The Secret to Volunteer Retention

Just say thanks
The Secret to Volunteer Retention

A sign loomed outside my son's Sunday school class: "Room closed (unless someone wants to jump in and help today)." Fortunately, it was propped near a door but wasn't yet pulled out into the main area of the hallway. Apparently there were enough volunteers to staff that at that point in time, but if too many kids came and ratios were exceeded, the doors would be closed and the sign would get pulled out. I was grateful my little guy could still do his craft and hear a Bible story on that particular morning, but the sign offered a menacing warning: Volunteer or else.

Most anyone in a leadership role knows the value of relying on volunteers. The benefits are enormous, such as multiplying manpower, staffing positions that aren't allowed for in the budget, and so much more. Yet the problem that doesn't need to be stated is that volunteers are just that: volunteers. There is no guarantee they'll be there when they say (hopefully they will!), but worse yet, there is nothing that obligates volunteers to keep giving their time to your cause.

I don't want my son to be turned away from Sunday school any more than you want to cut programming because of a shortage of volunteers. So what are we to do?

While books and trainings about volunteer retention spell out six easy steps, I like to take a much simpler approach, one that consists of six letters: Thanks!

Before you write me off as overly simplistic, let me back up my claim. Francesca Gino, associate professor at Harvard Business School, had two groups of students make corrections to a fictitious person's cover letter for a job application. One group received a simple confirmation saying, "I received your feedback on my cover letter." The second group received an identical email with two short sentences added: "I received your feedback on my cover letter. Thank you so much! I am really grateful."

Although the emails were similar, the groups' responses were anything but. Fifty-five percent of students in the gratitude-receiving group reported higher levels of self-worth, compared with only 22 percent of those from the other group. But here's what is even more fascinating: When both groups were later asked to review someone else's cover letter, only 32 percent of those in the non-appreciation group offered to do so. Now guess how many people from the group offered to help. Sixty-six percent. That's more than double!

Think about what that means for our organizations. For starters, it shines light on the fact that if our volunteers don't feel appreciated, they aren't likely to keep giving. Now peel that back even further: When people don't feel valued after helping one person, they are less likely to help someone else. If people serve as volunteers under you and feel like you took them for granted, when another organization asks for help, they might remember how they felt after helping you and say no. This would hurt your organization and others. What is worse, it can also cause your former volunteer to violate the Great Commission—all because they didn't feel like you appreciated them!

This isn't just theoretic speculation based on someone's research. My life bears witness to it, too. When I was in elementary school, I co-taught children's church with an older woman. In middle school, I went to a local nursing home every month. The means of volunteering changed, but the fact remained: I loved to give my time to others. The pattern continued until I offered to teach a Bible study at my church. I had been a small group leader for several years, meaning that we would watch a video of someone else teaching, and I would help facilitate the discussion. This, however, was different. I wrote the study in its entirety. I prepped the talks each week, a major challenge given the time constraints of having young children at home.

I was exhausted in a way I'd never previously known, yet exhilarated to serve in my sweet spot, that place where time flies and fulfillment flows. Those who participated in the Bible study gave great feedback, allowing me to hear how the words God put on my heart spoke to them. So I asked the staff member who oversaw my teaching to write a one- or two-sentence endorsement of the study for me. Her response shocked me: "Sorry, but I can't."

I now know more of what was going on in her personal life that kept her from taking the time to jot down a few words, but without that information, I could interpret it only one way: I wasn't appreciated for the countless hours I had poured in. A blank "thank you" card was later given to me with an explanation of "Here. I meant to fill this out for you, but never got around to it."

I left the church.

Worse yet, I started questioning whether God really had called me to write Bible studies;not just the one I taught, but the future ones that were running through my mind. The very call for my life was in jeopardy; all because a few words of thanks weren't spoken throughout the study and a few sentences were never scribbled on my behalf.

This terrifies me because I'm not an attention-seeking, praise-loving person. I simply was someone trying to be obedient to what I believed I was supposed to do, and I stepped well beyond my comfort zone along the way. A little reassurance or positive feedback would have gone far, but the lack thereof did, too.

This story isn't just about me. It's about us.

As leaders, we spend a lot of time focused on stewardship, especially over the money entrusted to us. What if we were also intentional about being good stewards of our volunteers? What if we realized we had the power to turn them off toward serving, not just for us, but to somehow get them to stop doing the very thing God has called them to? How would that change our way of caring for them?

While these are questions I hope you'll ask for yourself and within your organization, I'll offer a few suggestions. First of all, make sure you express your gratitude for your volunteers. After all, your organization probably wouldn't be where it is without them. It can be as simple as an annual volunteer dinner or a low-key get-together for dessert. Celeste Barnard, a seasoned children's pastor, recommends doing something where "they (your volunteers) feel noticed and that you care about them as a person, not just a volunteer." This doesn't need to break the bank. In fact, going overboard has the opposite effect. I walked out of a volunteer appreciation dinner where the organization flew in a professional singer to entertain us and then gave everyone a $25 gift card. Many of us left questioning whether they really needed help if they could afford such extravagance.

Francesca Gino said, "By missing chances to express gratitude, organizations and leaders lose relatively cost-free opportunities to motivate." I prefer to look at it this way: think small for big impact. For example, do you send your volunteers a reminder before it's time for them to serve? If so, you already have the technology in place (especially if it's set up as an auto-responder) to send out another email afterward just to say, "Thanks! We couldn't have done it without you."

Another question to consider when being a steward of your volunteers is to ask if you're allowing them to serve in a way that brings them satisfaction. Various organizations "mandate" people to serve. Some schools do this and even require those who don't "volunteer" to pay a fee. But before you mentally check the box saying your organization doesn't do this, think about it a few extra seconds. Churches can easily fail in this category, especially when it comes to staffing the nursery and Sunday school rooms. "Help out, or your child won't be allowed in" has strong undertones of that oxymoronic definition of volunteerism of give, or else. Besides, research demonstrates that if volunteers don't feel challenged in the area they serve, they are less likely to continue to do so. If you are asking people just to punch holes in papers so you can do the more exciting parts of the job, don't be surprised if they no longer offer to help.

The question of volunteer satisfaction goes much deeper. Do specific volunteers have experiences that uniquely qualify them for certain positions, and if so, are we allowing them to serve in those spots? Years after her husband was killed in Afghanistan, Launa Stiles Chavez considers it a pleasure to volunteer as a GriefShare facilitator. She says, "I am blessed seeing God do his work."

Can your volunteers also say it's a pleasure to help your cause? More specifically, would they say it's a pleasure to help you? If not, it might be time to pull out the secret tool to volunteer retention and say, "Thanks!"


Stacy started an unexpected revolution of gratefulness—and is loving every minute of it! She is the founder of Gratimoment.com, which enhances hearts and minds through gratitude.

August 21, 2014 at 8:00 AM

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