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Is Your Nonprofit Losing Members? Maybe It’s Not You

Lori Halley 21 October 2010 4 comments

Busy modern lifestyles mean limited time for volunteer and membership activities after work and family obligations. And many common-interest groups or associations that were formed in pre-Internet days, for the main purpose of sharing information that would have been otherwise hard to come by, are dropping members in droves, now that the Web offers the world’s wisdom to anyone who cares to google for it.

Nonprofits know all this, and have been re-tooling their programs to offer more “value” in the fight to recruit and retain members.

But there’s another reason why your nonprofit's membership may be declining – the other members!

Take the case of a youth hockey coach who quits part-way through his first season of volunteer service, because he’s getting too much abuse from certain over-competitive parents of the young players in the organization. 

Or the community soup kitchen that just can’t seem to keep volunteers. They peel veggies for a few weeks and then drift away – not because of the work or the constituents served or anything to do with the way the organization itself is run, but because of one sharp-tongued kitchen helper who makes new people feel inadequate and unwelcome.

Or the charitable organization that must rely on the same small core of members to run all of its fundraising events, because new members tend to volunteer once and not step up again.

  • Were those newbies isolated at the event, stuck handing out programs at the gate, while the old-timers appropriated to themselves all the “fun” jobs?
  • Were they were thrown in too deep, too soon – set to man an information booth and field public questions for which, as new members, they didn’t yet have the answers?
  • Did anyone else even talk to them?

We know that one of the most powerful reasons why people join and volunteer with any organization is for the social aspects. A sense of shared purpose. A sense of connection, in this increasingly wired but humanly disconnected world...

We also know, unfortunately, that there’s an unattractive side to human nature that has a way of showing up whenever people are brought together in groups: the tendency to guard territory and power. And it’s a fair bet that in any organization, you’ve got at least one “old hand” whose need to control is, well, out of control.

If an established member feels threatened by a competent new member and reacts with hostility or unfriendliness, it may be damaging your membership rolls or your cause more than you know.

When new members come into your nonprofit, filled with enthusiasm and energy, the organization may welcome them warmly – but what is their experience really going to be like, once they get working in the trenches?

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Thursday, 21 October 2010 at 3:08 PM


  • Joanne Fritz said:

    Thursday, 21 October 2010 at 9:25 AM

    What a great topic, Rebecca. This happened to me!  I volunteered for an organization and got assigned to the computer lab that served members so I could help newbies.  The volunteer in charge of the lab told me, when I showed up, that she did not need any help. She was very curt and unfriendly. I left and never went back. The volunteer coordinator did not call me to see what happened. That was that as far as I was concerned.  What a waste!

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Thursday, 21 October 2010 at 4:24 PM

    A stellar example, Joanne. No doubt the volunteer coordinator had no idea why you didn't go back - and just think what a simple follow-up get-feedback phone call might have accomplished for the organization! Your story also hints at some pretty profound communication problems within the organization, doesn't it?

  • Beth Steinhorn, JFFixler Group said:

    Friday, 22 October 2010 at 2:18 PM

    We agree completely that many nonprofits are experiencing a major change in the way their members and volunteers are behaving -- and we also have seen organizations successfully shift their volunteer engagement practices to more effectively engage new volunteers and keep them around! For example, organizations can proactively engage veteran volunteers as mentors, coaches, and team leaders for new volunteers and then they are as invested in the newbies' success as the new volunteers are. Organizations also can restructure positions to better meet today's volunteers' interests: Many volunteers are seeking brief, short term assignments or are interested in using their skills in more collaborative roles with staff (as a marketing consultant, HR resource or coach, a graphic designers, for example). By engaging new -- and experienced -- volunteers in these ways, organizations can build their capacity by using volunteers as a vital resource for skills.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Saturday, 23 October 2010 at 5:24 AM

    Great ideas there, Beth: thank you! I particularly like the idea of bringing in the veteran volunteers as mentors, so the success of the "newbies" becomes their success as well.

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