Sebastiana, 75 years ‘young’, is the housekeeper at #SOS Women and Family of #Uberlândia. Even at this age, she is hard-working and displays remarkable strength and resilience in exercising physical activities. Lamenting the weight of the years, she posed a simple, but profound question:

“Do women in the countries we come from work at her age?”

“Women never stop working.” I replied, considerately.

SOS Women and Family provides social, psychological and legal assistance to people who experience domestic violence, mostly low-income women living on the outskirts of town. In the words of a Chinese proverb: “Women hold up #half the sky.” Yet this is typically an aspiration as women are subjected to violence and indignity in large parts of the world. Thirty-five percent of women worldwide have experienced domestic violence according to #UN Women. National statistics from #IBGE show a violent reality: 70 percent of reported cases relating to violence against women in Brazil is committed within the household. SOS Women and Family serves more than 1,500 cases per year and embraces a vision of excellence for mitigating domestic violence.

Nearly two dozen volunteers contribute more than 150 volunteer hours per week, making the value of volunteer labour about R$57.600 (US$25,500) per year. Indeed, without dedicated volunteers, SOS Women and Family would not be able to offer in-house services and/or outreach activities for people who have no where to turn. Volunteers make all the difference, yet the organisation has struggled to keep  its volunteers while the increase in those seeking help means it must make more ends meet with less resources. In brief, SOS Women and Family asked Celanese to implement a plan for improved volunteer retention, which is key to the organisation’s sustainability and future growth.

To get a pulse on the organisation, we administered a #climate survey, which measured people’s responses in areas such as volunteer engagement, communication, job satisfaction, leadership/management and growth/development. In addition, we wrote a macro in Microsoft Excel that organises the survey results and displays them graphically, so they can be analysed at a glance. We designed the survey with sustainability in mind: it uses an online platform in Portuguese and can be repeated over time to track improvements in organisational climate. Last but not least, we were delighted that the survey received a response rate of 62 percent which is outstanding given the time constraints. Also, the results supported the feeling that we had to concentrate on communication and volunteer engagement as these received the lowest feedback.

Non-governmental organisations cannot practice volunteer retention per se as retention is the outcome of colourful activities and actions that continuously encourage people to stay. In our conversations with volunteers, it became clear that personal motivations and desires determine whether to stay or to leave.

Volunteers intending to leave do so in large part due to the prospects of gainful employment, or the pressures thereof, or other opportunities for personal/professional growth elsewhere. A key learning from personal interviews, however, has been that the volunteers are, indeed, happy volunteers. This is important because it means that they do not leave because they necessarily want to and would stay involved with the organisation if they had the opportunity. The goal must be to mobilise, energise and engage people in and around the organisation, which naturally leads to greater retention.

Accordingly, we designed a toolkit of colourful activities and actions such as newsletters, blogs, Facebook/Twitter pages, holiday cards, gifts, regular team-building exercises and public events. I am convinced that home-grown, organic solutions that are gradually implemented have a higher likelihood of success than ‘big’ solutions applied ‘top-down’.

We worked closely with volunteers and slowly, but steadily, discovered the things that work given the limited resources and local realities. The result is a set of micro-solutions more sensitive to the wants and needs of people affiliated with the organisation such as employees, volunteers, alumni and/or followers on social media.

We learned about and witnessed firsthand the harmful effects of family violence, which gave the work a special personal meaning. I sincerely hope that we have succeeded in making a real difference, which enables the organisation to better serve the happiness, freedom and peace of families and people in Uberlândia and beyond.

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of 10 blog posts by team members of the first Celanese International Impact Program to Uberlandia, Brazil.