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How the Red Cross Reduces Churn by Nurturing Volunteer Relationships


There’s no question that volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 64.3 million Americans volunteered 7.9 billion hours of their time in 2011. However, most nonprofits fail to manage all of these volunteers effectively—30 percent of volunteers who donate their time one year fail to do so the following year.

Successful nonprofits understand that fostering authentic relationships with volunteers is crucial to reduce churn. Technology can help facilitate this process by automating the volunteer nurturing process.

In this article, we highlight how the American Red Cross, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and Big Brothers Big Sisters use technology to forge deeper connections with altruists that lead to lasting partnerships. Smaller nonprofits can use the lessons highlighted here to nurture their own volunteer relationships, improve retention rates and move closer to their mission goals.

Provide a Social Platform to Encourage Participation

The American Red Cross provides disaster relief, health and safety services, services to armed forces and their families, lifesaving blood and international humanitarian services to people in need. Volunteers comprise 94 percent of the organization’s workforce, so strong relationships with volunteers is crucial for the Red Cross to be able to mobilize quickly when disaster strikes.

In the past, Red Cross chapters used their own individual systems to connect and communicate with volunteers. In 2012, however, the organization rolled out a custom-developed volunteer management system to unify all chapters.

Raymond MillerRaymond Miller, regional volunteer services manager

Raymond Miller, regional volunteer services manager of the Central Texas Region, says the system has tremendously improved the ways in which the organization engages volunteers.

“One of the goals was to provide an area for volunteers to stay connected with one another,” he explains. “Certain groups of volunteers—disaster relief responders, for instance—are dormant until they’re called to help in an emergency. We wanted to give them a convenient way to stay in touch with their community, as well as to review new volunteer opportunities and easily access resource documents.”

The Red Cross’ internal system houses a custom volunteer management database called Volunteer Connection, which volunteers use to communicate with one another. Once they’ve created a profile and logged into their account, volunteers can interact with other volunteers, share photos and schedule social events.

Screenshot of Red Cross' Volunteer Connection

The Red Cross Volunteer Connection system

“We’re currently working to make the system the main source of communication with volunteers, so we have an initiative to get 100 percent of our volunteers to login by January 1, 2014,” Miller says.

To entice volunteers to use Volunteer Connection, the Red Cross is pushing to make news and volunteer opportunities available exclusively within the system, as opposed to other shared platforms such as Google Drive and Dropbox.

This provides volunteers with an incentive to log in for important updates and chances to participate in Red Cross communities, both online and offline. A volunteer’s experience impacts their level of involvement, so when that experience is positive, they’re likely to participate more than once and volunteer long term.

To further encourage volunteers to embrace the social platform, Miller says the Red Cross welcomes ideas on how to improve it. “We value feedback from our volunteers and have made it easy for them to report glitches and suggest new features with a ticketing system available right in the system,” he explains.

Since the system is new, it’s difficult to say how much volunteer retention has increased thus far, but Miller says it has definitely made a positive impact in his chapter. His 48-county region manages 1,200 volunteers, and every single one has logged into Volunteer Connection at least once. As volunteers use the system and interact more frequently, Miller expects they’ll participate more often and have an even more satisfying Red Cross experience.

Award Badges for Engagement

The U.S. Fund for UNICEF is committed to reducing the number of children who die each year from preventable causes from 18,000 to zero. To do this, they depend on a network of 65,000 volunteers to raise funds in order to support UNICEF in the delivery of lifesaving interventions, such as water purification tablets and malaria medications, to children in need.

Many UNICEF volunteers in the U.S. are students. Campus Initiative and high school club members are driven by students who educate, advocate and raise money by arranging Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF and UNICEF Tap Project events, benefit concerts, writing letters to elected officials and participating in other fundraising campaigns. Their online Action Center helps the organization cultivate their relationship with this group of volunteers.

Rachael Swanson MizunoRachael Swanson Mizuno, director of volunteer and community partnerships

“Technology is great for outreach, relaying information and nurturing volunteer relationships online. We also strive to build volunteer relationships offline at conferences, leadership councils and other events,” says Rachael Swanson Mizuno, director of volunteer and community partnerships at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. “We use the system to get the word out to the clubs about opportunities to engage with UNICEF and other volunteers.”

