This article is based on a webinar presented by Rachel Bell, MPH, a Customer Success Manager at Mon Ami. Click here to see the webinar!
Map out your volunteer experience
It’s important to start with a clear picture of what volunteers are experiencing while participating in your program so that you can identify opportunities for improvement. When someone learns about your volunteer opportunity, what steps do they need to take, what communications will they receive, and what interactions will they have with staff and other volunteers?
Start off by identifying the ideal experience from end-to-end, then fill in all the places someone can drop off of that pathway. The more details you include, the better. This will be an essential tool for building your engagement and retention strategy going forward.
The rest of this article will use the volunteer stages identified in the image above as a guide for assessing and improving engagement throughout the entire volunteer experience.
Retention begins with targeted recruitment
It may seem strange to start thinking about retention before someone has even applied to volunteer. However, targeted recruitment is the first step because it requires you to think carefully about why you are recruiting and to narrow down the pool of potential volunteers.
To attract the right people, you need to know what you are looking for so you can be intentional with your outreach materials. Consider what your current volunteer pool looks like and the gaps in skills, availability/schedule, and experience level that need to be filled. Then, create recruitment materials with details about what you’re looking for so volunteers can self-screen.
Make sure expectations about time commitment, location, onboarding steps, and eligibility criteria are clear. You'll also need to identify the specific skills you are looking for (e.g. rather than generic “tech skills”, say something specific like “Zoom expertise”).
Data tip: You may already be tracking how many volunteers apply from each recruitment channel, but consider looking at how long volunteers from each channel stay in the program as well to get a more complete picture of how well each source is working for you.
Create clear criteria and stick to them
Hopefully when volunteers take the time to apply to your program, they have done some self-screening based on your recruitment materials. However, now you will need to do additional screening, while still keeping volunteers interested.
To prevent volunteers from losing interest right away, make sure you application process follows best practices:
- Present volunteers with all the required steps up front
- Design your application documents so they are easy to read and fill out (avoid anything people will need to print or have special software to edit).
- Respond within 24-48 hours to any inquiries.
- Keep the tone of your communications friendly, professional, and consistent.
Not everyone is going to be right for your program. Some reasons you may want to consider rejecting a volunteer application are that they live far away from your service area, they can’t commit enough time or are not available during your typical service hours, or they lack necessary skills and equipment.
It can be hard to turn people away who want to help, though. One way to make this easier is to refer volunteers to other programs where they may be a better fit. Depending on your organization, you may have internal partners you can work with or you may need to develop new external ones. Either way, referring people to other programs benefits everyone:
- your program will have volunteers who are a good fit
- volunteers have the best experience possible with a program that is right for them
- other programs get a great new source of volunteers
Data tip: Another way to look at volunteer recruitment sources is to compare the application outcomes for each. If one source seems to have a lot of applications, but not a lot of people that get onboarded, that may be a sign that you need to update those recruitment materials or abandon that source.
Set the right tone in your onboarding process
Your onboarding process sets a precedent for how organized, friendly, and communicative you are and how you want your volunteers to be. When done well, your onboarding process can
- Be straightforward and welcoming
- Set the tone for how and when you expect volunteers to communicate with you
- Reinforce expectations for attitude, behavior, safety, and commitment
- Provide sufficient training so volunteers feel confident participating
It can be hard to judge your own process because you are so familiar with it, so try asking someone who can be objective to audit the process for you. Ideally, they will be someone that is comfortable providing honest feedback and who has not gone through the process before. You could even try to do this with another volunteer manager from a different program! Below are some ideas for questions you may want to ask your auditor:
- How streamlined did the process feel?
- Are communications clear and welcoming?
- Does the training include enough information?
- Is it clear what you’re supposed to do next?
- What would make the experience better?
Data tip: Track how many people complete each onboarding step so you can identify when there may be an issue with one of them. For example, in the image below, there are a lot of people that did not complete the orientation session. This could be because the session is offered at a time that is hard for people to attend, or maybe it is longer than people expected and that requirement was not clearly stated up front.
Have a plan to engage new volunteers immediately
Once you have a newly approved volunteer, you don’t want to immediately lose the structure you had during the onboarding process. Instead, build out an engagement plan for the first couple of months that will continue to guide their participation.
The details of your new volunteer engagement plan will depend on your program, but below are a few elements to consider starting with:
- Welcome message with info about getting started
- Warm introduction to other volunteers and/or staff
- Invitation to participate in a specific activity
For additional elements of the plan, take into consideration what is motivating each of your volunteers and use that information to create engagement opportunities. For example, if volunteers are joining your program because they are hoping to meet people in the community, then hosting a monthly volunteer coffee hour or pairing new volunteers up with experienced ones may be beneficial.
You can use the same concept to show appreciation to your volunteers. Even low-cost or free appreciation efforts can be meaningful when they take into consideration what is motivating volunteers in the first place. For example, if you have volunteers that are students or young professionals seeking experience to advance their careers, you can offer to write them a recommendation letter as a thank you for their help. This will be much more meaningful than an appreciation party (and much less work!).
Data tip: Keeping track of volunteer’s contributions (hours, number of clients supported, etc.) will allow you to thank them for their specific contributions and acknowledge significant milestones. This must be done accurately to be effective, which will be significantly easier if you have an automated way of tracking volunteer activities (like Mon Ami!).
Give them a reason to stay
How you define an “expert” volunteer will depend on your program, but most likely these will be volunteers who have participated for at least one year. Make sure that there are benefits and new opportunities available for long-term volunteers so there is a reason to stay.
Learn more about your expert volunteer’s skills and interests so you can involve them in special projects or leadership opportunities. They may even have some ideas of their own if you ask! A few common ways to create opportunities for volunteer leadership include:
- Create volunteer teams: gather volunteers and find leaders by topic or skill (e.g. tech team, outreach and support, etc.)
- Train the trainer: scale your program by training volunteers to recruit, onboard, and train new people
- Skills-based volunteering: find out if any volunteers can offer pro bono services (e.g. legal, data analytics, event planning, etc.) or if they have an idea for a project that would utilize their skillset
For more experienced volunteers, you may also want to offer slightly better rewards for their participation, but that still doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money. Consider the volunteer’s motivation and see if you can reward them in a way that deepens their involvement in the organization.
Build goodwill with a positive exit process
Eventually, volunteers will need to leave your organization for one reason or another. However, it is critical to have an exit process that recognizes their contributions and encourages other ways they can support you.
There are several ways that alumni volunteers can still support your organization:
- Convert to donors
- Refer friends and colleagues to volunteer
- Spreading positive word of mouth in the community about your organization
- May return to volunteer again later
To increase the likelihood that alumni volunteers continue to support your work, make sure to have a timely, organized way for them to say goodbye to the clients they supported, manage their communications preferences, and learn about other ways to support your organization. Doing this well requires close tracking of volunteers’ activities so that you don’t find out that someone stopped volunteering six months ago. At that point it will be too late to reach out and they likely won’t respond.
Data tip: Try sending out a brief exit survey to get a general sense of why volunteers leave the program. This can be a good monitoring tool to catch any problems early and inform how much you need to be recruiting.
Engagement and retention can be addressed at every stage of the volunteer experience and requires a lot more than just showing appreciation. Start by understanding what volunteers are experiencing and where you are losing the most people, then try addressing the biggest issues by keeping volunteers’ motivations in mind.
You can start working on updating your volunteer engagement and retention strategy with this worksheet.
You can start working on updating your volunteer engagement and retention strategy with this worksheet.