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Basic Literacy & Numeracy

Volunteer Recruitment and Retention: Eliminate Barriers to Placement

October 11, 2023

In the first blog article of our Volunteer Recruitment and Retention series, we examined why people volunteer. Let’s recap: To successfully recruit and retain volunteers, the recruitment messages need to address the many reasons people want to volunteer. We need to ask volunteers what they want out of their experience and we need to utilize them in a role that matches their reason for volunteering.

That all makes sense, but now let’s talk about something that many programs have dealt with: when new volunteers don’t complete their training or take assignments. It can seem a little baffling, but when you take a step back and look at the big picture, you’ll see that literacy programs spend a lot of resources recruiting new volunteers and then immediately put a lot of barriers in place that prevent volunteers from getting started. Here are a few:

  • A one-year commitment. Many programs ask for a one-year commitment for instructional volunteers. They ask for a year because it is important to provide consistency in the student’s educational experience. But, as we learned in our previous blog, asking for a year commitment is one of the factors preventing people from volunteering.
  • 15+ hours of pre-service training. What if you wanted to learn guitar because a lot of your friends play and you thought it would be fun, but first your guitar instructor spent a month teaching you scales and music theory? You’d probably want to quit. Instead, if your instructor could teach you a three-chord song that you could master quickly to play along with friends, you’d have fun and keep learning. For some volunteers, taking the 15 hour pre-service workshop is the equivalent of spending a month learning music scales when what you really want to do is play guitar with your friends.
  • 1-1 tutoring. We know 1-1 tutoring is an effective way to work with a student, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone—especially those who volunteer for social reasons. Placing them in a 1-1 tutoring situation is the exact opposite of what they are looking for. Having sole responsibility for a student learning to read is a huge amount of responsibility—not something that is appealing to someone looking to escape the pressures of everyday life. For that matter, if the student stops showing up, the volunteer may not understand and take it personally, which could lead to them leaving your organization.
  • A focus on instructional volunteers. As a field, we tend to limit our thinking about volunteers to instructional volunteers. Recruitment efforts, support systems, training, and recognition of volunteers are all focused on instructional volunteers. But not everyone wants to be a tutor or instructor. Sometimes this focus on instructional volunteers is because of how programs get funding and who they can count or not count in reports. But, consider how valuable an administrative volunteer who came in once per week to call tutors for updates would be. Most programs would love that, making the volunteer valuable even if you don’t get credit or funding for them.

Is there a way to break down these barriers and see more volunteers finish their training, take positions, and stay with our program a long time?

We think there is a perfectly good option. Consider the concept of team volunteering.

Team Volunteering

We often think one role or one function is equal to one volunteer. But, if a small team of volunteers was assigned to one role, we can overcome many of these barriers. For example, when I worked in a local literacy program we had reading, writing, and spelling classes at multiple levels. Classes were 10-15 students and were taught by a team of 2-3 tutors.

If one of the tutors is unable to attend, there would still be two other tutors to provide instruction, meaning students don’t miss out. This allows for flexibility and periodic absences when life gets in the way …

A team of three tutors teaching a multi-level literacy class would share the responsibility. If one of the tutors is unable to attend, there would still be two other tutors to provide instruction, meaning students don’t miss out. This allows for flexibility and periodic absences when life gets in the way, and volunteering becomes more appealing to someone who was unsure whether they could make a consistent time commitment.

Team tutoring can also shorten the pre-service training process, because more experienced tutors in the team can offer on-the-job training and mentoring. Volunteers get to engage with each other socially, but also receive an immediate support network.

This concept can go beyond the classroom to 1-1 tutoring. Consider combining tutor-student pairs—two tutors working with two students—in effect forming a small group. Tutors can still concentrate on working with one student, but if one of the tutors can’t make it for a night or a month, the other tutor is there to work with both students until their teammate returns.

Beyond instructional teams, recruiting teams of office volunteers to answer phones, complete student intakes and initial assessments, call tutors, and work on other projects can benefit a program.

At a program where the team structure has been used:

  • Reluctant volunteers ended up not only completing their training, but staying longer than the year-long commitment.
  • The team structure allowed for expanded services. If a new class was starting or the program needed to stay open on a new night, an experienced volunteer would head a team of new volunteers.

Think about how you might use these strategies to expand your pool of volunteers. In the next blog we’ll look at some strategies for keeping tutors engaged when they don’t have a student to work with.