April 03, 2008

Volunteers are people too. (Or, "Some of my best friends are volunteers")

Yesterday I made the huge decision to resign from the Open Directory Project where I have volunteered thousands of hours of my leisure time over the last 4 and a half years. It was part of my daily life, and the people I met from all over the world made it an intense and enriching experience. I would encourage anyone to give it a go, so here's a more detailed guide to becoming an editor.

In fact I belong to several volunteer community organisations, all of which struggle to attract and keep active members, just like the ODP does. So as I suddenly have lots of free time I decided to check what research had been done into volunteer retention.

The most-quoted study was undertaken in 1998 by the UPS Foundation. The report itself does not seem to be available online, but this site has a succinct summary:
In a national study on volunteerism done by the UPS Foundation, Manage My Time Better and I’ll Give You More, the second most frequently cited reason for ending volunteer involvement - following conflicting personal reasons - was the “Poor management of volunteers”.

40% of these volunteers stopped volunteering for an agency at some time because of one or more poor volunteer management practices. Volunteers felt that the organization was poorly managed, their time was not well spent, the experience was not a good use of their talents, and tasks were not clearly defined. 9% said they were never thanked.
Following that study, UPS went on to publish a guide to the effective management of volunteer resources.

Extensive research was carried out by The Urban Institute in 2003, involving 3,000 charities in the USA. This report is available online, as a PDF download entitled "Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers".
Although they studied only one type of organisation, the findings have a more general application, and I'm sure the following excerpts will ring true for any volunteer.
Some Practices Tied to Greater Retention of Volunteers, Some Not.
Charities interested in increasing retention of volunteers should invest in recognizing volunteers, providing training ... and screening volunteers and matching them to organizational tasks. These practices all center on enriching the volunteer experience. Management practices that focus more on the needs of the organization, such as documentation of volunteer numbers and hours, are unrelated to retention of volunteers, even though they help the program to realize other benefits.

Charities Can Do Others Things as Well to Maximize Volunteer Retention.
Volunteer management practices are only part of the picture. In addition to adopting certain management practices, charities can provide a culture that is welcoming to volunteers, allocate sufficient resources to support them, and enlist volunteers in recruiting other volunteers. All of these practices help charities to achieve higher rates of retention

My summary
Look after the volunteers and respect them, and they will stay.
Ignore them or discount them and they will leave.

Seems obvious, really. ;-)

[Added: An unfortunate reaction to the above research findings necessitated further explanation of them in my subsequent post.]


Unknown said...

Sooo true, mak ;-) - nice article.

Ted Knight said...

Thanks, mak. To borrow a phrase from real estate developers, volunteer energy needs to be put to its highest and best use, and respect and intelligent management are essential to reach that goal. The guide from UPS is a good resource, thanks for sharing it.

ODP misses you. Those of us who stay on, as well as the new ones who may be joining us, will do well to emulate your example.

Unknown said...

Well, I learned from others. That's the way it works. :-) But thank you.

Unknown said...

I have published the above comments as being representative of the support this blog post received from former editing colleagues. However, grateful as I certainly am for further support, the post does not relate to me in particular and I feel its point may be lost if I publish comments which are directed to me. I do appreciate the kind comments, so I apologise for censoring in this way. I hope you understand.

Unknown said...

This post and the subsequent one have gained a lot of attention within the ODP editor community, and I sincerely hope they will help to re-focus attention on the need for volunteers to support, guide, and encourage each other. Naturally, there will always be people who dismiss such efforts as unnecessary, and others conversely resentful over a perceived lack of personal assistance. Comments have been sent reflecting these polarising points of view, but they are too specific in nature to publish here, and discussion about them belongs within the editorial community. Alternatively, I am always willing to respond to personal emails on this important subject.


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