An examination of why search and rescue volunteers in the UK leave their organisation: practical and theoretical implications

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  • 1 School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Portsmouth, , UK
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The majority of existing literature on search and rescue (SAR) membership examines the many apparent advantages that involvement in such work brings. However, it is equally relevant to ask what might inform decisions to leave SAR teams. This article examines the complexity of leaving decisions among SAR volunteer members by surveying 52 individuals who left their teams between March 2016 and July 2018, including follow-up interviews with eight participants. Analyses revealed that leaving decisions among SAR personnel reflect those made by other groups, with issues such as time constraints, interpersonal relationships and the task being incongruous with expectations being highlighted. However, an additional layer of complex decision making was indicated, which shows members tended not to leave right away in response to external pressures – rather, they would enter a stage of heightened sensitivity to what would otherwise be mundane problems. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

Abstract

The majority of existing literature on search and rescue (SAR) membership examines the many apparent advantages that involvement in such work brings. However, it is equally relevant to ask what might inform decisions to leave SAR teams. This article examines the complexity of leaving decisions among SAR volunteer members by surveying 52 individuals who left their teams between March 2016 and July 2018, including follow-up interviews with eight participants. Analyses revealed that leaving decisions among SAR personnel reflect those made by other groups, with issues such as time constraints, interpersonal relationships and the task being incongruous with expectations being highlighted. However, an additional layer of complex decision making was indicated, which shows members tended not to leave right away in response to external pressures – rather, they would enter a stage of heightened sensitivity to what would otherwise be mundane problems. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.

Introduction

In the UK, voluntary search and rescue (SAR) teams assist the police and other authorities to search for vulnerable missing and lost persons as a near-free resource. Very little work has been done to understand this group and, crucially, no dedicated study examines why such volunteers decide to leave. Research focused specifically on those involved in mountain rescue reports high levels of volunteer satisfaction and feelings of belonging (Nichols et al, 2014), factors thought to support retention. The organisation of SAR teams generally suggests that they too will share these features of membership; however, so far there is no evidence to support this assumption, with the question of membership retention – a problem for other voluntary organisations – remaining unexamined in relation to SAR. This article will explore SAR volunteers’ leaving decisions and in doing so consider the extent to which examining leavers, rather than ongoing active members, can be useful in understanding the SAR experience. It will consider how this discussion can both learn from and add to existing perspectives on volunteering, especially within the emergency services we increasingly rely on to support increasingly strained statutory agencies (Boulton et al, 2017).

Factors influencing SAR membership retention are potentially very complex, with the direction of their influence – especially in high stakes, emergency service environments – potentially being even more unpredictable than elsewhere. There is also potential that some quite elementary factors will overshadow these complex concerns. The aim of this study was therefore to examine the reasons for leaving provided by SAR members who were no longer part of their unit, and in particular to highlight the complexity of these decisions. The aim was met by adopting several objectives:

  • reviewing existing literature to establish the extent to which reasons for leaving SAR echo the complexity pertaining to other voluntary contexts;

  • conducting an exploratory survey examining the extent to which the entire experience of membership interacts with leaving decisions for SAR;

  • interpreting survey and interview findings to examine the extent to which leaving decisions are unique to SAR.

While UK police maintain overall responsibility for looking for high-risk missing people (Tarling and Burrows, 2004), under the UK Search and Rescue Strategic Overview (MCGA, 2020) volunteer teams can be deployed by police to search various terrain. SAR teams – which are usually formed as independent charities – recruit volunteers, hereinafter referred to as team members, who can attend live incidents once adequately trained. The disparate nature of the SAR community means it is difficult even to estimate the number of active volunteers, with some organisations reporting memberships of 1,350 (Lowland Rescue, 2017) and others over 5,000 (Royal National Lifeboat Institute, 2017), with others still providing no clear estimate. Notably, nothing is recorded on the average length of stay in role, nor understood about membership retention other than that it is of concern. The costs of replacing emergency service volunteers, however, can be high, with Beatson and McLennan (2005) finding that replacing firefighters can cost in the order of millions of dollars in time and resources each year.

SAR volunteering has several qualities that could be considered as risk factors for members deciding to leave. It is a 24-hour type of volunteering, with members being asked to respond to ‘callouts’ – a live search – at any time of day, in all weathers, often for extended periods and without any prior notice (Lowland Rescue, 2017). This can create additional burden, as those who work for an employer may have to ask them to leave their desk or explain fatigue, with the self-employed losing tangible work. Those with shared caring responsibilities may have to rely on families or carers to pick up the slack. In addition to callouts, SAR members are required to extensively train just to qualify to search, and then to maintain this training to remain qualified, further increasing demands on their time. The SAR volunteer population also tends to be older (Martens, 2017), and while retirement may reduce the impact of demands on time, volunteers may find themselves less able to meet the physical demands of the role.

Furthermore, team members are asked to perform roles in addition to the relatively exciting callouts, with fundraising expectations being placed on volunteers as a result of SAR’s reliance on donations to operate (Denver et al, 2007). While social aspects of SAR are often celebrated (Nichols et al, 2014), the organisation of SAR may be such that new members find it difficult to break into a core group, and that strong personalities may dominate discussions and decision making, potentially alienating new members (Lois, 1999). The relatively independent nature of SAR teams may also lead to insularity, and cause resistance to instruction or alternative viewpoints that could result in friction.

