Volunteer Retention in the SCA

This article is a companion article to my Volunteer Management in the SCA and my Volunteer Development in the SCA articles, and is a step beyond the items covered within both articles. If you have not read these articles, please do before going forward with this one.

Being able to recruit people to the SCA is a much needed skill – new people to the SCA bring in new ideas, new energy, and their own experience. A lot of the energy that we typically do in the SCA is getting people through the door – because if we’re excited, then maybe, our new folks will also be excited. While I don’t want to knock recruitment efforts, because they are important, part of our institutional memory is tied to people who have been with the Society for any length of time.

At the same point, we all know the stories of “I asked if I could help, and I was turned away,” or “I was told I was too new,” or any number of similarly frustrating stories of volunteering to help, and that offer not being taken up. Is it frustrating? Yes. Might there be a reason why offers of help may go ignored? Absolutely. Are there ways around this? Yes.

What, telling willing volunteers that “we have it covered” over multiple occasions leads to them not volunteering? Whaaaaaaaaa?

So, I’m sure you’re aware of the problems that face volunteer retention, and as both my Volunteer Management and Volunteer Development posts detail information, this post will be even more directed at keeping people involved in the SCA, though, that said, attacks of life happen, and those attacks of life should not be held against potential candidates for orders, especially if that attack of life is out of the control of the individual. We all deal with attacks of life, and to have that held against people, especially if the attack of life is temporary is patently unfair. Don’t be that guy, please.

I am sourcing a lot of these from nonprofits and groups that work heavily with nonprofits outside of the SCA for a couple of reasons: one, reinventing the wheel on something that is an issue every volunteer-based organization deals with is generally a bad idea, and two, what these organizations do right to keep volunteer attrition down is a huge thing that we can absolutely try to emulate as an organization.

So, let’s start with the bad news: burnout.

Volunteers burn out on being volunteers for a lot of different reasons.

  • Burnout: Volunteer burnout is a real phenomenon that can cause volunteers to quit. Volunteer burnout is usually caused by stress related to volunteering conditions. Burnout is caused by several factors, including lack of role clarity and unmanageable volunteer schedules.
  • An Unpleasant Experience: First impressions are important. A disorganized, poorly-planned, or otherwise negative volunteering experience can dishearten volunteers and discourage them from participating with your organization again.
  • Disinterested or disconnected: Volunteers can lose interest in an activity over time. They can also become disconnected from your organization’s core mission, causing them to lose sight of the volunteer activity’s value or purpose.
  • Busy schedules or life events: Life events, such as busy schedules or moving home, can cause volunteers to quit. These events are usually out of your organization’s control (but you can take steps to provide a supportive environment).
  • Feeling underappreciated: Volunteers like to know their work is making a difference. If volunteers feel unappreciated or undervalued, they may feel like their efforts don’t matter.

It’s a lot of bad news. Burnout leads to attrition, which leads to institutional memory loss, which leads to vision loss as an organization. So, how do we keep that from happening?

The number one item on every list I’ve seen is Keep Volunteer Retention In Mind From The Start. This means that every activity, at every level of the organization, should keep in mind that volunteers can literally spend their time anywhere else. The reason you want your volunteers to keep coming back and keep working and finding joy in what they do is because they want to. (and our platitudes about how “do the SCA because you find joy in it” is important, but we can do a lot to nurture those feelings of joy and fun, too.)

Ways to keep retention in mind can be as simple as asking questions (“how’d you find us? What do you like to do?”) because that can help us connect our new (and returning) folks with people who can be the lanterns on their paths. They’re good data points. Another way to help keep retention in mind is by Giving a Good First Impression. You never know who is seeing interactions, either off- or online, and our first impression is going to be what should not only be in the recruiting basket, but in the retention basket, too. So, the first time a new person comes in, not knowing what the SCA is, and wears an item that is out of place – your first reaction may be to correct them, but instead of doing this, welcome them in with open arms. People can and do figure things out quickly that the Society is not a fantasy game, but at least let people enjoy their first day and find magic in what we do. In short, don’t ruin someone’s first look into the Society. (and if you do have to tell them something, please be kind, or at least tell the people who might have introduced them, who might be able to have a better gauge of how to broach the subject). Alternatively, if you know the person is new, you can state what the SCA is, the time period/areas it covers, and then invite that new person to aks questions. In short, go at the speed of the new person, not at the speed you’re comfortable with.

The next part of this is developing your volunteers, also at all levels. Knowledge outside the SCA is still valid knowledge. Some people come into the SCA with knowledge not gleaned from the SCA, and we, should remember that just because the knowledge base exists elsewhere that it’s just as valid as what has been learned in the SCA, and that if the tools work for the job, but need a bit of refocusing, that it’s okay. For example, I grew up around nonprofits, and both of my parents did special events for said nonprofits for a living. As a result, I frequently logged anywhere from 200 to 400 volunteer hours a year from the time I was 10 to the time I was 18, and when I found the SCA at 24, I was more than ready to pitch in and help (I did; serving feast at my very first event). Did volunteering around churches and medical nonprofits completely fit in with the SCA? Of course not. But also, tools like knowing when to ask if I could help, or knowing that help would be needed do fit in with the SCA. The best thing we can do is if we know people have the tools to help, to support them in doing what they want to do, and if they have questions answer them.

