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Organizational Traction – Volunteer Retention

Volunteer Management and Retention

According to the Council of Nonprofits, “Absent volunteers, many charitable nonprofits would not be able to conduct programs, raise funds, or serve clients.” There’s an extraordinary amount of quality work that simply would not get done were it not for volunteers.  Within the non-profit working dog industry, volunteers can be found throughout the organizational structure with job descriptions in administration, puppy raising, breeder hosting/fostering, puppy socialization, client services, training, kennel help, and much more. 

Due to the amount of support and value volunteers can bring to an organization, volunteer management and retention is a key factor to fulfill the organization’s mission and carry out its vision.  Volunteer retention is such an important part of organizational traction because of the money spent on marketing, recruiting, training, and replacing volunteers (Jamison, 2003).  With more thorough volunteer training, volunteer retention improves, and volunteer turnover decreases. A study of over 3000 puppies showed that the odds of success increased by 6.08% from 1st time raisers to raisers raising their 10th puppies (King, 2022). Retention of volunteer raisers meant improved overall placement rates. 

Volunteer management has four different aspects: orientation and training, refresher training, team building opportunities, and recognition. 

Source: VolunteerPro

Orientation and training are key for the development, motivation, and retention of an organization’s volunteers.  Providing volunteers with realistic expectations and actionable goals will help them to be successful in providing service and allow them to have the greatest impact.  Volunteers should always understand what your organization is asking of them. 

Not investing in a strong volunteer management program could lead to dissatisfaction. Jamison (2003) found that 40% of volunteers were dissatisfied with how they are managed and only 20% were pleased with how they were managed. While 41.5% of the volunteers surveyed did not finish the time they committed to volunteering at an organization. Never think of your training program as set in stone and it should always be a component of an organization’s business strategy.  Training is key for setting expectations, providing volunteers with motivation, and defining reachable goals. 

For an example of a successful orientation and training program, let’s look at onboarding, and training potential puppy raisers.  Before orientation and training begins, look at the staff needed to support the program, budgeting needs, and logistics for long-term success.  There also needs to be an understanding that these volunteers are not professional dog handlers and have different experiences and skills when it comes to the care and development of a dog.  This means staff need  to find ways to prepare and support each individual volunteer through the difficulties of raising a dog.  Because no two raisers are  alike, the initial training should allow for multiple ways to learn new skills, rules, and other aspects of the program.  King (2022) stated “organizations can seek to implement additional measures of support for first time puppy raisers, and hopefully improve success rates for all raisers over time.” Perhaps this can be achieved by developing a handbook, alongside guiding videos explaining how to do things, and creating a mentorship program between repeat raisers and new raisers. 

Members of ADI and/or IGDF can get access to Guiding Eyes STEP materials by emailing mmeunier@guidingeyes.org  

Volunteer management doesn’t end at the initial orientation and training.  Clear communication, additional training, education opportunities, support systems, and team building activities are an important part of keeping volunteers motivated, focused, and on goal. 

Guide Dogs Queensland found ways to provide volunteer support without having to overburden staff by finding a way to help resolve issues with volunteer communication. They created a volunteer website that allows volunteers to order food for program dogs, give volunteers updates on program dogs, allow them to schedule onsite appointments, and more. The website allows for volunteers to communicate directly with the organization and allows the staff to plan and meet volunteers’ expectations. 

Additional training/education opportunities could be providing quarterly in person lectures or webinars on topics of interest like client testimonials, updates on operational policies or changes (i.e. a change to kennel enrichment policy or update on puppy socialization), or testimonials from long-term volunteers. 

If a volunteer makes a mistake or does something outside of the organization’s core values or expectations, address it immediately with respectful and meaningful communication.  Create training plans to support the volunteer through the issue, or if needed, fire a volunteer if they are not the right fit for the job.  Don’t waste their time by not clearly communicating the issue, don’t be derogatory to the volunteer, or set the expectations too high.  Even though it is uncomfortable, it is not in the staff’s or volunteer’s interest to waste their time by being unwilling to have difficult conversations with them. If a volunteer is not suitable for their preferred role, consider finding alternative roles that meet your organization’s needs while enabling the volunteer to contribute – consider roles in puppy transportation, community engagement, dog enrichment or puppy socialization. Consider where your organization needs more support and see if there is a way to utilize volunteers to meet that need.

Team building activities between different groups of volunteers and staff are important to keep engagement.  This allows staff to become familiar with the work and value volunteers bring to an organization, while allowing volunteers to grow their network of support within the organization and volunteer community. 

Recognition is a way to express gratitude, gives validity, and celebrates achievements.  It can be big like an organizational wide celebration (i.e. volunteer of the year, volunteer with the most volunteer hours), or small like sending personal thank you notes to volunteer puppy socialisers after a litter goes out to their raisers.  It can look like inviting a breeder host family and a small group of friends to a puppy shower when mom is weaned and ready to go. The family gets to play with the litter and the puppies get another socialization experience. Recognition should also be keeping your volunteers up to date with the overall success of the organization.  This could be done by inviting raisers to graduations, or providing volunteers with a monthly or quarterly newsletter.

Volunteer management is an ever changing process but if done with thoughtfulness, communication, and clear expectations, it will build a volunteer program that supports the mission of the organization, and gives the volunteers a sense of fulfilment, community, and accomplishment.