Ditching the word “Retention”? Hell no!

I recently read a provocative blogpost by a respected leader in the Volunteerism field – Rob Jackson from UK. His blogpost – “It’s Time to Ditch the Word ‘Retention'” made me sit up and think –  http://robjacksonconsulting.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/its-time-to-ditch-word-retention.html. What? Ditch the word retention? I disagree on a lot of what he writes and here is my (friendly) rebuttal: 

-In my experience, the retention part of the volunteer management cycle is the most important and yet seems to get the least amount of interest and focus. Volunteer management discussions and conferences have been dominated by the topic of recruitment and screening (how about we ditch the word screening? That I would BE 100% behind!), instead of the topic of retention. The topic of retention needs to be grappled with (hence, Rob’s article is a great start!), to ask and answer questions about impact, retention rates etc. 

-While I 100% with Rob that the most important factor to analyze when assessing the worth of your volunteer program is the impact that your volunteers make, and there is not necessarily a direct correlation between impact and retention. However, a strong retention rate means that you aren’t using up as much resources (time and money) on training new. A strong retention rate also can mean that volunteers are more invested in the organization and more knowledgable about the mission, which means that the quality of their work will be better. Not only are volunteers volunteering, but more more importantly, volunteers are ambassadors for the organization. Their knowledge and passion for the mission, as well as the fact that they are long-standing volunteers, is inspiring to others who hear about their involvement. This inspires others to get involved – to volunteer or donate to the cause. 

-I don’t think retention necessarily comes just from a well-managed volunteer program. Beyond that (because the first step is a well-managed volunteer program), my experience has been that the biggest factor/strategy for volunteer retention has been: 1.  having a diversity of volunteer opportunities, so people can stay involved in volunteering even when their life changes. For example, someone may not be able to continue in their 2 hour a week in the middle of the weekday role because they now have a job and can’t make this kind of commitment. However, they still want to be involved, but need opportunities that make this possible. Episodic volunteer opportunities are WONDERFUL ways to keep people volunteering and retained when they can’t make a long-standing time commitment. 2. Connected to this, COMMUNICATION with volunteers and past volunteers, so they know of the opportunities to get involved and they can stay in touch with the organization. My strategy has been to do a monthly “Friends of…” e-newsletter that goes out to everyone, present, past and future volunteers, donors, anyone who comes to events etc. People can read the newsletter and decide when to jump in and when to not (but still be in-the-loop in terms of whats happening).

    What I am trying to say is: for me, retention is not about volunteers doing the same role for years and years.  For me, retention is about making the organizational culture flexible and inspiring so that volunteers want to be involved throughout their life. Their involvement will look different depending on their circumstances, but they are still connected and involved in some way. They could be an ambassador, a donor, an episodic volunteer, an active volunteer, a supporter, a member, an advocate – the possibilities are endless if we are creative and open about what involvement looks like. 

 So no – please lets not ditch the word retention. Instead, lets infuse the word with new meaning and new inspiration that fits with todays volunteer landscape.