If you have volunteers that have been around for a while, that’s when you can start looking at what they know and how to start talking about matching their skill level to what they’re volunteering for. Joe Newbie is probably not ready to take on event stewarding a large royal progress event, but suggesting that they take on a smaller part of the event, such as running an activity or being a deputy to a more experienced player may be a good idea. (though, if your new person is an events planner modernly. . . there’s a lot that they can do all on their own. These are the transferrable skills I’m talking about!) This is where asking questions about skills and comfort levels at the get-go are truly beneficial. If someone wants feedback, give them feedback. If they don’t, keep your opinions to yourself.

Provide support systems. If you want people to take jobs, be open about what the job entails. Give guidance as to what can happen (but maaaaybe keep the horror stories to a minimum). If people are wanting more responsibilities, it is the job of Peers to assist in moving out of the way to make way for newer generations. If you want more people to play, enabling our newer volunteers to take roles with help will reduce reliance on those already recognized and will help our newer volunteers to become more established and how to learn things. Will mistakes happen? They absolutely will, but part of the point with making mistakes is to learn something. And for some of us who grew up with Miss Frizzle, we know that sometimes, we have to take chances, make mistakes, and get dirty – and that’s also critical for growth in any organization. (and frankly, if the SCA/your kingdom/local group cannot survive a small mistake that is easily rectified, it is far more fragile than it has any right to be. A lot of things are fixable.) People will have questions, and they need questions on how to do things answered.

At the same time, be clear with expectations and how you communicate with your volunteers. No one wants to guess at what’s going on in regards to how a volunteer is doing, but we put volunteers through this with our polling orders. No one also wants to guess about how to do events. I’m not saying that we should abolish our polling orders, but not giving volunteers an idea of how their progress is going is a problem – no one wants to be in a long, dark, teatime of the soul on how service is being perceived. We can absolutely do better with this. Transparency and communication go a very long way here.

Another thing we can absolutely do better with is by offering more honest feedback and recognition for a job well done, and if you’re already going “but the Crown/Coronet will do it!” you’re already not in step here. Court dockets can get full quickly, and honestly, if we’re all volunteers, we all need to do our part in encouraging others to stay. Tokens, kind notes, enabling people with supplies. . . we can make this happen, but we have to all pitch in to the best of our abilities. People are far more willing to give if they are invested but not abused; cherished, but not made a pawn; loved for who they are while also giving them space to find ways to grow and learn. Don’t badger people for why they don’t have awards or things you think they need, but be willing to make space for them to figure things out on their own. As long as it’s not destructive, harmful, or hateful, let people be.

Be flexible. The SCA’s volunteers have busy lives outside of your organization, just like you. Be as considerate as possible when creating tasks and allow volunteers to schedule their own shifts that fit their lifestyle, their budgets, and their physical and mental abilities. We should not demand so much of our volunteers that in order for them to be formally recognized it results in physical and mental pain nor place an undue financial burden in an already expensive (both from time and financial perspectives) hobby.

Provide options for volunteers to help (“thank you for volunteering for this – we have this covered, but we do need help with <insert activity here>”), as this gives options and proves to your volunteers that you will find a place for them to do a job and to be helpful – otherwise, if a volunteer has been rebuffed too much, they won’t volunteer again, and you’ve lost out on a skill set that could come in handy down the road. The same goes for badgering people for why they don’t have awards or things you think they need, especially for established players. If you think they need something, and you are in a position to make it happen, ask if you can help.

Staying in touch on what people are doing also gives an idea of what activities are out there and how to prepare people for taking on bigger jobs that are far more important to the running of one’s kingdom. This is why our reports are so vital to helping direct volunteers and to find people who can help in the event of something catastrophic, but also knowing who is available to help, even if it’s only advice, also helps provide support. It tells your volunteers that they are valued for more than their time – it also tells your volunteers that you want them around. Ask people to take roles, but understand that they can and should also say no, depending on what else is being balanced in their life outside the SCA.

Lastly, give volunteers a push to their professional lives. Yes, the SCA is in a lot of ways a game, and a hobby, but it is also complex enough, and the skills that people learn in the SCA are also transferable skills. Do you know someone who is looking to move up in the world, and needs that one push? The things about work ethic and skills (both hard and soft) can be communicated to other professionals about the volunteers that we are literally surrounded by.

“But Konstantia, I’m only one person! I can’t do all of this by myself,” I hear you say. You’re right. But you can start small. Give wordfame, publicly. If you’ve done a job, consider teaching a class on how to do the job or task. Can you help someone make inroads into helping with an event? Can you write a thank you note? If asked for feedback, can you give it honestly but kindly? Can you welcome someone in with open arms, no matter their appearance or awkwardness?

If you can, you can help make our volunteers feel safe and secure. That is how we keep people in the Society.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.