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Are you looking after your volunteer workforce?

3 min read

As one manager of volunteers put it, “I spend one third of my time recruiting, one third training and one third managing and retaining volunteers”. Whether this quote is exact in its estimation of the time spent on recruitment and retention, it is typical of anecdotal reports about the time and energy expended finding and keeping volunteers.

Volunteering is popular. The recent survey on voluntary work carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2007 estimated that 5.4 million adults had volunteered in the previous year. However, it cannot be assumed that there is a surplus of volunteers. Volunteers commonly seek roles that meet their needs, which range from the philosophical to the practical. For instance a person may choose to support a particular cause or they may be have more practical needs and choose a role based on the number of hours, or the level of responsibility required.

It is now widely accepted that the initial motivation to volunteer does not remain the same once a person has begun to work for a particular organisation. This is reflected in the literature and research on volunteering. For instance, the Australian Journal on Volunteering has published a number of research articles that discuss the motivations for volunteering and the importance of volunteering in their lives.

Methods for attracting volunteers are becoming more sophisticated. There is a plethora of strategies employed. Universally the most successful method is by word of mouth. At the other end of the spectrum, similar strategies to the paid job market can be found. These include web search engines, such as GoVolunteer, and advertisements in local newspapers and radio. There is also information and referral services attached to state volunteering peak centres and volunteer resource centres, all with the express purpose of helping organisations and volunteers find each other.

Once the volunteer has been engaged resources need to be invested in strategies for retention. This includes identifying opportunities for volunteers to be included in regular consultation and decision making, to ensure that volunteer contribution both individually and collectively is accepted as a valuable contribution to the culture of the organisation. Just as in the commercial sector, retention of valued staff, in this case volunteers, is essential for the smooth running and productivity of an organisation. Resources spent on training, support and recognition of volunteers then becomes a critical link between recruitment and retention.

We are becoming quite familiar with figures that express the economic value of volunteering. It is estimated that Australia’s volunteers contribute $70 billion to the economy each year. On the other side of the economic argument is the cost of unwanted turnover when staff, both paid workers and volunteers, leave an organisation because they feel undervalued or there are sub-standard practices in place to manage and keep them engaged.

Most private sector company CEOs agree that their biggest single business expense is the cost of human resources. When skills, talent, experience and corporate knowledge walk out the door, the cost of replacement should not be ignored. This concept is not well quantified or understood where it applies to volunteers.

The cost to replace a paid worker involving processes such as recruiting, screening, interviewing, orientating, equipping and training can be significant. For instance it has been estimated that within the SACS sector, the estimated costs to replace an employee in a $45,000 position per annum, can amount to over $17,000. While we are unaware of any equivalent costing for volunteer turnover, the principles are the same because the strategies and tasks needed to replace a volunteer worker are similar.

We know from the latest National Survey of Volunteering Issues 2008 that a large majority of volunteers surveyed, feel their work has a positive impact on the particular cause and work of their organisations. Equally volunteers felt their volunteering increased their sense of community belonging. This is a strong message to organisations that volunteers want to feel their labour makes a difference in the wider world.

Volunteering is different to paid work and the motivations people have initially, change over time. The basis of successful programs is based around the definition and principles that form a solid foundation which:

  • protects the integrity of volunteering
  • distinguishes it from other citizenship activities and other forms of unpaid work
  • recognises the diversity of volunteering
  • recognises in an inclusive way the values underpinning volunteering
  • provides the sector with a framework to promote and advance volunteering.

It may be that what volunteers seek is a marriage between the protection and respect offered by human resource management and the ideals of community development and social inclusion. A good place to start when thinking about your volunteer workforce is to think why volunteers are involved in your organisation, what they get out of volunteering for your cause and what they get from you in return.

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