Waiting but not idle: How to keep potential volunteers engaged with your organization

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Janine had been out of the work force for a few years when she decided to ease back into work by volunteering for a local organization whose work she admired. She sent an email enquiry about volunteering. Weeks passed and Janine began to become anxious: was she so unqualified that no one would take her on, even as a volunteer? Did they not need help? Were they poorly organized? Eventually, she mustered up her courage and called the nonprofit, only to discover that there had been a two-month gap between managers and her email was still sitting in the organization’s inbox, unread.

Imagine that Janine’s story is unique? Think again. While some prospective volunteers find their enthusiasm wane upon learning more about the role's responsibilities,, an astonishing number of potential volunteers are left hanging by nonprofits that fail to effectively bring new people on board.

With recruitment being the top issue for volunteer management, Donna Lockhart, partner of The Rethink Group says nonprofits can’t afford to allow this to happen with potential volunteers.

More than common courtesy

Whether because they've been told they have to volunteer (as high school students must in order to graduate, in some provinces), or because they've just learned about a cause that appeals to them, the fact remains: When someone decides to volunteer and calls an organization to ask about available opportunities, he or she is usually at a point of strong motivation.

That enthusiasm can diminish if the volunteer role they seek is not a great fit for their time or talents. As Katya, who manages a large team of volunteers for a Canadian nonprofit, observes, “Working as a volunteer for an organization is not the same as visiting the organization or admiring what it does.”

But motivation to volunteer can also dissipate because of the response of the organization. Lori Gotlieb, president of Lori Gotlieb Consulting and faculty at Humber College’s Volunteer Management Leadership Certificate program, says that organizations can often predict a surge in volunteer applications — the beginning or end of the university year, for instance — and be prepared. If they aren’t, Gotlieb says, potential volunteers won’t wait around long to hear back from organizations that are slow to respond.

In her book 365 Ways to Motivate and Reward your Nonprofit Volunteers Every Day, Melissa Sequeira writes, “Asking for volunteers but not responding to them immediately or not having a method to immediately place them in your program is like advertising a product you don’t really have, which can cause hard feelings about your agency on the part of potential supporters.” She adds, “This is not simply a matter of common courtesy. Enthusiasm tends to wane with time, and the longer you wait to respond, the more you risk losing your potential volunteers, or at least losing some of their trust. Your delay in responding could be interpreted as indifference or a sign of ineptness.”

Gotlieb acknowledges that organizations are not always in recruitment mode when potential volunteers express interest. Lockhart agrees: “Most people think about recruitment when they need to go out and find people, but how we respond to those who walk in or call is extremely important. How organizations respond reflects a common sense, procedural philosophy of how we want to see and engage volunteers in our organizations.”

Gotlieb’s mantra is, on the surface at least, an easy one: Every potential volunteer gets a reply within 24-48 hours. If an organization is in the midst of a busy time, Gotlieb recommends to respond quickly to acknowledge this and to explain when you will be in contact again. “The worst possible thing you can do when someone contacts you is nothing. Such a first impression can lead to negative word of mouth about your organization.”

Katya describes the process after a volunteer expresses interest in working with her organization: “Regardless of whether or not we need someone, we respond to enquiries within one business day by sending or giving them a volunteer application that tells us about the volunteer, their skills and availability. This puts the ball back into the potential volunteer’s court. When they submit their application, we explain our situation. If there is a lot of availability, we talk about scheduling; if we only have limited availability, we explain that we will get back to them as we have need.” Katya’s organization brings on new volunteers in the order in which they applied, as long as the potential volunteer’s schedule matches the nonprofit’s needs.

“For people who are looking to volunteering as a way of integrating into the community or entering the workforce, it can take a lot of courage and confidence to come forward to ask about volunteer opportunities,” says Paula Speevak, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada. “When someone doesn’t hear back, it can cause them to question their value and self-worth. This may prevent them from approaching other organizations to volunteer.”

The Help and hindrance of technology

Twenty years ago, in a time before email, social media and instant communication, organizations didn’t need to respond instantly to requests from volunteers. Technology has sped up the rate of communications in all areas of society — including volunteer recruitment.

Having a strong volunteer section on an organization’s website can both help and hinder the process of bringing on new volunteers. Gotlieb believes organizations under-utilize the opportunities offered by websites. “A great website helps potential volunteers feel passionate about being part of what you’re doing. A website can also be used to tell stories so that volunteers can make a conscious decision about whether or not to go forward with your organization.”

There’s no need to withhold information until after a volunteer has been accepted by an organization to share this kind of information. “We can ask questions and describe opportunities on our website in ways that signal the values of the organization, and help people self-select their involvement. The better we describe this, the better the fit will likely be,” says Speevak.

On the other hand, technology can create false expectations: people find out about and often apply for volunteer opportunities online. Speevak says, “This can create a false expectation of 24-hour responsiveness, that the organization will have someone standing by at all times to respond to emails, where in reality yours might be a small organization with someone checking emails several times a week.”

