Volunteer turnover: preparing for transition

You work so hard to bring the right volunteers into your organization. And then it’s time for some of them leave you. This can happen for any number of reasons. Losing volunteers is just as common as gaining new ones. That turnover doesn’t have to torpedo your organization’s chances of success, though.

Plan ahead for volunteer succession, and you’ll know just what to do when your best volunteers leave you. Take a few extra steps, and you just might keep some of your best performers from leaving in the first place.

An illustrative cycle of volunteer turnover

Why does volunteer succession matter?

Creating succession plans doesn’t mean making your key volunteers replaceable. Instead, it’s a method you can use to make the volunteer experience more enjoyable and more rewarding. At its core, it’s about developing and retaining talent.

“Organizations must begin to acknowledge that the health and growth of the volunteer are vital to their own health and growth,” says Chris Jarvis, chief strategist and cofounder of Realized Worth. “Volunteers have got to stop giving so damn much, and take a little.”

Skill building and professional growth are two key things your volunteers might want to take from your time together.

“Modern volunteers find meaning in creativity and want the freedom to explore their skills and passions,” says Meridian Swift, writing in Volunteer Plain Talk. “… It’s no longer considered ‘selfish’ to want more from their volunteering experience.”

A succession plan helps you nurture those volunteers so they can gain the skills and experiences they want. And it helps your seasoned volunteers step back from positions they no longer enjoy. The result is a happy, nurturing relationship. And that’s critical to your organization’s reputation.

“[Volunteers’] voices can and do go far and wide in singing your praises or spreading bitterness about their volunteering experience with you. If a person has a negative volunteering experience, this can damage their willingness to volunteer in the future,” says Jarina Choudhury, volunteering development consultancy officer with NCVO.

By cultivating your volunteers and building up your relationship, you can help ensure that they have nothing but good things to say about you and your work.

Recruit With Replacement in Mind

To develop a succession plan, you’ll need a group of up-and-coming volunteers who are ready to go to work as positions open up. That means you’ll need to conduct open-ended conversations with recruits so you’ll have names in mind when someone leaves.

As you recruit, look for new volunteers who are slightly different than your current crop. “Many times, organization members recruit individuals similar to themselves in age, gender, background, interests, etc. This may result in an organization with limited growth potential,” says Dr. William F. Jenaway, president of the board of directors of the Congressional Fire Services Institute.

If your volunteers are very similar in age, background, gender or interests, it might be time to expand your recruitment tactics. If you’ve always leaned on Facebook, for example, perhaps an ask on Instagram could help you reach a new set of fans.

Next, consider building succession into your volunteer roles. Blogger Ashley DeKock, writing for Church Relevance, describes managing church volunteers with elected role positions. Every few years, determine whether the existing crew wants to keep the assignment or try something new.

If you find that your volunteers would rather leave than take on a new role, examine the opportunities you have available and the environment that volunteers encounter as they work for you.

Writer Kayla Matthews addresses this very issue for healthcare organizations: “A hospital needs to focus on creating the type of environment volunteers want to work in. That might include offering more flexible shifts, since many volunteers are doing this kind of work around their day job or school schedules, or more advancement opportunities for successful volunteers.”

Get to Know Your Volunteers (All of Them!)

Chances are, you have some volunteers on speed dial. The others, you leave alone to do their work. This approach cuts down on your time commitments, but it could deprive you of the opportunity to spot key performers and build strong ties.

Engaging me as a volunteer is truly that, engagement. It’s more than a transaction. We form a relationship, hopefully a positive one where we both benefit. A relationship where I will most likely become strongly affiliated with your mission,” volunteer management consultant Rob Jackson writes.

To make this work, you’ll need to connect with all of your volunteers. That means you must reach out even when nothing is going wrong.

“Unless you’re intentional, you’ll end up spending most of your time with your most problematic people and the least amount of time with your highest performing people,” says Carey Nieuwhof, blogger and author of “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That No One Expects But Everyone Experiences.”

Reach out to those volunteer superstars and ensure they’re still happy with their work. And don’t overlook your middle volunteers who are neither problematic nor perfection. You could find a hidden gem with a lot to give to your mission.

Adam L. Clevenger, partner at Loring, Sternberg, and Associates, says these middle volunteers often feel overlooked and forgotten. They don’t get to tackle the juicy assignments they crave, and they stay stuck with the same work while feeling underutilized. If you fail to recognize their value, they may leave before you can nurture them.

Make a point to connect with your volunteers one-on-one. Talk with them by phone if you can’t reach them during their volunteer shifts. Find out how they’re feeling about their assignments and your organization. Look for opportunities to stretch the scope of their work so they can learn new things.

Foster Connections Between Volunteers

It’s critical for your volunteers to connect with you. But to truly prepare for succession, you’ll need your volunteers to talk with one another. That way, they’ll understand what other volunteer opportunities look like, and they’ll have immediate support if they step in to fill a new role.

“In larger groups, you can institutionalize a buddy system,” says Texas CASA for Children. “Pair each newcomer with another newcomer (to compare notes with) and with an old-timer to go to for basic information.”

Encourage your seasoned volunteers to talk to, train and nurture their new counterparts. Hold events for your volunteers to connect outside of the work. In time, you’ll have a culture of collaboration in which the work (not the clique) is treasured.

Volunteers want to interact with other volunteers because it provides support to the volunteers, it helps them perform their tasks better, and it helps volunteers deal with difficult situations and clients.

Help Your Volunteers Find Meaning

When volunteers are new and fresh, they’re often passionate about your mission. They’ll do anything to keep your work moving forward. As time passes, the passion can fade. Reigniting it could be key to keeping your long-time volunteers connected.

For some organizations, engaging with volunteers means giving the best performers awards. Research from Marlene Walk, assistant professor at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI, suggests volunteers are 34 percent less likely to leave if they get an award, but only if they’re surprised by it.

To keep volunteers, you’ll need to do more than hold an awards banquet. You’ll need to focus on spreading the word about your mission and how volunteers make your work possible.

“If you really want to retain volunteers (or any type of supporter, for that matter), consider how much time you’re spending trying to fill positions vs. how much time you’re spending inspiring those around you about your mission,” GiveGab’s Michelle Sawyer writes.

Never forget that asking volunteers to change positions could inspire them. A shift in roles could help them see their contributions in a whole new light.

For example, Kelly Messenger, former development coordinator at Feeding America, took a day away from the national office to work packing food. “The opportunity to see another part of this large system of service helped me to really understand the role I’m playing in fighting hunger across the nation,” she says.

Every organization has day-to-day work that volunteers must do. Tying a volunteer’s skills to the work that must get done can make for a much more meaningful relationship. And as that volunteer develops skills, you’ll see your succession plans grow stronger.

When you give your volunteers a chance to take on new responsibilities and make a bigger impact, they’ll be more likely to grow with you.