Finding and Keeping Volunteers (Its Easier than You Think)

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Volunteers hold a special place in my heart. They are pretty much the most important part of pulling off a great event. Sure, you can plan some fundraiser that’s glorious and majestic, but you’ll always be confined by the number of people you have available to make it happen. As people trying to put together epic fundraisers, volunteers are really the only solution we have to that whole pesky “human cloning” problem.

When someone volunteers to help you for a couple of hours, it may not seem like that big of a deal, but really they are giving away the one resource that they can't get back; their time.  I see a lot of organizations that struggle with getting and keeping their volunteers. There are a ton of really creative ideas out there for managing volunteers well, but it doesn’t have to be some complicated thing that requires a 3 day summit.

Here are some of the easiest, most effective (and most commonly skipped) ways to keep great volunteers coming back, project after project.

Get to know them

The first time someone volunteers with you is sorta like a first date. Sure, they were interested enough to show up, but really this meeting is about seeing if you really do have any sort of chemistry. They want to know, just like you do, if this will turn into a second date, and on.

Talk to them, get to know them. Let them know more about you.The cause is really only half of the equation. How well you mesh is the most important part of building a relationship.

At the same time, it’s not all about you.

Ever been out with someone who just talks about themselves and how awesome they are? Did you think they were that awesome by the end of it? Or were you thinking that you wasted a perfectly good night to stay in your pjs and watch Netflix?

Same thing goes for creating relationships with volunteers. Ask questions about their lives. They mentioned their daughter just went to college. How is she liking it? Keep it fun and light. This will also give you things to talk about next time they visit. How was the vacation that they were super excited about? The point here is showing that you care. You’re saying that you not only want to know more about them, but you also remember what they tell you.

If you have a group of people volunteering, make sure to introduce them all to each other and get everyone in the conversation.

This is a chance for both of you to decide if the other is a good fit. Most people know if they will see a person for a second date long before the first one is over. Will this be a great experience meeting someone awesome? Or will they dodge your calls and pretend not to know you when you run into them at Starbucks?

Show them you’re a catch. Be a good date.

Food makes friends

I’m a firm believer that anything worth doing has food involved. When you are planning fundraisers, remember to add feeding your volunteers into your budget. That could be at the actual event, and also the times when you have people come in to help you with any sort of prep, like putting together gift bags, or loading up a truck.

If your volunteer shifts are about 4 hours or longer, this means providing breakfast, lunch, or dinner depending on the time of day. If people are coming in for just a couple hours, I always make sure to have at least a few snacks and some water. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive (often less than $20 for small groups), but people always really appreciate the gesture.

Also, try to get a range of food. There are all kinds of dietary restrictions out there, and I know it’s impossible to please everyone all the time, but this is a good one to keep in mind. Personally, I could live off of donuts and cinnamon rolls, but I know that not everyone likes to be loaded with sugar in the morning. So if I get some sort of pastry, I will also pick up some fruit. Another good one is getting something like popcorn in addition to chips for snacks. If you really don’t have the funds to get food, always be sure to offer water. It’s still a nice gesture to let them know that you care.

Be ready for them

Think about it. You just volunteered to help out for a project that you think is a great cause, and hey, a few hours is well worth moving forward a mission that you believe in. But when you get there, you’re not sure where to go or who to talk to. And when you finally figure out who’s in charge, that person is still running around trying to figure out what they want you to do! So now you just spent half of the time that you had to volunteer, waiting for them to get it together.

After that kind of experience, sure, your volunteer will still believe in the cause, but chances are they are going to go find someone else to support who seems more on top of it.

When you have volunteers coming to help you, have everything organized ahead of time so that they can get right to work when they arrive. These are people who believe in action. Don’t make them sit around, waiting for you.

Send thank you notes

Once the smoke has cleared, it’s time to let everyone know how much you appreciate their efforts.

This could mean writing thank you cards or sending out emails. I tend to do both of these, depending on the situation.

For cards, I like handwritten notes on nice cards. I will spend a little more here to make sure I get nice ones. I also write out all my notes on lined paper first, so I can do any edits I need before writing on the real deal.

If email is more of your thing, I recommend sending some photos from the fundraiser along with it. Something about photos makes email feel more personal. I will also make sure that volunteers who did prep work, like stuffing bags but weren’t at the actual event, also get some photos. Its great to see that they helped make people happy, even if they couldn’t go. Show your volunteers, as well as tell them about how much their work meant, and they will be waiting for the next chance to help out!

However…

Dont Wait Til its over to say Thank You

Thank volunteers when they sign up, when they arrive, during the task, and as they leave. Basically throw out your gratitude like confetti!

Sure, there is a way to go over board and sound desperate (or worse, insincere), so don’t just gush “OMG THANKYOUSOMUCH” every 5 seconds, but don’t just clam up and say nothing at all either. Compliment how someone is doing a task in the moment. Sarah is doing a rockstar job of running the photobooth? Tell her! Let them know that they are making your life easier. Take a group photo once the job is done. Give small gifts as they leave. I’ve done things like bags of branded goodies, little mugs with candy in them, and even gift cards at larger events. The point is that people like to feel appreciated. They also like cool free stuff.

Ask them to volunteer again

Now that they’ve found you, reached out to get to know what you’re all about, volunteered to help you, and did a great job doing it, it’s your turn. Don’t make them do the hard work of reaching out to you all over again. Let them know when you have more volunteer opportunities that they might be interested in.

This is the other good use of those email addresses. After you’ve sent your thank you’s, be sure to let them know about opportunities that come up. Keep a separate volunteer email list that’s different from your regular mailing list. That way you aren’t spamming them with all of the other messages that you send out about your organization until they want them.

Tip: Normally if you add a “subscribe to our mailing list” link to the bottom of these emails, they will naturally sign up anyway.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how often it’s missed.They want to keep volunteering and to be involved with something they believe in. You want to keep your mission moving forward and will need the help. Win-win.  Make sure that you’re not letting good volunteers go just because you didn’t follow up.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Managing volunteers well might seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. The hardest part is over- convincing them to show up! It’s actually much easier to keep your current volunteers happy and engaged, than it is to find new ones. Remember, these are people that believe in the same thing you do. They  want to help you. All you have to do is make sure that the relationship doesn’t stay one-sided.


What is a great way that you show your volunteers that you care?

Quierra Trammel

Tribe Table, Oakland, CA, United States