First impressions and the point person

The first point of contact with an organization is crucial to whether someone moves from potential to actual volunteer. “If you called to rent a hotel room and got a response of ‘what do you want? We don’t have any rooms,’” says Lockhart, “you probably wouldn’t stay there.” Sequeira adds, “The first person from your organization your prospective volunteer meets — in person or on the phone — can shape your whole relationship with the volunteer.”

The first point of contact, says Lockhart, has to be extremely welcoming and knowledgeable. This person needs to know who is responsible for talking to the prospective volunteer and needs to be sure to pass all messages along. Often, the first person to talk with a prospective volunteer can send a volunteer application to the person interested in volunteering.

With well over half of Canadian nonprofits solely volunteer-operated, it’s not reasonable to expect that every organization has a paid volunteer manager, but even in a volunteer-led organization, it’s important to have a designated person as the point of contact with volunteers. Speevak says Volunteer Canada’s Canadian Code for Volunteer Involvement has guiding principles and organizational standards for volunteer engagement that can be tailored for even the smallest organization. She adds that centralizing the responsibility for volunteers allows consistency. “Even if the person who coordinates volunteers can only deal with volunteers twice a week, that’s okay as long as that expectation is clearly communicated to prospective volunteers.”

Lockhart agrees that having a point person is usually the best approach for volunteer engagement but suggests that, alternatively, organizations with a philosophy that everyone manages volunteers can and should develop a protocol that allows anyone in the organization to engage with potential volunteers.

Meeting up

Once a prospective volunteer has completed a volunteer application, the next step is usually a short interview, whether the organization has a current need for volunteers or not. Gotlieb notes that this first interview can be quick and focused — as short as five or ten minutes — offering the organization and the potential volunteer a conversation to understand where commonalities are, what the volunteer can offer and what they want in return.

Lockhart says this interview should be thought of as a conversation, noting that increasingly nonprofits have people coming to them saying, “I’ve heard about your organization and I have some skills but I don’t know whether there is a good fit.” She says organizations should be willing to say, “We’ve often recruited by task but perhaps it’s time to sit down and craft a new volunteer role together,” or to even send a potential volunteer to another organization that might be a better fit.

A short interview is also an opportunity for the interviewer and interviewee to eyeball one another and determine actual fit. Katya says, “We don’t run into a lot of red flags in interviews. If an interview is awkward or strange, however, it’s much better to deal with that at this stage rather than six weeks in.” Katya also notes that this is a time when potential volunteers are interviewing the organization as well.

An interview can allow an organization to explain some key elements (such as roles and expectations) or to address a potential volunteer’s concerns. Katya mentions that herorganization will offer support to older volunteers who may be concerned about using new technology for instance, while Gotlieb uses an interview in an organization working with vulnerable populations to explain the reasons for a lengthy screening process.

While they’re waiting

It would be nice if volunteers could be given meaningful opportunities for work as soon as they apply, but this is not always practical. Whether it’s a question of a long screening process, keeping volunteers engaged before a one-off event, or engaging potential volunteers when an organization doesn’t have a particular role for them at the time of their application, engaging a waiting list of potential volunteers can be challenging.

It can also provide an opportunity. Gotlieb offers a variety of ideas for using this waiting period to encourage volunteer engagement:

  • Start sending newsletters to these future volunteers so they can learn about the organization and get more engaged.
  • Direct future volunteers to your website to start reading FAQs and organizational history.
  • Invite future volunteers to public forums or other organization events, including fundraisers.
  • Offer orientation packages and manuals online that future volunteers can review while they are waiting. Include testimonials and sample volunteer scenarios.

Speevak believes such activity is part of the wide spectrum of engagement. “Instead of thinking of volunteering or engagement with an organization in narrow terms — such as someone spending two hours once a week volunteering — engagement may be different for different people at different times. Successful organizations welcome all forms of engagement without judgment or without having to pin down times and places.”

Gotlieb adds that the relationship between an organization and volunteer matters in different ways. Cultivating a good relationship that values a volunteer at all stages will enhance the way the volunteer describes the organization in the wider community. It can also make the difference in a volunteer becoming a long-term volunteer or a donor.

Valuing volunteers

Failing to respond to people who express interest in volunteering in an organization reflects a wider challenge in terms of the value the organization, the sector and society places on volunteers. Because volunteers give their time without expectation of compensation, says Speevak, nonprofit organizations and boards can have a false impression that resources aren’t needed to manage them. ButLockhart offers a warning: “Organizations are starting to see that it’s becoming harder to get volunteers. Further, “Volunteers are episodic — they aren’t signing up for life. The more you invest in a volunteer up front, the more likely they are to stay longer with your organization.”

There’s no magic answer to bringing new volunteers into your organization, but as Gotlieb notes, “When a prospective volunteer contacts your organization, they’ve started a relationship with you. They’ve effectively knocked on your door. It’s vital that you answer that knock.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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