Start a continuing ed program and watch your volunteers stick around

The secret sauce that retains volunteers - Twenty HatsWhat does a continuing education program do for your volunteer base?

Besides educating your volunteers, it’s the secret sauce that boosts volunteer retention.

That’s one of the great lessons I learned while managing volunteer training for Fairfax CASA.

CASA volunteers are required to complete 12 hours of continuing education each year in order to remain certified as advocates. The mandate keeps volunteers current on issues related to child abuse and neglect.

What I discovered was that our continuing ed program did much more than educate the volunteers: it also helped create a sense of community and belonging that kept volunteers engaged.

One year our volunteer satisfaction survey included over 125 (overwhelmingly positive) comments about continuing edeveryone had an opinion about it—compared with only a few dozen comments around other questions. I knew that our program was on the right track when our volunteers found so much to say about their learning.

Ditch Your Appreciation Event?

Some volunteer programs get really bold with continuing ed. Take Lori Baker, who recently retired as head of a program that trained tutors to work with adult learners. Lori used to schedule in-services instead of volunteer appreciation events because “my volunteers kept sharing the same feedback – that what they really wanted to do was spend time together and share with each other.”

Lori’s solution was to make her in-services as relevant as possible and give the volunteers plenty of input. For one workshop on the revised GED, the volunteers did some advance reading, took parts of the revised test themselves and then met together to develop tutoring strategies.

“My volunteers liked to get their hands dirty,” says Lori. She made sure that her in-services combined unstructured time for volunteers to meet and share with structured, project-based time.

CE is Doable

That combination of learning and sharing went a long way at Fairfax CASA, where the most popular events were  the roundtables, where volunteers met for lunch to swap notes and informally discuss a topic.

If you want to add some continuing ed to your volunteer program, rest assured  that it’s easy – it’s mostly a matter of scheduling and coordination. Besides roundtables or special trainings, you might think about:

  • Book clubs
  • Movie nights
  • Speakers
  • Field trips

Ultimately, a continuing education program shows your volunteers that you hold them to the same professional standards as your paid staff. That sends the message that you value your volunteers by expecting more from them. And by expecting more, your program gets much more in return.

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Send your volunteers back to school. It’s the secret sauce in volunteer retention,