While these potential risk factors can be inferred from the organisation of SAR, research relating directly to SAR volunteers, their experiences and SAR organisational culture is rare. The most prominent studies were by Lois, who conducted ethnographic research with a wilderness SAR team in the United States (US) (Lois, 1999; 2001a; 2001b; 2003); by Nichols et al (2014), who surveyed UK mountain rescue; and by O’Toole (2013), who examined lifeboat crews. While other studies have examined the wider capability of SAR teams – for example, Denver et al (2007) surveyed all SAR teams in the US – these have not examined the volunteer experience, rather focusing on operational capacity, funding sources and level of training. For these reasons, it is necessary to consider SAR alongside wider volunteering literature, and specifically to consider decisions to leave.

Literature review

Volunteer retention research

As with any organisation, retention is crucial for SAR. Membership turnover represents a loss of key resources and expertise, as well as the time and energy invested into training (Omoto and Snyder, 1993; Gazley, 2013). This has led to a body of literature attempting to understand leaving decisions and examining factors that promote retention.

Gidron (1985) provides a distinction between: ‘stayers’, who remain volunteers for a long period; ‘leavers for objective reasons’, who do not necessarily wish to leave but are forced due to circumstance; and ‘leavers by choice’, who actively decide to leave. The primary difference is that the organisation cannot influence objective reasons for leaving but has more control over factors that influence decisions to leave by choice. This model has remained influential, used to examine volunteering today (Wilson et al, 2017), and informs modern discussions of volunteer retention (for example, Hvenegaard and Perkins, 2019). Hustinx (2010) found that Red Cross volunteers typically left due to external pressures.

A temptation with volunteering literature is to simply try to identify and rank the most important factors influencing decisions to leave or stay; however, such an approach overlooks various efforts to construct models of volunteerism (see Dávila, 2009). Put another way, understanding leaving decisions requires consideration of the entire membership process and how factors interact.

Omoto and Snyder (1993) attempted to create a volunteering model that accounted for all stages of volunteering, from recruitment to leaving decision, resulting in the volunteer process model. This predicted that a combination of interrelated factors would ultimately contribute to longevity of service, with initial motivation, attitude and support networks conspiring to influence both satisfaction and integration with the volunteer role. Chacón et al (2007) pointed out that existing models varied as to which factors would be more relevant, with functional models (which are about the volunteering being useful and enjoyable to the volunteer; see Omoto and Snyder (1993), pointing to satisfaction as a volunteer being most important, while role identity models (which leverage symbolic interactionist principles to do with how volunteering interacts with how volunteers see themselves and how they want to be seen; see Grube and Piliavin, 2000) predict that integration and identity conceptualisation will be more influential. Their own three-stage model found support for role integration being crucial, while also attempting to acknowledge other psychological and social factors (Vecina et al, 2012).

Despite these efforts, theories nevertheless point towards specific factors that seem especially influential in leaving decisions. Hustinx (2010) found that ex-volunteers typically identified one core reason for their decision to leave, despite theory indicating that decisions should be far more complex and interwoven. As Locke et al (2003) point out, however, there is disagreement among findings as to which factors are the most pertinent in enabling membership retention. Gidron (1985) identified task achievement, organisational relationships and the work itself as factors that, should they be satisfactory, meant volunteers were less likely to leave.

These factors have recently been explored in several contexts. Henderson and Sowa (2018) point towards issues with volunteer management among fire-rescue volunteers. Jamison (2003) suggests that volunteers leave either because of expectations being unmet, or due to ‘structures, processes and relationships’ being insufficient. Locke et al’s (2003) meta-review highlighted personal circumstance as especially influential, with organisational issues – for example, over-burden and undervaluation – being cited as the second most problematic issues. Thematically speaking, a reductionist view could argue that the theories seem to return to issues relating to satisfaction on the one hand and organisational issues on the other. A variety of subsequent findings, however, indicate again that leaving decisions can be complex and non-linear, for example that greater burden, if managed well, can increase commitment and thus discourage decisions to leave (see Nelson et al, 1995).

Search and rescue research

This idea of complexity, where one factor can operate to both harden and dissuade membership, can be hypothesised to be highly relevant to SAR.

First is the nature of the work itself. The literature recognises that key features of SAR work can result in an especially strong feeling of belonging, which, as seen from the general literature, is a strong motivator for ongoing membership. Nichols et al (2014) develop O’Toole’s (2013; O’Toole and Grey, 2016) suggestion that group membership becomes stronger if it is both ‘thick’ and ‘perilous’, applying this directly to mountain rescue volunteers. ‘Thick volunteering’ refers to a brand of voluntary work that is especially identify-forming and can be symbolised by things like wearing a uniform, non-civilian group features and assisting official authorities. ‘Perilous volunteering’ refers to voluntary work that presents a serious physical, emotional or personal risk to the volunteer. When combined, such as in mountain rescue, the identity-forming elements of thickness are magnified. Nichols et al (2014) emphasise the importance of this feature for the high levels of engagement, commitment and role-internalisation that can be observed among mountain rescue teams.

This is where the issue of non-linearity comes in. The same factor – high intensity of involvement, for example – might both promote and discourage retention simultaneously (Locke et al, 2003). Regarding SAR’s ‘thick volunteering’ (O’Toole and Grey, 2016), the high stakes, volume of training and high level of commitment required encourage ongoing involvement rather than discouraging it; however, it can lead to member burnout if not moderated. Furthermore, the notion of ‘thick volunteering’ itself assumes that all members of SAR teams experience such a feeling of membership. While many members who leave may do so because of other commitments, others may leave because of not feeling this ‘thick’ belonging. In considering this, the conclusions of Nichols et al (2014) can be developed with consideration of an earlier paper by Lois (1999), who found that feelings of membership within SAR groups, conceptualised as feelings of collectivism as opposed to individualism, are contingent on the individual member developing consciousness, for example recognising themselves as unimportant and that they are sacrificing their time and effort to the ends of SAR. The more committed a member becomes, the more likely they are to adopt the collective norms of the group, while those not displaying certain skills, commitment or attitudes may be rejected from the core group. Lois’s analysis explains how some members may never enter the ‘core’ of a team and thus never experience the level of thick membership that O’Toole (2013) and Nichols et al (2014) describe.

