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How non-profit organizations can boost volunteer retention with a CRM and automation

The positive work that non-profit organizations do regularly brings in top volunteer talent and donations. It’s no surprise that people feel drawn to contributing to society and want an active way to participate.

However, the initial motivation that drives individuals to sign up in the first place often diminishes over time and, for one reason or another, they end up leaving. In the US, the average volunteer retention rate is 65%, meaning that a third of new volunteers will quit within one year. This is also without taking into account seasonal outliers such as the holidays. 

To look at it another way, a good retention rate in the private sector is considered to be around 90%. While comparing volunteer labor to paid work is like comparing apples to oranges, the real-world effects felt by the organization really are the same. 

It is a huge challenge for organizations to retain the same level of operational efficiency if they have a high turnover rate and can even impact their ability to carry out their mission. The opposite also holds true, where a better retention rate of highly motivated volunteers improves ROI and the organization’s overall performance.

Understanding motivations

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Understanding the motivations behind why people sign up in the first place and what causes them to leave is key to reducing turnover. 

Why do individuals volunteer?

There’s no one reason that an individual is motivated to volunteer. Common ones include:

  • To meet new people
  • To stay active
  • To meet academic or workplace requirements
  • To gain experience
  • To build their network
  • To gain a sense of wellbeing
  • To make an impact and help others 

Short-term volunteers

The individual motivations themselves can tell us a lot about how long they are likely to stay. For example, individuals who are doing it to build their network, meet academic or workplace requirements, or to gain experience aren’t going to last too long. 

Once they get what they need, they’re likely to move on. As an organization, this isn’t something you should frown upon—but it is something that you should prepare for. Knowing the extent to which they’re going to be committed from the beginning allows you to plan projects that can naturally come to an end without disrupting your organization. 

Long-term volunteers

The volunteers who sign up to help others or meet new people (in terms of building their personal community rather than their professional network) have the potential to stay longer. If this is combined with individuals whose main motivator is to stay active—meaning the lack of financial income won’t limit their ability to continue volunteering—that’s even better. These are the profiles that can lead to long-term collaborations. 

And yet it doesn’t always work out that way. 

Reasons for leaving

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For the short-term volunteers, it’s inevitable that they’re going to leave. However, there are common points that arise for both the long-term and the short-term volunteers that could maximize how long they stay.

Not understanding their impact

Most volunteers are motivated to a greater or lesser degree by the idea that they’re making an impact. According to a 2017 Deloitte study, 75% of working millennials would take part in more volunteer opportunities if they knew what impact they were having. 

This is also a reason that many leave. If you’re doing more menial volunteer work, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. In the end, the boring work loses all meaning and can lead to feeling under-appreciated. 

Unpleasant experiences and burnout

First impressions matter and if volunteers see the organization as being disorganized and chaotic, they are unlikely to stick around. For those that do, they may eventually experience burnout, which is generally the result of bad management or unclear expectations. 

Conflicts with volunteer schedules

Many volunteers also have full-time jobs that eventually clash with their volunteer work. Likewise, if large lifestyle changes like a breakdown in a relationship, moving house, or even a new job take place, then the volunteer may find that they wish to move on. 

What is a CRM and automation?

Before we move onto different approaches that can help you boost retention or minimize the impact of turnover, it’s worth exploring what the tools are that can help you. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, CRMs (Customer Relationship Management) are platforms that centralize all your processes and interactions with customers to provide a more efficient and personalized service. 

They have unlimited tools and applications, but one of the most exciting is automation. Automation refers to any series of actions that can be carried out by a machine with little to no human intervention. More often than not, automation is applied to sales or marketing efforts, but it also has a wide range of other applications, including project management, customer support and, in this case, retention.

Leveraging the power of CRMs and automation

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There’s no one answer to boosting retention among volunteers. It’s a complex issue that requires understanding the diverse motivations behind signing up in the first place. 

That said, your CRM can be a fantastic asset in helping you achieve this, particularly automation. Most of us are already familiar with automation to a certain extent—we might have a few email campaigns or something similar set up. 

But the true potential of workflow automation goes far beyond simple email campaigns (as effective as they are). If properly thought out, it can be used to address many of the key issues that influence if volunteers stay or not. 

Let’s explore its potential in a few scenarios. 

Training and onboarding new volunteers

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While volunteers are there to serve, they also need to gain something from the experience. Often, this takes the form of learning new skills that may stand them in good stead in the future. 

The opposite is also true as a common factor in volunteer disillusionment is due to disorganization and lack of training. Having a robust onboarding and training process set up can keep them feeling fulfilled and boost volunteer retention. 

Key components

  1. An onboarding sequence of emails. Begin by welcoming them to the organization and outlining the good work they will be involved in. Send a new email every day for the first week, highlighting a different aspect of what you do. Mix stories of how people’s lives have been changed with more mundane aspects of what’s necessary. Your goal is to make the new member feel part of something bigger and understand the overall organizational vision. 
  2. A training course. There’s no reason this has to be overly complicated. Ideally, you would have an individual within the organization they can talk to directly. The course would serve as a means of speeding up the process by initially explaining different areas and following up with quiz questions. 

Providing better regular updates

Keeping everyone in your organization up to date on what is going on is perhaps the easiest and most effective way to boost retention. If you aren’t already, you should be sending regular newsletters to everyone in your organization. 

But what’s in the newsletters is even more important and needs to be carefully considered. Personalization, which is the defining aspect of modern marketing initiatives, is also vital here. 

Easy ways to make it more personalized are by using custom values to use individual names, etc. However, you can also highlight key data that you have gathered on your CRM over the previous month that highlights the work they’re doing. 

Providing ongoing reports on progress with clear facts and figures is much more likely to provide a sense of working towards something bigger and boost volunteer retention as a result. In fact, many of the tactics used to build engagement among leads can be adapted to boost retention. 

Project-based volunteer commitments

As a non-profit, turnover is going to happen. While you can take steps to improve retention, the 90% statistic that the private sector aims for simply isn’t realistic. 

Instead, you need to work harder than your private-sector counterparts to make your processes more agile and reduce the impact of high turnover. How do you do this? 

There are, of course, many approaches, but one of them involves uploading project briefs onto your CRM with clear start and end dates. 

If volunteers are just “there” indefinitely, there’s a feeling that they can leave at any time and it doesn’t matter. In reality, when someone leaves, it causes a lot of organizational stress. However, by creating briefs of projects that volunteers can either assign to themselves or be assigned, you’re giving them the responsibility and ownership of that project—without it feeling never-ending. What’s more, once their name has been attached to the project, they are less likely to drop out half-way through and get the satisfaction of “completing” the project.

You can turn absolutely anything into a project, whether it’s helping out at an event or writing content for the website. With projects assigned different commitment levels and a centralized location for recording processes, they can be passed on to new volunteers with minimal disruption and allow individuals to gain more diverse experience.

Exit surveys

When someone does leave, it is a prime opportunity to gain valuable information. There’s no way of knowing what you can do better without gaining feedback. 

This is where exit surveys come in. Exit surveys allow you to gain unbiased feedback that can transform how you approach recruitment and internal organization to boost retention. By understanding the reasons your actual, real volunteers are going, you’ll undoubtedly gain insights into adjusting your strategy. 

The potential of CRMs and automation to boost volunteer retention is there. It’s up to you and your organization to look at the platforms that are out there and develop strategic approaches to achieve your goals. If you’d like more information about how could help you to streamline your internal processes and boost volunteer engagement, satisfaction, and retention, please reach out to us today!

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