An animal shelter in the Northwest was having difficulty with retention and distribution of cat volunteers. Many volunteers came for orientation and mentoring, but never returned after that. Many of the volunteers who did stay long-term were clustering on days and at times when there was not very much work, while the shelter was understaffed by volunteers at times of great demand. The shelter approached me to help them understand the problem and recommend solutions for better volunteer staffing.
I designed a straightforward ethnographic study of the cat volunteers in which I observed volunteers at work in the shelter (often while I was volunteering myself), spoke informally with volunteers about shelter procedures and policies, and conducted formal interviews.
I discovered that there were many volunteers who had been at the shelter for a long time, and as a result, a very particular and ingrained culture of service had developed. For long-time volunteers, this culture was a natural product of their service to the shelter and the sense of ownership that came with that lengthy period of time. However, for newer volunteers, such a culture was sometimes alienating, as procedures that experienced volunteers understood tacitly were not communicated to newcomers. The entrenched shelter culture had an additional consequence that when shelter administration wanted to update procedures, there was often resistance from volunteers who wanted to continue to do things the way they had learned and had always done them.
Communicating Tacit Knowledge: One major source of alienation for new volunteers is that they did not know how things worked in the shelter, and the training materials for new volunteers lacked a lot of procedures that were tacitly understood by experienced volunteers. Because newcomers lacked the tacit knowledge of shelter workings, they often felt alienated and did not continue volunteering after their first few shifts. However, there are ways to counter this alienation, such as by reaching out to new volunteers, continuing with informal mentoring after the initial mentorship period, and gently suggesting things for them to do until they get a feel for the tasks and needs of the shelter.
Distributing Labor: I learned that the shelter was overstaffed with volunteers at certain times (typically early afternoons, when business is slow and there are not many tasks to do), while at other times there were not nearly enough volunteers to accomplish everything. For instance, weekday evenings were often quite busy with people coming after work to adopt an animal and with the chores (laundry and dishes) that need doing after staff fed the cats and cleaned the kennels. The main challenge in this area is that because of the longstanding culture among volunteers, people were highly resistant to having assigned “shifts” when they committed to being at the shelter every week. (I was told that “shifts” are for the dog volunteers, because dogs need to be walked on a regular schedule, and that it wasn’t appropriate for the cattery.)
However, this is an instance when experienced volunteers can exercise their cultural capital within the existing culture of the shelter. For instance, a new leadership program within the cattery opened a space for volunteer leaders to gently solicit help or recruit volunteers to times and days when they were needed. This solution also addresses the alienation of new volunteers by making them feel like part of a team from the beginning.