This is complicated further still when considering the role of the social aspects of SAR. The weight of general research indicates that social aspects of volunteering are highly important (for example, Brown and Ferris, 2007). Hustinx and Lammertyn (2003: 167) identify six dimensions that promote or discourage volunteering: ‘biographical frame of reference; motivational structure; course and intensity of commitment; organizational environment; choice of (field of) activity; and relation to paid work’. This model acknowledges that an individual’s view of themselves – their biography, or narrative – is of importance in encouraging ongoing membership. This view ties directly to SAR, and interacts with Unger’s (1991) breakdown of the complex role of altruism within volunteerism, which she points out is often cited by volunteers but often dismissed sociologically due to perceptions that, for various reasons, volunteering is not altruistic due to some benefit in prestige. As Ferreira et al (2015) explain, it is unclear where the line between true altruism and egoism ends. For Lois (1999), altruism within SAR is similarly fraught; SAR volunteers valued being seen as a hero, but any claim on that label for themselves was highly frowned upon – only the in-group could give out the label. Therefore, failure to achieve in-group membership meant being denied any right to claim the benefits of altruistic volunteerism (Lois, 1999).

This all indicates the potential for a complex tapestry of factors that influence SAR leaving decisions. However, this all being said, there is reason to suspect that some simpler factors will affect SAR leaving decisions. Some types of strain will be relevant to SAR that are not relevant for routine volunteering. First, it can be emotionally demanding beyond the general strain of commitment. Adams et al (2007) highlights the pressures imposed on searchers because of the time-critical nature of the search, that is, to find a person before they succumb to the elements or self-harm (see Koester, 2008). SAR teams routinely search for individuals who may be found deceased, which can result in severe mental strain for searchers (Kelly et al, 2014). Chng and Eaddy (1999) noted that sensation seekers are attracted to high-risk activities, meaning they might initially volunteer for SAR, but this same excitement can lead to burnout. As such, where the same factor can both encourage and discourage membership, other factors must be influential in encouraging retention. Huynh et al (2013) found that social support moderates trauma among volunteer firefighters, reiterating the importance of personal social structures and circumstances in preventing membership attrition.

In addition to mental strain, SAR can be physically demanding. Members are expected to traverse long distances, in any conditions, at short notice. While the physical demands of SAR have not been studied directly, Blacker et al (2016) highlight the intensity of the physical demands that search operations place on firefighters, while Jussila et al (2014) mention the discomfort that seemingly small considerations, such as removing gloves to use mapping equipment, can cause for mountaineers. As such, members may choose to leave should they feel unable to meet the physical requirements involved, for example due to injury or – likely more relevant to SAR – due to volunteers growing older. (Martens, 2017).

Gender issues have also been identified as a possible problem for the experience of SAR members. Leveraging Lyng’s (1990) concept of ‘edgework’, a phenomenon by which people will voluntarily engage in risky behaviour such as SAR, Lois (2001a) highlights that such risk-taking is associated with masculinity, and argued that this may result in the exclusion of women from such groups, with a hostile environment potentially prompting a leaving decision. In particular, Lois (2001b) identified trends where ‘feminine’ qualities, such as expressing self-doubt, were discouraged and could be interpreted as a lack of competence for SAR, whereas the more ‘masculine’ approach of exhibiting high self-confidence was aggrandised.

Method

To examine the decisions of team members who left their unit, a mixed-method research design was used, beginning with a survey and progressing to interviews to explore the concepts that emerged (Hesse-Biber, 2010). Such an approach allows qualitative data to take the lead and is a brand of exploratory design enabling exploration of under-researched topics such as this (Fetters et al, 2013). The approach consisted of two parts – an online questionnaire and optional opt-in interviews – with these being selected as instruments as they could meaningfully develop one another. The target population was any individual who had been a member of any SAR team in the UK who had left the organisation between March 2016 and June 2018. For the purpose of this study, team member means only those who were qualified to be deployed on a live search.1

Procedure

Access to the population was negotiated by contacting umbrella organisations, with gatekeepers approaching individual teams for approval. Gatekeepers were provided with a link to the survey alongside consent documentation and asked to distribute these to the target population. Due to the mechanism of using gatekeepers, it is not clear if all teams circulated invites to their ex-membership. Each team was also asked to provide an overview of their membership, with an indication of how many members had joined and left their team in the last 24 months. A link to the survey was also posted on relevant closed Facebook groups, generating a small number of further responses.2 The University of Portsmouth’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Science provided ethical approval, and gatekeepers within SAR were shown all documentation to obtain organisational agreement.

Instrument and materials

The questionnaire, created using JISC Online Surveys, featured 43 questions. Rather than adopting a pre-existing scale (for example, Hustinx, 2010), questions were developed based on the review of the literature and was bespoke for the SAR experience. Membership experience and factors affecting decisions to leave were measured primarily by inviting participants to express their level of agreement on a five-point scale. Qualitative questions were presented in an open format. The interview was an extended version of the questionnaire, utilising a semi-structured design, which allowed enough flexibility to reflect preliminary analysis of the questionnaires and the factors that had started to arise as most important in the interview questions. Interviews took place via telephone, were recorded and then professionally transcribed.

