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Nonprofit Management

Unlocking the Mystery of Volunteer Retention

How Girl Scouts of Northern California is using advanced predictive analytics to inform its volunteer management practices.

Like many nonprofits that depend on volunteers to fulfill their mission, Girls Scouts of Northern California (GSNorCal) faces a growing challenge. As the number of girls involved in the program grows, so too does the need to retain volunteers year after year. With support from the Thrive Foundation for Youth, GSNorCal partnered with TCC Group to conduct a study using both predictive analytics and focus groups to answer the question, “What are the predictors of volunteer retention?”

With only 150 paid staff members, GSNorCal is dependent on volunteers to provide high-quality leadership programs to more than 50,000 girls in 19 counties. In 2012, approximately 8,000 adults lead Girl Scout troops and an additional 22,000 volunteers served in a variety of other capacities. Volunteer troop leaders contribute an average of 30 hours per month, while other volunteers work approximately 8 hours for the organization. Taking into account the average school year, during which most troops are active, this translates to $59.4 million for leaders and $43.56 million for volunteers per year (based on the 2011 value of volunteer time estimated by Independent Sector).

GSNorCal had already adopted many volunteer management best practices. For example, all volunteers go through a rigorous screening, orientation, and training process. They receive professional development opportunities to strengthen their knowledge and skills so that they can work with girls at different developmental stages. The organization also holds annual events to honor and celebrate outstanding volunteers.

Leaders of GSNorCal recognized that a combination of demographic shifts, national program changes, council realignments (the process of merging smaller councils into larger ones), and relatively scarce staff resources made it difficult to keep volunteers coming back every year. The organization hired TCC Group to mine its data and pinpoint ways to keep volunteers engaged.

The team collected data from 1,371 current and past volunteers through an online survey, which asked respondents about their backgrounds and volunteering experiences, as well as what the program meant to them. Using predictive analytics, TCC Group developed models that could accurately predict volunteers’ intention to continue with the organization. Based on the patterns that emerged, TCC conducted focus groups to gather further insights.

TCC Group’s analysis identified the experiences critical to volunteer retention—findings consistent with scholarly research on the topic (such as “Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers” by Mark Hager and Jeffrey Brudney, 2004), including:

  • Assigning volunteers to tasks that match their skills
  • Providing opportunities to share experiences with other volunteers
  • Supporting new volunteers
  • Informing volunteers through regular communication
  • Welcoming and respecting volunteers

Beyond validating existing research, TCC identified “retention predictors” for specific groups of volunteers. For example, volunteers that work with girls transitioning to middle school were at a greater risk of leaving the organization. In fact, survey results showed that only 21 percent of these volunteers intended to continue volunteering with the organization. Through the use of data analytics, TCC examined the unique interventions likely to keep this group of volunteers engaged and identified two pathways to successfully retaining volunteers. The first pathway outlines a route for volunteers who are satisfied with the amount of time they currently spend participating in activities and meetings. To keep this group engaged, it is important to communicate with them about Girl Scout activities on a regular basis through weekly mailings. The second pathway tracks the predictors for those who wish to devote more time and energy to the organization. In this case, it is critical to acknowledge volunteers’ contributions and make them feel appreciated. For volunteers along both paths, GSNorCal must ensure that they have a clear understanding of the values and benefits of being a volunteer.

GSNorCal is disseminating the results of the survey to its staff, volunteers, and board members. It is also using these findings to design new training courses and activities to support volunteers and increase retention. Council staff is acting on one of the most important predictors by more regularly communicating the benefits of being a Girl Scouts volunteer. In the future, it will use the results to inform a strategic plan and help the organization become a better place to volunteer.

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