How Doing What Comes Naturally Leads to Amazing Volunteer Retention

When a heart-centered approach becomes part of your program’s routine, your volunteers stick around

Heart-centered volunteer management - Twenty HatsDoes it surprise you that many − and perhaps most of the people who gravitate to volunteer engagement have studied things like psychology, sociology, or social work?

I know this because I once threw out a pop survey on my Facebook page asking what followers studied in college.

Just about everyone who responded majored in these people-oriented subjects, with a few nonprofit studies majors thrown in for good measure.

The results of my very non-scientific survey make sense, since volunteer engagement is such a people-oriented profession.

What we may not appreciate is that our gift for working with people is the very thing that help us create great outcomes in our programs.

I think of a program I talked with last summer when I was creating a webinar on volunteer retention for Girls on the Run (GOTR) International.

As part of my webinar prep I was asked to interview one particular program, the GOTR New Jersey North Council, because of their amazing outcomes − 80% of their coaches return from one season to the next. That’s like the holy grail of volunteer retention!

I wanted to know their secret.

As I spoke with the council’s program coordinator, Melissa Fagersten, it became clear that their success grew out of a heart-centered approach to managing volunteers. Melissa and her team focus on creating a culture of belonging within their program so that every volunteer feels that they are part of a community that values them.

Here’s the Important Part

The council does more than stress a personal touch with its volunteers– they incorporate their heart-centered approach into the program’s systems and practices.

Some examples:

  • When a coach burns out, they are not shown the door. Instead, they are transitioned into another volunteer position until they feel ready to coach again.
  • When new coaches are brought in for orientation, everyone is given time to explain who they are and why they chose to volunteer – even if that means the orientation takes longer. Volunteers report feeling inspired and safer because they have this space to become known to one another.
  • Melissa and her team stay on top of what’s going on for the volunteers in their work and family lives. If, say, a volunteer is scheduled for surgery, the surgery is entered as a task on the shared calendar so that someone is certain to reach out with sympathy and an offer of help.
  • The council runs a private Facebook forum where coaches share ideas and resources and strengthen their bonds with one another. When a coach was diagnosed with breast cancer, the forum users showed their solidarity by wearing orange – the ailing coach’s favorite color.

Leading a high quality volunteer program requires us to develop some skills that we may find challenging, like mastering strategic planning or tracking metrics. But those skills are most effective when they complement our natural ability to create meaningful connections and a sense of community.

To engage volunteers, it may just be that leadership means taking that what you know intuitively and ensuring that it becomes part of your program’s practices – and its culture.

Tweet this post! If you agree with my POV, feel free to share the following message:

When we create systems around our people skills, volunteer retention follows,

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