Response rate

In total, 36 SAR teams3 were contacted to take part in the project, with 11 returning membership information forms, giving a response rate of 30.5%. The questionnaire generated 52 responses. The overall membership turnover of SAR is unknown; however, based on the returned information sheets, the mean number of leavers was 12 per unit, which multiplied by the 36 units approached makes a target population of 432, giving an estimated response rate of 12.04%. While modest, the sample represents the largest set of SAR leavers to have been examined thus far. It has been pointed out by Cunningham (2001) that even short exit surveys tend only to have a 39% response rate.

Eight participants provided phone interviews, which lasted 41 minutes on average. It should be noted that interviews were opt-in, which has the potential to attract participants representing strong views or extreme experiences (Bhole and Hanna, 2017). This caveat should be noted when reading the findings.

Analytical approach

The responses to the quantitative questions were coded into IBM SPSS v25. Mean score calculations were used to identify and rank the most influential factors. It was possible to use T-tests and ANOVAs to test for significance, with the following independent variables: age; gender; number of callouts participants were asked to attend; proportion of callouts attended; amount of training attended; and amount of events4 attended. However, the modest, non-random nature of the sample size, and the exploratory, non-hypothesis-driven nature of the study, meant that it was most appropriate to report the findings descriptively for the most part, with a view to generating testable hypotheses and trends for future study on a larger scale.

Qualitative information, from the questionnaires and interviews, was subjected to a six-phase thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Data from the questionnaires (245 contributions5) and interviews were collated and categorised according to an initial reading of codes, leading to an initial coding frame. The data were reorganised and reread according to these codes until they could be grouped into coherent themes. The second author reviewed the themes, suggesting reorganisation and further collapsing based on their reading of the data.

Description of participants

Of the sample, 72.2% (n = 37) were male, with 28.8% (n = 15) being female. The most common age range when first joining SAR was 40–49 at 36.5% (n = 19), although the three age ranges around this – 18–29 (19.2%; n = 10), 30–39 (17.3%; n = 9) and 50–59 (21.2%; n = 11) – were also represented. Very few members were over the age of 60 (5.8%; n = 3).

On average, respondents had been members of their unit for 31.32 months, including time spent training. The number of months ranged from six to 168. Of the respondents, 29.8% (n = 14) had served for 12 months or less, 23.4% (n = 11) for 13–24 months, 23.1% (n = 12) for 25–36 months and the remaining 19.2% (n = 10) f or 37 months or more. The remainder of the sample provided no response.

Anonymity considerations prevent disclosure as to which particular teams respondents belonged to. However, it can be reported that respondents from 19 SAR teams and one dog team are represented. Many teams were represented by a very small number of respondents or a single respondent, while respondents from three teams made up 61.5% of the sample at 30.8% (n = 16), 19.2% (n = 10) and 11.5% (n = 6) respectively. This may be a result of some teams opting not to circulate the survey at the request of the gatekeeper. It should be considered that the responses may represent views more reflective of certain teams and geographies as a result of this sample bias.

Findings

Quantitative results

SAR membership

All but one unit had experienced membership gains in the past 24 months, with a range of growth between 6.12% and 138.71%. With one exception, all teams experienced membership turnover in the past year, from four to 19 leavers. All but two teams had more members join than had left; however, only three teams had a greater number of members who became operational in that time than had left. This indicates that, while there is a healthy membership growth, membership churn (Gazley, 2013) and loss of qualified personnel remain an issue for SAR. It should be noted that the low response rate for this element of the study means that these figures do not necessarily represent the complete picture of SAR.

Membership experience

Overall, although this was a study of leaving decisions, there appeared to have been high levels of participant satisfaction during SAR membership, as shown in Table 1. Average responses for all but two satisfaction questions fell between ‘agree’ and ‘strongly agree’, with members indicating few issues with general satisfaction, feelings of appreciation and appropriate opportunities to train.

Table 1:

Membership experience – Likert-scale results

QuestionNumber of responsesMean responseStandard deviationNo agreementDisagreeNeither agree nor disagreeAgreeCompletely agree
I felt the level of training offered was sufficient for me to feel comfortable in my role.524.59620.773571.90%0.00%5.80%21.20%71.20%
I felt that there was sufficient opportunity to maintain my competencies to remain qualified for my role.524.59620.74783.90%3.90%7.80%25.50%58.80%
I felt that my contribution to callouts was appreciated by the Police Search Advisor (PolSA).464.43460.860291.90%0.00%3.80%25.00%69.20%
I felt that my contribution to callouts was appreciated by other members of my unit.514.39220.801960.00%4.00%18.00%28.00%50.00%
I felt that my contribution to callouts was appreciated by the leadership of my unit.494.32650.8987932.60%10.90%13.00%15.20%28.30%
I felt that my unit provided me with, or otherwise allowed access to, a suitable amount of equipment to perform my role.514.31371.048626.00%6.00%14.00%14.00%60.00%
I had a good relationship with the other members of my unit.504.240.8935110.80%16.20%16.20%21.60%35.10%
I felt able to approach the leadership within the organisation.504.161.234870.00%3.90%7.80%33.30%54.90%
Any problems I raised were dealt with to my satisfaction.373.54051.406230.00%4.10%16.30%22.40%57.10%
Specific other member(s) of the unit negatively impacted my experience.462.95651.65940.00%4.30%10.90%21.70%63.00%

Note: Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

Leaving decisions

Table 2 displays factors influencing leaving decisions. Lack of time stands out as having the most ‘very strong influence’ responses by far and for scoring over a full mean point higher than the next closest result. Table 3 depicts the frequency of specific reasons associated with time that participants cited. The top-rated factors, except for ‘lack of satisfaction’, relate to logistical or practical issues impacting time or cost. The influence of ‘lack of satisfaction’ alongside ‘pressure to be involved in fundraising’ may also indicate issues with the type of activity members are being asked to engage in. Members who attended more training were less likely to perceive an issue with the number of social events. This finding potentially indicates that social needs can be met by training itself.