Within the Action Center, which volunteers log into via the main website, UNICEF staff respond to inquiries from club officers, and volunteers ask questions, respond to comments and share stories in the forums—all of which helps foster a sense of community.

Mizuno says it’s difficult to create authentic relationships with so many volunteers, so they’ve tried to interlock online and offline experiences as efficiently as possible. The Action Center, she explains, is what helps bring those experiences together.

To persuade volunteers to log in and participate regularly in the Action Center, UNICEF created activity badges. Volunteers who accomplish specific tasks are honored with a badge on their online profile.

UNICEF volunteer profile page.

Action Center volunteer profile displaying badges earned for participation

Everyone who logs in received their first badge—the Login badge. In total, there are 12 badges volunteers can earn:


The Badge Program is a recent addition, so it’s too soon to measure its impact on volunteer participation, but early feedback indicates it is well-liked by volunteers. UNICEF high school clubs have a high percentage of volunteers who participate more than once, and there is very little churn. Some in this group even move on to engage in higher levels of the organization, such as becoming members of Campus Initiative clubs and UNICEF’s Next Generation.

Automate Call Lists to Track and Maintain Outreach

Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs children (Littles) with adult mentors (Bigs) who become their friends and role models and help empower them to succeed. Since Bigs develop personal relationships with children, the nature of the relationships between volunteers and the organization’s match support specialists is typically more direct than most nonprofits.

To help Bigs build great relationships with Littles, match support specialists rely less on digital communication and more on phone conversations and in-person visits to give volunteers the assistance they need to see their commitments through to the end and beyond.

Big Brothers Big Sisters urges their match support specialists to remember there is a story behind the numbers by reminding them—and their volunteer mentors—that every Big/Little meeting is making a difference for a child. The higher the volunteer retention rate, the greater the impact on the lives of children the nonprofit strives to help.

“Many of our Littles are facing adversity, such as poverty, hunger and mental health issues, or living in foster care,” explains Jolynn Kenney, director of quality assurance and program performance for the organization’s Washington state chapter. “Few mentors have experience dealing with the issues important to children in these situations, so we stay in constant contact to coach them and help them build genuine relationships with Littles.”

With 630,000 children and volunteers, however, Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies must rely on technology to keep track of these relationships. The organization’s specialists make hundreds of calls to Bigs each month to check in on their progress.

To make this process more efficient, the organization uses a management system called AIM, which automatically generates and delivers call lists to agents. Bigs are initially called monthly when they first begin, then quarterly or more frequently as needed.

During these calls, specialists seek to learn about the recent successes and complications in the Big/Little relationship. They ask about activities the pair has done together, how the relationship is progressing and if the Big has noticed any qualitative changes in the child, such as showing more enjoyment in school or making new friends.

Specialists may also arrange activities for the pair or help the mentor navigate a situation when they’re unsure of what to do. At the end of the call, they can schedule follow-ups and record notes in the system’s records.

Kenney says that before the system was in place, Big Brothers Big Sisters didn’t have a universal system to track communications with mentor volunteers. Individual agents were good at tracking their own cases, most often using Excel worksheets, but there wasn’t an easy way to share records and ensure accountability.

“Now, progress is recorded and we know the mentors are contacted on time and have what they need,” she says.

In the five agencies Kenney works with, the Big monthly contact rate is 90 to 100 percent. In 2012, 70 percent of mentor volunteers at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, one of the agencies she directs, completed their 12-month commitment and either continued the relationship with the same child.

Providing opportunities for volunteers to connect, receive support and share their stories with other volunteers reinforces a sense of community and helps promotes true relationships that persuade them to stay involved. Technology provides the platform to do so efficiently, helping to improve volunteer retention rates and advance your nonprofit’s cause.

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Janna Finch

About the Author

Janna Finch joined Software Advice in 2013 after 12 years of managing a boutique web development agency she founded with her husband. She attended the University of Colorado - Denver, and has a strong background in web usability, information architecture and translating techspeak into language everyone can understand.

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