Volunteer manager turnover is not a problem — it’s something to plan for and even support

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When I first began working in nonprofits, I was lucky to report to a CEO with some very clear policies.

One was the “Oops” policy, meaning that that errors are natural and not to be punished. What a relief to own your mistakes without fear of reprisal.

Another was that gossiping was not tolerated – no complaining about colleagues behind their back. If you think gossip is inevitable, think again. This mandate worked!

—  The third policy had to do with the problems that we brought to my boss’s attention. While she truly listened to my challenges, my boss told me up front that she would not always adopt my solutions – and she explained why that was so.

As CEO, my boss explained, she held the big picture perspective and saw our challenges differently. Her decisions were made within a larger context, where she had to weigh many considerations.

If she didn’t accept my solution to a challenge, it wasn’t because I was not taken seriously or under-valued – it was because the solution did not account for other factors.

The pressures of finding adequate funding, allocating resources, sustaining high program standards, managing the board, addressing hiring issues – and probably a dozen other things often took priority in decision-making.

In the big picture, other mission-driven demands took the front seat.

I think about this CEO’s philosophy whenever a colleague worries about volunteer mangers leaving the profession. There seems to be a belief that moving into a different role is a threat, a sign that the challenges of our profession are driving people away.

Like my former CEO, I see things differently.

Colleagues who leave the profession aren’t giving up on volunteers. They are trying to find their place within the big picture. They are looking for a way to serve that is the best fit for their talents and beliefs.

Sometimes these departures work to the benefit of nonprofits. I’ve already written about how volunteer management is ideal preparation for leadership. A former member of my Leadership Circle is preparing herself for that very role, having returned to grad school for Public Administration.

Sometimes, though, we leave because we’re drawn to a very different purpose. In my current Leadership Circle, I asked the members to set overall goals for their time in the program. One participant’s goal is to phase out volunteer management and pursue a life-long desire to write.

It’s not that this person doesn’t enjoy the work – this individual excels at volunteer management. Instead, it’s a question of shifting into a role that’s personally meaningful, with the potential to develop new talents.

On top of all that, there are many volunteer managers who are committed to the profession. In VolunteerPro’s 2020 Volunteer Management Progress report, 41% of respondents had 10 or more years of volunteer management experience, and 16% of respondents cited a tenure of 20+ years. Clearly, many of us love this work and plan to stay.

When I first blogged about volunteer managers becoming nonprofit directors, the late Susan Ellis left a comment. She was quick to point out that volunteer management may not be a profession, and that the skills we acquire will inform what we do moving forward. Susan said:

I have long said that the jury is still out on whether this is a profession or not — but it is definitely a SPECIALTY. And people can’t ‘leave’ special skills behind if they move to a different job title. Once you know the importance of volunteers and best ways to work with them, you will automatically continue to operate with those expectations.

Instead of worrying about turnover, let’s plan for it.

  • Let’s make sure that those entering the field receive solid training in volunteer management practices.
  • Let’s pursue leadership training, so that colleagues may develop their talents in whatever direction best suits them
  • Let’s continue to advocate for our volunteers, with the understanding that other big picture factors are also high priority

Volunteer engagement is one piece of the much larger movement towards positive change in our communities. A no from leadership or turnover in the ranks does not always mean that our work us not valued. It means something bigger is going on that we need to understand – and even embrace.



Love the profession AND want to explore your purpose? Attend my June 9 Seminar with Rob Jackson.  Hosted by NVAVA, it’s called Making Change Happen: Advanced Practices for Volunteer Managers. Click on the link for more details!