Table 2:

Factors influencing decisions to leave – Likert-scale results

Factor influencing decision to leaveNumber of responsesMean responseStandard deviationVery strong influenceStrong influenceMedium influenceSome influenceNo influence
Could not commit time necessary473.51061.6533544.714.910.66.423.4
Getting to callouts/training/events462.52171.5454513.023.96.515.241.3
Pressure to be involved in fundraising452.37781.4815415.68.913.322.240.0
Low level of satisfaction462.26091.4053010.96.528.36.547.8
Too much training462.08701.4579510.910.910.910.956.5
Travel costs462.06521.4360810.98.713.010.956.5
Conflict with other members461.95651.381738.78.713.08.760.9
Poor relationship with management461.84781.4902315.22.24.38.769.6
Lack of opportunity to advance or join specialist teams (for example, water team)421.80951.329554.814.37.14.869.0
Lack of team support471.76601.254784.310.610.66.468.1
Cost of acquiring and maintaining equipment461.73911.289876.58.76.58.769.6
Lack of positive relationships with other team members461.65221.119872.28.710.98.769.6
Issue with personal health/fitness471.61701.2946910.60.06.46.476.6
Too few social events461.50001.027404.32.26.513.073.9
Dissatisfaction with type of work allocated461.50001.048812.28.72.210.976.1
Lack of training461.34780.766450.04.34.313.078.3
Pressure to advance beyond role (for example, to team leadership)461.30430.839832.22.24.36.584.8

Note: Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

Table 3:

Reasons for leaving relating to time

Reason for leaving relating to timeCountExamples
Work7Running own business; job change
Generic6“Too little time”, with no further detail
New family4Pregnancy; newborn child
Family duties generally2
Too much training2
Too much fundraising1

Those asked to attend zero to two callouts perceived fewer issues with time, with an average score of 2.72, while those being asked to attend three to five reported a far higher 4.47 average for issues with time commitment. The issue of travel cost became greater as the requests for callouts increased, from an average of 1.412 for zero to two callouts, to 2.118 for three to five, and then to 3.00 for six to eight. Those being asked to attend many callouts (six to eight) were more likely to be dissatisfied with the type of work.

The patterns to do with time commitment and perceptions of burden were not entirely linear, however, with the percentage of callouts attended showing a pattern whereby members attending more than half of all callouts were less likely to perceive an issue with their ability to commit time, while those at 0–25% (m = 4.000) and especially 26–50% (m = 4.546) were likely to rate this as a very impactful factor.

The fewer events attended, the higher the likelihood the member saw time commitment as a factor influencing their leaving decision, with those reporting zero to two events attended showing means of 4.2, falling to 3.6 for those attending three to five events, 2.67 for those attending six to eight, and finally 1.00 for those attending nine or more events. While potentially unsurprising, it is interesting that higher event attendance is not viewed as resulting in a strain on time, whereas the smaller demand is. This could be interpreted in two ways in particular: (a) members who have time constraints are simply unable to attend fundraising events; or (b) the demand to fundraise increases perceptions of demands of SAR on time, pushing members to leave.

Furthermore, members with high attendance at callouts were more likely to attend a large number of events. This supported the observation that there was a small group of highly committed individuals who attended regularly and perceived little issue with over-commitment.

Qualitative data

Thematic analysis of both interview transcripts and the responses to the qualitative survey questions was carried out. Six themes emerged relating to the positives of membership while part of SAR, while five relating to leaving decisions were present.

Positive aspects of membership

Although the research was about leaving SAR, members went to great lengths to discuss the positive elements of SAR membership.

Being part of a team was mentioned consistently in qualitative responses, and is supported by accompanying high quantitative scores. Additional analysis revealed that teamwork was mentioned in several contexts: it related to friendship and belonging; contribution to a shared task; and shared values:

  • ‘Performing a public service as part of a skilled and friendly team’

  • ‘Comradeship and teamwork’

  • ‘working together as a team’

  • ‘the whole team focused on one thing finding the misper’6

There was a consistent theme of helping, with further thematic analysis indicating that this split in two ways. First, there was helping others – the missing person, their family or the community. This appeared to indicate a deeper theme of altruism and the feeling of reward that comes from this, although it should be noted that several participants took time to specify that no reward was expected and this was to be valued. Second, helpfulness also appeared to refer to contribution to a common effort:

  • ‘Helping vulnerable people’

  • ‘Being able to offer assistance to vulnerable persons’

  • ‘Team work and contribution to the role’

  • ‘… the want to help others’

The issue of skills was raised frequently. Again, additional analysis revealed that this was being mentioned in two key ways. One had a personal development aspect to it, referring to the acquisition of skills. The other was in terms of valuing the application of skills, existing or acquired, to the task at hand. This relates to the previous theme of contribution and feeling helpful.

