Even when a volunteer program seems to be running smoothly, there can be major issues bubbling under the surface. Over time, as these issues accumulate, they can cause significant damage to your nonprofit organization. The good news is that there’s plenty you can do now to avoid common volunteer program pitfalls. Instead, plan to regularly check your program data and quickly address any problems that come up.
With the following volunteer program metrics, you can pinpoint exactly what’s going wrong (and right) and where you need to focus your energy—such as revamping your volunteer training and orientation, changing your management approach, or drafting more accurate volunteer job descriptions.
Throughout this process, your volunteer management software will be your best friend. Having a formal way to record and keep track of volunteer data is key to collecting, organizing, and evaluating your program’s health.
Retention and Attrition
Volunteer retention and attrition are two sides of the same coin. Both metrics point to how well you are keeping existing volunteers around from one cycle to the next. When your program has high retention, attrition (the rate at which volunteers defect from your program) will be low. When attrition is high, it may be time to evaluate your retention strategy.
Ideally, you should be aiming for a retention rate of at least 65 percent. Below that, you’re likely wasting money on recruiting volunteers that you’ll just as soon lose. Generally, it’s much more expensive to recruit a new volunteer than keep an existing one. So, it’s also in your financial best interest to retain your volunteers.
While there are many reasons someone chooses to volunteer, ultimately, a pattern of low volunteer retention likely means your volunteers:
- Don’t feel prepared to successfully complete their tasks.
- Don’t see the impact they have on your organization.
- Don’t feel satisfied or appreciated in the work they’re doing.
Use your retention rate in conjunction with other metrics to determine the next steps for addressing the cause of high attrition. You might, for example, reenergize your training program with planned interactive elements or improve your volunteer appreciation approach by hosting a quarterly appreciation event.
Even if your retention rate is high, a low recruitment rate can spell problems for your program down the line. You may not be in a position to grow your program or to replace any volunteers you lose.
Likely, your volunteer recruiting strategies and materials are not aligned with the needs of your audience. In fact, you may be targeting the wrong audience entirely!
Consider your ideal volunteer. What skills and knowledge do they possess? What tasks do you want them to complete? What level of investment do you expect from them? Where might you be most likely to find them?
If you find that your new volunteer recruitment is stagnating, consider investigating new recruitment avenues, such as:
- Corporate partnerships
- Word of mouth referrals
- University partnerships
- Community partnerships
Keep track of where your volunteers come from so that you can determine which sources are the most reliable and worth further recruitment. Consider using data analytics to target your efforts to specific markets. For example, if you’re seeing the most engagement with your university outreach marketing strategy as evidenced by a high email open-rate, you might lean into this approach. Focus your efforts on the channels that offer the highest return on investment.
In general, volunteer engagement can be defined by the frequency, duration, and intensity of a volunteer’s interactions with your organization. To measure engagement, look at just one or a combination of these factors. Ask yourself:
- How many hours per week does the average volunteer contribute? How many hours per year?
- What percentage of volunteers are also donors? What amount do they contribute to your organization each year? Do they take advantage of their employer’s matching gift resources? For comparison, fundraising research from Double the Donation found that 67 percent of donors volunteer in their local communities.
- How many volunteers show up to appreciation events? How many participate in optional, ongoing training?
- What percentage of new volunteers are referred to your organization by existing volunteers?
If some of these numbers are low, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in dire straits. Ultimately, there are numerous ways to measure volunteer engagement, and each volunteer population is different. To a certain extent, you’ll need to decide which of these measurements best applies to your program.
You know that running a nonprofit isn’t free. From startup costs to management and overhead to program implementation, you want to invest your nonprofit’s money in the areas that will have the biggest impact.
On the surface, it may seem like your volunteer program is saving you money with free labor and support. According to Galaxy Digital’s guide to starting a volunteer program, 77 million Americans volunteer, and their time is worth $167 billion annually. But if it’s run inefficiently, your volunteer program may actually be costing you a lot.
To ensure that you’re not hemorrhaging money while operating your program, calculate its return on investment (ROI). Your ROI tells you how many dollars go into the community for every $1 you put into your volunteer program.
You can calculate your program’s basic ROI by subtracting the volunteer value (total hours volunteered multiplied by estimated wage per hour) from your volunteer program cost (total staff, overhead, tools and materials, software, training, and development) and dividing the result by the volunteer program cost.
Return on Investment = (Volunteer Value – Program Cost) / Program Cost
While it may seem obvious, you should also measure your program’s health by your volunteer attendance. Maybe your volunteer attendance is stellar, or maybe it’s not. But if you’re not tracking attendance, you’ll never know.
Tracking volunteer attendance takes a concerted effort (plus clear policies) across your organization. We recommend using volunteer management software to make it as easy as possible for volunteers and coordinators to maintain up-to-date attendance records. Once you’ve collected and organized this data, analyze trends by specific programs and demographics. Then, you can pinpoint where attendance is lacking and how to improve it.
Usually, this is the result of simple miscommunication. Your volunteers may not understand the importance of showing up or be confused by a busy schedule. To address attendance issues:
- Ask each volunteer to commit to complete specific tasks.
- Reiterate the importance of showing up on time.
- Routinely check in with all volunteers about their workload and schedules.
- Follow up with volunteers with chronic absences via email and phone.
- Share an updated, easy-to-follow volunteer schedule.
- Assign volunteers to consistent roles and schedules.
- Make sure coordinators are reachable and contact information is readily available.
If clarifying communication policies doesn’t fix your volunteer attendance issues, consider conducting an in-depth evaluation or survey to identify the root cause.
Support Your Metrics with Surveys
In addition to collecting and analyzing your quantitative program metrics, it’s a good practice to regularly conduct evaluations and surveys to track changes in volunteer status, knowledge/learning, readiness, and satisfaction. You can supplement each of the metrics above with a well-timed survey that includes questions about:
- Retention. Within 24 hours of participation, ask: “Why do you want to work with our organization? Do you plan to continue volunteering with us? Why or why not?”
- Recruitment. During volunteer onboarding, ask: “What drove you to sign up? How did you find our organization?”
- Engagement. Once a year, ask: “What are your motivations to volunteer? What do you want to learn more about in our organization?”
- Impact. Each quarter, ask: “How do you see your work making an impact?”
- Attendance/Performance. Once a year, ask: “What makes you want to show up to volunteer? How can we better communicate with you? How can our organization better train and prepare you?”
Once you’ve decided on your volunteer program metrics, set initial benchmarks to refer back to as you collect more data and make thoughtful programmatic changes. Connect with other nonprofits working on similar causes to compare your numbers and share targeted retention suggestions.
Luckily, there are enough volunteers for everyone. Poor volunteer program health isn’t a sign that you’re losing to the competition. Rather, it’s a chance to leverage metrics throughout your nonprofit to make long-lasting, effective improvements.