiety-free. Take your vacation days, don’t come in when you’re unwell and ensure you can manage your workload.
  5. You won’t get rich: Unfortunately, this is the bad news. Nonprofits work with minimal budgets and you won’t be striking gold when working for an organization where profit isn’t the end-all-be-all. And, many nonprofits are funded by external sources (different levels of government, larger organizations, etc.) and this funding can fluctuate. Nonprofits are not averse to job and financial insecurity
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Why nonprofit workers are susceptible to burnout

For those who attended our Annual General Meeting on May 10, you will recall the lessons Beth Kanter taught us on how to remain calm and collected while working at a nonprofit organization. The nonprofit expert and co-author of The Healthy Happy Nonprofit, discussed how to prevent burnout and maintain optimal job performance.

So, why are those working in the nonprofit industry susceptible to burnout? Kanter says “sacrificing one’s health in service of a cause is a common narrative in the nonprofit sector.” People who work in the nonprofit sector are (most likely) not in it for the money. They are passion-fueled individuals who believe in the cause they are working for. Kanter says this can be a double-edged sword as nonprofit workers can be “so driven, they don’t stop to refuel or smell the proverbial roses or even notice they are experiencing symptoms of burnout.” Those working in the nonprofit sector view self-care as an indulgence when really, it is a necessity.

If you’re a nonprofit worker who hasn’t given self-care a second thought, it’s time you start. When is the last time you took a vacation or a personal day? If you can’t remember, you should assess yourself for common symptoms of burnout:

In the Healthy Happy Nonprofit Kanter outlines common symptoms of burnout in nonprofit workers:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased illness
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Isolation
  • Pessimism
  • Feelings of apathy/hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of productivity or poor performance

If this sounds like you, don’t panic. It happens more often than we think. A number of factors cause burnout; some can be personal while others are directly related to working in the nonprofit industry. For instance, the “Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” which Kanter explains is a consequence of inadequate infrastructure that leave nonprofits barely functioning as organizations. “The vicious cycle begins with funders’ unrealistic expectations about how much money running a nonprofit takes and results in nonprofits misrepresenting their costs while skimping on vital systems.” And for many nonprofits, that puts personal health and wellness low on the priority list. Then, there is “Funder-Driven Stress” which is a lack of foundation funding for nonprofit talent infrastructure. If a nonprofit’s foundation is weak, it makes it difficult to provide support and meet the needs of the communities that organization serves.  Other causes of burnout in the nonprofit sector include: lack of leadership development, overwork, overuse of technology and information overload.

Understanding that nonprofit workers are susceptible to burnout and stress is important when evaluating your own personal wellness. If you, or your organization as a whole, operates as a never-ending machine, it’s time to take a moment and reflect on your health, because in reality, if you are healthier as an organization and an individual you will be happier and more productive in the workplace.

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