  • ‘Putting skills I already had to good use for the community’

  • ‘Performing a public service as part of a skilled and friendly team’

  • ‘Being able to attend searches and apply the skills I had learned was also rewarding’

Taken alongside the idea of contribution, the ability to use skills for some shared goal appears to indicate that a deeper theme of feeling useful is central to the positive feelings members had towards their membership. The activity itself was also raised as a common theme. This might relate to being outdoors, but also to searching or to training. This appeared to relate to the members’ individual enjoyment of SAR and their work, on top of the general sense of satisfaction that emanated from altruism or teamwork. This analysis leaves us with the core theme of altruism, which was reflected by the consistent mention of helping vulnerable people and their families, without expectation of reward and regardless of success.

  • ‘Knowing that I helped to bring closure to a family even if we couldn’t bring their loved ones home’

  • ‘Being a member of a team dedicated to helping others, with no expectations of “glory” or reward’

  • ‘Helping people. Whatever the outcome’

All eight interviewees affirmed this theme of altruism and the nature of volunteering: ‘[I] think there is something about giving your time for a good cause that is just intrinsically rewarding.’

Decisions to leave

Respondents were asked a series of questions about their time with SAR, and about their decision to leave. The results from the questionnaire indicate several key trends that can give insight into leaving decisions.

Cost of SAR membership

In line with quantitative findings, the primary reason given by leavers was a lack of time. This could be extrapolated to an overall theme relating to the burden of membership – not only time but also monetary cost and wellbeing issues were considered together, albeit with time being viewed as most crucial. Specific time-related reasons were provided as shown in Table 3.

Interviews revealed that members did not make the decision to leave as a simple cost–benefit analysis. They would attempt to remain for as long as they could, despite time or financial burden. For several members, a process by which they came to perceive smaller issues as more problematic than they previously had, became evident. In other words, the presence of membership burden would make it more likely that members perceived small issues about SAR to be problematic, ones they would have discounted otherwise. As one member put it, it was these small factors that would “break the camel’s back” and result in the leaving decision.

Many members who left indicated few concerns besides the time commitment. One commented, in response to whether there were other complaints, that there was “nothing. I was sorry to leave”.

Pressure and guilt arising from expectation

A recurring term used in the qualitative responses, particularly in the questionnaire, was ‘guilt’. This was reported to occur when members felt as though they were not attending enough events or able to commit enough time:

‘I felt extremely guilty at not being available 24/7. Refusing call-outs became an increasing issue and resigning was a big relief!’

‘Unable to commit enough time and ultimately feeling guilty.’

As can be seen from the first quote, this guilt could progress to the stage that it overcame any other feelings associated with membership.

While this initial analysis appears to show guilt as internalised, other analyses demonstrate that other members have an impact. Although discussed only briefly, one interviewee discussed that comparing themselves with other members caused guilt: “I started to say, ‘Look, I can’t commit to that’, and then you started to get the guilt thing; oh well, other members make the effort and they bring their families too” (participant 7). In this sense, expectation and guilt may emanate as a result of self-comparison.

Furthermore, several members not only felt guilt, but also felt as though they were being made to feel more guilty by their team. In particular, this appeared to emanate from leadership; however, two interview participants identified a team culture that informally implied disapproval should there be a perception of a lack of involvement.

‘When I had to cancel my attendance … I was made to feel guilty by … committee members.’ [redactions for anonymity]

‘Don’t make people feel guilty if they miss the odd session.’

‘Pressure for fundraising. Couldn’t commit enough time and made to felt guilty.’

Relationships within SAR

Again in alignment with the quantitative results was the recurrent discussion of interpersonal issues as being key to the decision to leave. Analysis appeared to show that these issues could be sorted into two categories: the first concerned perceptions of a clique; the second concerned issues with individuals and with leadership, which, in this sample, overlapped exclusively – there were no cases where a problem with an individual was not in some way connected to an issue with leadership.

General atmosphere, cliques and integration

The atmosphere within the group was discussed in a very general sense by some. One young respondent reported that they felt they never fully integrated with their team due to the age discrepancy. More commonly, however, were discussions of a ‘clique’ or some other core group, and its role in preventing acceptance or camaraderie more widely. The term ‘clique’ was directly utilised by various respondents, indicating the presence of a pre-established ‘in-group’. Membership of said in-group was perceived to depend on various factors: amount of attendance, amount of ‘kit’ one had and even age. Responses about the ‘clique’ that looked on ‘in-groups’ more negatively came with the implication that the core-group values were not in keeping with what should be SAR values, for example, that it was about ‘being cool’ or ‘rich boys’: “Not really enough camaraderie beyond a tight ‘core’ team.” One interviewee (participant 8) went into more detail about in-group membership, describing it as something that one had to “work hard” to “truly feel part of”, implying some value in membership, as well as implying that core membership could be revoked.

Leadership and particular issues

The findings indicated, implicitly and explicitly, that interpersonal issues were often related to the perceived ‘leadership or management’ of the unit. Several complaints were opaque references to ‘politics’, while others were more specific. A variety of complaints were levied at leadership, which appeared to thematically align with one or more of the following: feeling that leadership was not approachable; feeling that complaints or suggestions were not being taken seriously or dismissed; and feeling that leadership exercised favouritism, particularly towards themselves and to a core ‘in-group’, up to and including their dismissal of complaints against certain members.

‘My perception was that the Team Chairman held “veto” and was not open to alternatives.’

‘Seeing a leadership of do as I say or hit the road.’

‘Progression based on friendship not merit.’

