Monday, 9 September 2013

It's time to ditch the word retention

Volunteer retention. It's one of those areas that people always ask about.

  • "How can we benchmark our retention rates against somebody else's?"
  • "How can we keep our volunteers for longer?"
  • "What can we do - what distinct action can we take - to retain volunteers?"

All good questions. All questions that seem simple but anyone with experience of working with volunteers will know are difficult to answer.

  • Why is it good if you hold onto someone for longer than I do? What if they stay longer but contribute less? Your retention rates may look better than mine but the actual impact of volunteers may be lower.
  • Do you want to keep your volunteers for longer? Sometimes I hear people wishing they could get rid of some of their volunteers? Sometimes a bit of turnover is a good thing.
  • Is there a discrete action we can take, a magic wand we can wave to make volunteers stay? I don't think so, for me retention is the outcome of a well managed volunteer programme. Lead and manage your volunteers well and they will want to stay.

The problem is the word retention. I'd like to ban the it from the volunteer management vocabulary all together.


For me, the word retention still carries with it that sense that we are striving to hold on to our volunteers for as long as possible. We want to get them through the door and then do everything we can to try and prevent them from leaving. Sometimes that's great - giving them a great experience, a good environment to work in etc. - and sometimes it's not so great - laying a guilt trip on them that if they leave the whole organisation will fall apart without them.

I just don't think that mindset is working anymore. In fact, as new generations of volunteers come on board - what Tom and Jonathan McKee call The New Breed of volunteers - I think the idea of retention is fundamentally flawed. Try and retain volunteers in the traditional sense (keep them as long as possible) and watch your volunteer base dwindle like sand slipping through your fingers.

My thinking goes something like this.

June is a new volunteer with your organisation. June's a busy person, balancing running her own business with other volunteering, family and all the other things that take up the time of a typical person in the 21st century.

June has just heard that at short notice (everything seems to be short notice these days!) she has to go out of the country for a month for work. Being conscientious June gives you, her volunteer manager a heads up about this as soon as she can. Your response?

"Well we were really counting on you to fill those shifts in the next few weeks. If you're not here we may have to cancel them and that means our clients will really suffer. Can you say no? Can you re-arrange and work around your volunteering?"

Put simply, my answer is no. And frankly, June resents your inflexibility. She loves her volunteering but her world doesn't revolve around it. It is, after all, something she does in her spare time, her precious spare time that she also has to fill with other things, like family and friends.

So June goes on her business trip and, when she gets back, she doesn't bother getting in touch with your organisation again. Instead she goes looking for someone who will give her the flexibility to balance her volunteering with the rest of her life whilst still making a difference to a good cause. Someone who, when June has to go away again, will say something like:

"Thanks for letting us know June. That's not a problem. We'll figure something out. Just let us know when you're back and we'll pick things up from there if you're still free."

That organisation has, in my view, the right approach to the R word, because retention isn't about handing onto people anymore, its about letting them go. Give people that flexibility and they'll keep coming back for more because so many others are training to retain them like they did in the past.

In short, to keep people volunteering we have to be willing to let them leave.

Of course this presents challenges for volunteer involving organisations. But all change does. Embracing the challenges and overcoming them is what we need to do.

Successful organisations and managers of volunteers will adapt, embrace flexibility and become more volunteer centred.

Those that still talk about retention, well I don't think we'll be talking about them for very much longer.

What do you think?

Have you changed the way you think about retention? How has that made a difference to your volunteers and your organisation?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.,


  1. Two thoughts strike me after reading Rob's excellent blog post.

    Firstly volunteer managers should focus on the quality of the experience of each volunteer. If the volunteer is enjoying their contribution we will retain their services. Even increasing their engagement with, and commitment to, our shared cause. A quality experience will ensure the individual volunteer is treated flexibly. Including graciously allowing for inevitable changes in their life circumstances, as illustrated in the blog.

    Secondly I am a fan of 'fixed terms'. Expectations are managed both from the volunteer's perspective and from the organisations. The volunteer can chose to renew their commitment, change to a fresh role or exit gracefully. The organisation can bring in new talent and fresh ideas. One of the most important things organisations who engage volunteers need to do is succession plan - not easy but essential especially for leadership roles.

    It is well worth re-reading Kathy Gaskin's 'A Choice Blend' which talks about volunteer's needs at various stages of their journey Doubter > Starter > Doer > Stayer.

  2. I'm not so sure we should drop that R word just yet. Because the manager who puts pressure on volunteers needing time out possibly has a few other shortcomings in leadership style, and really does have a problem in 'retaining' volunteers. So how can we persuade people to do a mind-shift and embrace a change to volunteer-centredness?

  3. A bold blog and a welcome one. I can really relate to the point about volunteering being one of many different life commitments and also the fact that people's circumstances seem to change more rapidly and dramatically than in the past. In terms of those volunteering with my organisation this change seems to be resulting from the impact of the current economic climate (alot of change around patterns of paid employment and less predictability in this arena coupled with changes around benefits)combined with the shift in expectations that Rob highlights. I think that recognising and understanding the current demographics and diversity of volunteers and offering a diverse mix of opportunities is important, as well as being able to offer flexibility and having enough volunteer management resource to really get to know your volunteers and be "volunteer centred". There's also a need to educate colleagues, managers and trustees to manage their expectations about what a committed and effective volunteer looks like!

  4. No - please don't ditch the word retention! See my reply on my blog -