“Retention is ENTIRELY about running a strong, vibrant program
and engaging your membership”
- Lt Col Dan Routier, GA Wing
A few months back, I was talking to the senior cadets in my unit about retaining cadets, doing interesting things, and making the time we spend together as a unit quality time.
By way of example, I said to them “Look at what we’re doing here tonight. What is there about tonight’s meeting that is so interesting or excellent that it would compel someone to give up their Thursday night and be here?”
One of the cadets raised her hand. “Drill, sir?”
I pointed to one of the flights (we have three) sort of aimlessly attempting to wear a path in the concrete of the drill hall floor in the armory in the guise of “drill.”
“Put yourself in their shoes, sergeant,” I said. “How many of those cadets are standing there thinking ‘Wow, this is awesome! I’m missing [insert a favorite activity or TV show] for this!’?”
Sort of a collective “oh!” went thru the assembled cadets.
I felt like I’d whipped out a top hat and magic wand and shouted “Abracadabra!”
The more true statement, however, is that retention is really not magic. There is no magic wand or top hat. It is actually a relatively straightforward recipe that is repeatable, over and over.
As a squadron commander, I always found that recruiting truly was the “easy part.” But keeping the people we had? That was always a more difficult balancing act until we hit on a few basic tenets that helped guide us.
Here are some concepts to get started with building an interesting and vibrant program that will retain members:
1. Involvement - Give people things to do! New members want to do something. They did not join CAP to stand around a meeting room with a cup of coffee and “shoot down their wrist watches” (senior hangar flying) or wear a path in the drill hall floor night after night (cadet drill & ceremonies). (former cadet here: “doing things” with new cadets does not equal “marching in circles.” Sorry to burst any bubbles here, marching without training value is so boooooring!)
Pair them up with a member who is more experienced, if even only slightly. You’ve just given your new member a mentor, and their mentor now has someone they can help along, especially if they just recently went through this very training or indoctrination process themselves recently.
Capture that initial enthusiasm and involve your people in doing dynamic things every week, every month, every quarter.
2. Communication. Get everybody in the unit in the loop. The monthly schedule, meetings, policies, activities, events and other goings-on of the unit.
If your unit isn’t communicating with the membership on a weekly basis, consider doing that. Don’t immediately assume “Everybody should know this,” because if someone missed the meeting where that was announced, then they probably don’t know that.
Use every avenue at your disposal (Facebook, website, email, phone, radio, carrier pigeon… well, ok, maybe not that last one) to ensure widest possible dissemination.
Communicate things as far in advance as possible, too. Sending out an email 12 hrs before an activity announcing a change means that less than half of your members will actually get the message.
3. Make CAP time quality time. Nothing says “I just wasted my Saturday afternoon” like attending an ill-planned activity where people are wasting time rather than doing something. If your unit is going to plan a weekend event, a training class, etc, then you need to put in the effort to make this the best use of the time possible!
When you conduct training or some kind of activity, have a schedule. Have a plan. Know who is doing what. Plan it in advance, don’t wing it! Nothing says “unprepared” like a training event where a two dozen people show up to find that the building is locked (or worse, in use by someone else), the instructors are poorly prepared and don’t grasp their subject areas, or they discover they weren’t told to bring a key piece of gear.
Make the time and effort your members spend every week, every month, worthwhile for them. People want to contribute time if they feel their efforts are actually doing something.
4. Professionalism. Professionalism when it comes to retention is a loaded word, but it boils down to consistent leadership from above and building a consistent set of expectations.
Its means doing what you say you’re doing and following through with that so members can count on the unit, the mission and their fellow members be actually doing things that are meaningful, important to the organization, and in the service of the nation.
5. For cadets: Get them in an airplane! A fairly consistent theme we hear from departing cadets (the 5 or 6 percent who actually do respond to the national exit survey, and anecdotally the cadets we ask at the squadron) is “I thought we would fly more.”
If you have an airplane assigned to your unit, work hard to get more than one orientation pilot up to speed and then fly the wheel pants off that plane! If you don’t have a plane, work with your higher headquarters (group or wing) to schedule and coordinate a big “fly day” event for you and your adjacent squadrons a couple times a year. Make a whole aerospace training day out of it if you can.
These are just a few things you can do to help retention. It really can be this easy. Truly.
But honestly, it is really not magic.
Lt Col Darin Ninness, CAP
National Recruiting & Retention Manager