These themes could be developed further to examine the impact of conflict with leadership. The first sub-theme was that conflict with leadership caused the member to feel undervalued: “I felt disregard[ed] and occasionally disrespected by management, especially when I raised problems I had encountered.” The second sub-theme was alienation or exclusion. Conflict with leadership, in its various forms, appeared to cause the member to feel that the atmosphere within their unit was hostile to varying degrees. For some, this only related to the membership, while for others, it appeared that the leadership came to represent the in-group or the team as a whole. The leadership of SAR appeared, then, to have a symbolic value and the effect of conflict on them could be wide-reaching, preventing a member from feeling integrated with their unit regardless of their relationship with other members. Anything viewed as poor practice appeared to cause serious negative affect – this included rare but notable mentions by female participants exclusively of gross misconduct (one mention), racism (one mention) and misogyny (two mentions), with misogyny and poor conduct by those with favour from the leadership in particular, was cited as being “gotten away with” and “swept under the rug”.

Task incongruence

A theme emerged centred on the idea of the actual SAR activity being incongruent with expectations. This could manifest in two core ways.

First, the acquisition of skills, relevance of existing skills and use of skills to work towards the collective SAR aims could be mismatched. These were generally a positive of membership; however, several members reported frustration as a result of either not being provided with skills or not being able to use existing or trained skills to contribute to SAR. This appeared to cause frustration on two levels: (a) it acted as a barrier for the member to feel that they were being as useful as they could be to the SAR mission of searching for missing people; (b) it prevented them from gaining the self-contained reward of partaking in a specific role that they enjoyed.

Second, a small number of participants expressed dissatisfaction with aspects of the SAR task. Within this, a trend was that the experience had not met expectations. One member cited ‘more mountains!’ as something that would improve their experience, while another expressed a feeling that the types of person who SAR often looked for were not what they had anticipated. Of particular note was a small set of respondents – whose remarks stood out despite fitting this overarching theme – who noted that they questioned certain aspects of the SAR mission itself, relating to the point above on types of missing person, specifically those who had chosen to go missing: one member asked if it was appropriate to search for those who had chosen to go missing when considering them alongside the other high-risk individuals who SAR searches for, while the other questioned whether they had a right to stop a despondent from going missing if they had decided to do so.

Discussion

The results of the research have several implications in terms of how SAR can be viewed considering existing volunteering literature, while also enabling discussion of the extent to which existing perspectives apply to SAR or can be developed.

A variety of basic trends within general volunteering research were observable concerning SAR. For example, those with lower levels of satisfaction, specifically towards the activity or its goal, were more likely to leave. This appears to affirm Jamison’s (2003) interpretation of retention literature. In particular, the issue of the experience not meeting expectations was highlighted, which appeared to go beyond the task simply not being what the member expected and extended to members becoming frustrated if they were blocked from achieving some of the specific benefits of SAR membership identified by Nichols et al (2014) and Lois (1999). The findings also affirm that the unique strains of SAR membership factor into decisions to leave. Mental and physical strain, and the lack of predictability of callouts, created issues.

Conversely, this study did not find particularly strong support for the notion that being a uniformed service was especially impactful – rather, the task itself, and the teamwork coming from it, were highlighted, with the occasional indication that professionalism was of some value as well. An initial read of the findings appears to heavily indicate that most leaving decisions were ‘forced’, in that factors relating to burden, especially the lack of time or presence of other commitments, were the most common leave response by far.

However, closer analysis revealed additional complexity here. While some of the ‘forced’ leavers do appear to align entirely with Gidron’s (1985) simpler model of the forced leaver, that is, that they had no other issues beyond their personal circumstance, there were many who straddled this line. Many participants who cited time or other burdens as the main issue for leaving almost always cited other issues, and, at interview, reported a process whereby external barriers to ongoing membership caused them to perceive other, smaller issues as more problematic than they had previously.

In line with Omoto and Snyder (1993), many leavers were, in fact, quite satisfied with SAR but left for external reasons. One participant mentioned that the small issue of waiting to be deployed at callouts, which had never been an issue for them before, became ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ when combined with external issues that made the time commitment more demanding. This is interesting in several ways. It indicates that, at least for SAR, rather than leaving right away as a result of burden, members enter a heightened state of sensitivity to other issues that would normally be aligned with the ‘active’ leave decisions. This supports views such as those of Chacón et al (2007) that leaving decisions are holistic, and while single factors may ‘break the camel’s back’, this occurs in the context of the wider SAR experience and the individual’s circumstances.

This means that, while the personal factors making time more of an issue for the individual remain out of the control of SAR, there is a multitude of additional factors that impact the leave decision that are under the organisation’s control, at least to some extent. This indicates a complexity to leaving decisions that are distinct from, and indeed perhaps opposite to, the complexity identified by Locke et al (2003). The practical implication for SAR – it is not clear whether such a finding could be generalised elsewhere at this stage – is that it may be possible to prevent or delay leaving decisions if smaller issues are addressed, which is very similar to conclusions drawn by Martens (2017). The theoretical implication – pending verification via future research – is that leaving decisions that appear ‘forced’ may be subject to an additional step before the leave decision is taken, where the totality of other factors – as indicated by subsequent models of volunteerism – become more highly accounted for, which would mean there is more conceptual overlap between forced and active leave decisions than would first appear.

