How to identify great volunteers

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An ideal arena for the display of leadership skills when you are asking people to give their time, their influence and their money, volunteer recruitment presents many analogies to fundraising --- including the preparation for the call and the call itself.

Firstly, fundraising requires volunteers who operate, as distinct from volunteers who give good advice, so I think about people who make calls and presentations comfortably, perhaps in the course of their work. I look for action- and task-oriented people, and people who sell professionally or naturally, not necessarily people who have fundraised before.

Next, to identify great volunteers, I would get beyond the obvious people. Start from a clear idea of the target organizations and individuals, and ask who or what kind of person could gain access and be heard. Remember that people give to people. Think about the most senior people, whose organizations support the cause or the community generally, whose Chief Executive Officers or Board members are active in the community; and who want to be associated with you. You're looking for future leaders, new leaders, and people for whom this may be a positioning or profile or association opportunity.

Reference and research individuals. Check out their previous involvements. Were they successful experiences? If the Chief Executive Officer say "No," ask about someone else in the organization, but have the person you want as an alternative identified, and ask specifically for that person.

Attracting great volunteers

For your first approach, use a short fax note to avoid telephone tag or a telephone conversation. In it, state your purpose clearly so people can pre-qualify themselves. For example, "We have not met, but I know that you are a steadfast United Way supporter. I hope to talk with you in the next few days about joining us on the 1997 United Way Campaign Cabinet."

"As the volunteer Campaign Chair this year, my first task is to recruit a group of great leaders to form the 1997 Cabinet. I am just delighted with the response from people like Dominic D'Allesandro from Manulife Financial, Bill Catucci from AT&T Canada, David Kerr from Noranda Inc., John Tory from Rogers Multi-Media Inc., and many others."

"I will give you a call to see if I might drop by to talk with you about this. I look forward to meeting you, having heard so much about you from United Way colleagues and other mutual friends."

The next step is a personal meeting - in their office, not over lunch. This should be a thorough, crisp presentation by a volunteer/staff member combination using the following guidelines:

  • Assume no knowledge of the organization/cause.
  • Describe the role, issues, specific reasons why you are asking them, and how they will make a difference in this situation.
  • Take time to talk strategy; when people can see a strategy and how it might be executed, they are much more likely to accept.
  • Provide an honest estimate of time required.
  • Let them know who else will be at the table (remember that people like to be with those they consider to be peers or superiors).
  • Describe the professional support; show them well-organized, concise data and presentation style, using a minimum amount of paper.
  • Pause between points to hear questions and comments; receive feedback and read concerns.
  • Tell them why you are volunteering.
  • Recognize that you can't always close in one meeting; keep going back - by fax, phone, in person; show them how much you want them; if there is someone they respect who might exert influence, ask that person to help.
  • Send Thank You notes - the more the better - and handwritten is best.
  • If they say "No", respect the decision with a big Thank You; write from time to time to report on how it's going; invite them to events; don't hesitate to call for specific advice; they will say "Yes" next time.
  • Keep detailed notes of the conversation; you will have forgotten by next year.

Why volunteer? Why assume the leadership roles?

In my experience and professional observation, many of the best things in life and career are by invitation only. One thing is essential to stimulate invitations: being seen to be a contributor/leader in the broadest sense of the terms. Hal Jackman, when asked what it takes to be a member of the Canadian establishment, responded, "You have to be a contributor". If you aspire to be a leader, you must be active in community service. Always remember, volunteerism provides an ideal area for the display of leadership skills.

Based on a presentation at the 1997 Annual Conference of United Way of Canada/Centraide Canada, Montreal, March 2, 1997. Anne Fawcett is Managing Partner, Caldwell Partners Amrop International, and 1997 Campaign Chair, United Way of Greater Toronto.

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