Second, the findings were generally congruent with existing SAR research, especially the type of positive experience highlighted by Nichols et al (2014) and Lois (1999). SAR in the UK appears to have the hallmarks of ‘thick’ volunteering, with members strongly identifying with the mission of the organisation, and especially with the desire to integrate into a team and be useful to that team. The experience described by Lois (1999) was particularly well replicated, with the factors of commitment, feeling useful, identifying as a collective and engaging in self-effacing denial of glory were well reflected. The current study consistently found that being part of a team, genuinely contributing to a collective goal and the altruistic element of SAR were highly valued by individual members. In those studies, (Lois, 2001a; Nichols et al, 2014) these features of membership are characterised as almost entirely positive, and indeed their benefits were highlighted for many of the participants in the current study. However, when examining decisions to leave, the importance of these key elements of membership is highlighted even further – should the core benefits that members reported be denied, members were likely to report negative affect. In short, a primary finding was that members who were prevented from obtaining the recognised positive benefits of SAR membership (the reward of feeling useful; being able to gain and use skills; becoming part of a team; and so on) were likely to become frustrated and more likely to leave. This relates to the general retention literature (Jamison, 2003) in that the issue of expectation was found to be a key issue; however, here it appears that the specific benefits of the type of volunteering – down to the experience – were crucial. This provides further support for Lois’s (1999) conceptualisation of SAR experience.

The results indicated that interpersonal issues were one of the primary reasons influencing decisions to leave SAR. This finding enables further development and discussion of Lois’s (1999) argument that the in-group is an incredibly powerful construct for SAR teams. The power of the in-group to ‘verify’ some aspects of membership appeared to find support, with members reporting being made to feel guilty for non-attendance, and suggestions that in-group membership could be withheld or had to be ‘worked for’. It was especially interesting, then, that despite high levels of satisfaction among members, implying that many had in fact achieved this ‘in-group’ status, interpersonal conflict remained a strong issue. This can lead to the supposition that, aside from those members who discussed general issues with atmosphere, the problems highlighted occurred from within the in-group. When taken alongside the importance of ‘the leadership’, this enables Lois’s (1999) conceptualisation to be developed further – or rather, to be added to.

As highlighted in the main findings, when not directed towards the group as a whole, those identified as leadership or management were core to interpersonal complaints. The main implication is that, in addition to a single ‘in-group’, ‘management’ appears to exist as an additional powerful group within SAR, which appears to possess some of the same powers described by Lois (1999), for example they are able to verify aspects of membership. Where conflict with leadership occurs, even if the individual is in the general ‘in-group’, they may become excluded, indicating that approval from leadership – and approval towards the leadership by the member – has significant effects. In particular, members who lost faith in management appeared to be more likely to disengage as a whole – as such, the membership becomes a barrier to members acquiring the positive benefits of SAR membership.

The overall theoretical contribution of this exploratory research is that decisions to cease involvement in SAR and other highly immersive volunteering roles are complex. In particular, members under duress by outside circumstances do not necessarily leave immediately and instead attempt to remain, becoming more sensitive to those factors that the organisation can control (Gidron, 1985). This not only lends support for the idea that external factors are impactful but also indicates that organisations can still enhance retention by concentrating on the member experience. Furthermore, the study found support for the concept of the non-linear or self-contradictory influence of some factors, with the same item being potentially a risk factor and protective factor all at the same time. This was perhaps best exemplified by role-integration among SAR members, which could result in intense feelings of belonging, while at the same time contributing to overwhelming guilt. While role identity seemed most crucial, the study supports views such as Vecina et al’s (2012) that multiple factors together are crucial to ongoing membership. The findings did appear to indicate that there was, as indicated by Nichols et al (2014) and Lois (1999), a core of extremely dedicated members with high levels of attendance. These are the type of people most likely to experience the ‘thick’ volunteering, which ought to heavily discourage leaving decisions. Nevertheless, these members did leave. While based only on thematic analysis, these members seemed to be disproportionately affected by interpersonal conflict. This indicates that what had been perceived as a highly valuable aspect of SAR membership can still be disrupted or become eroded.

It is recommended that this type of study, focusing on leavers, be replicated over a longer period to achieve a large sample, and for a greater number of teams to participate. Ideally, future participants should be tracked longitudinally, to examine changes in attitudes between the same people while they are members and when they become leavers. Where possible, comparison of leavers and ‘stayers’ should be carried out to enable more meaningful comparison than was possible in this study, which will remove ambiguity concerning some key findings – for example the extent to which leavers and stayers hold consistent beliefs on certain points – and future surveys should include more demographic questions, such as level of employment, to help examine the impact of external commitments on SAR volunteering.

Notes

1

It should be noted that in SAR circles, the term ‘team member’ may include those who are part of the group in any way, for example pure fundraisers. In this article the term is used to mean operational members only.

2

The use of Facebook groups created a small risk that current members or trainees, rather than fully qualified leavers, filled out the questionnaire. Any indication that a participant was not part of the target population resulted in their survey being discarded – this was done twice. All questionnaires circulated by teams should only have reached leavers, mitigating this risk.

3

The exact population cannot be reported as it would compromise the anonymity of participating organisations by creating a risk of re-identification.

4

‘Events’ in this context refer to fundraising or outreach activities where the member represents their SAR group, usually in uniform. Examples include marshalling a race, manning a stall and bucket collections.

5

This is the total number of text-based responses to qualitative questions across the questionnaire dataset.

6

‘Misper’ is a commonly used abbreviation found within SAR and policing circles, which refers to a missing person.

Funding

The project received no external funding. A personal annual research allowance was used to fund transcription of the interview contributions.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the SAR leaders and membership officers who acted as gatekeepers, and in particular those who aided in gaining organisational approval for the research to take place. Special thanks to the former SAR members who took part in the project itself.

Conflict of interest

Craig Collie is a serving search and rescue volunteer in the UK.

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  • Brown, E. and Ferris, J.M. (2007) Social capital and philanthropy: an analysis of the impact of social capital on individual giving and volunteering, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 36(1): 8599. doi: 10.1177/0899764006293178

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  • 1 School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Portsmouth, , UK

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