3-Step Communications to Re-engage Volunteers

We are delighted to have Colleen Farrell, Senior Director, Marketing and Communications at New York Cares, join us as a recurring guest blogger.

New York Cares is New York City’s leading volunteer organization and runs volunteer programs for 1,000  nonprofits, city agencies and public schools, enabling more than 50,000 volunteers annually to contribute their time, expertise and energy to a wide array of organizations that address critical social needs citywide.

Every fall I feel like a kid going back to school. I don’t have to worry about pop quizzes these days, but there’s a big shift as we transition from the slower summer months into our busiest time of year.  New York Cares’ inventory of volunteer projects increases dramatically -– doubling between August and November.  Volunteer interest also ramps back up after summer, with a spike around Thanksgiving.

Our communication and management challenge is to quickly re-engage volunteers after the summer, and ensure we mobilize the right number of people at the right time as projects expand. Here are three things we consider:

1. Ensure capacity is in place so volunteers can act now.

We calculate the volunteers we need each month, then create a communications plan synced with our project roll-out schedule.  For example, we scale back new volunteer orientations during the summer.  In late July, we begin asking volunteers to become project leaders for fall (which is critical for starting new projects).  From August onward, email, social media, and orientation schedules accelerate to bring in more volunteers.

There have been times where volunteer demand has outstripped our capacity –- it’s disappointing for volunteers, and something we work hard to avoid.  The volunteers you turn away may never come back.

2. Start with existing volunteers.

The adage, it’s more efficient to get business from existing customers than win new ones, applies to volunteers, too.

We track and analyze volunteers’ histories through our database.  This helps us forecast how many of last year’s volunteers are likely to return (about 50%) and how many new people we need to recruit to fill our available opportunities.  We target communications accordingly.

3. Build a monthly messaging plan.

We create an editorial calendar aligned with our programs, and try to unify messaging across channels.  We pick a lead theme each month or season  – in the fall, we’re all about education.  Messaging is simple and action oriented.  We provide context about the current volunteer needs, paint a picture of the impact they can make, and provide clear direction on how to get involved.

Some of our most experienced volunteers will be too swamped to re-engage: that’s reality. But we stay in touch, and try to offer other, less time intensive ways to help – fundraising, donating, and friendraising, for example.

What are your Fall strategies for re-engaging volunteers and other supporters?

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Guest Blogger on October 14, 2010 in Volunteers | 3 comments
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  • Just as a suggestion: along with a social media and messaging strategy, it’s helpful for non-profits to have an online area integrated with their volunteer database, where volunteers can communicate with each other and the organization, sign up for specific shifts, etc. – a place where they can interact with the non-profit on *their* schedule rather than that of the non-profit.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Megan, thanks for sharing such a good (but frequently overlooked) approach for volunteer management and community building.

    Effective communications is based on making it easy for folks to engage (along with a few other success factors) and this can of dedicated online space delivers just that. The easier and more satisfying your organization makes it for your volunteers to volunteer, the greater your retention rate!

  • Shirley Clukey

    These are wonderful ideas and I appreciate learning about this approach. However, my board of directors finds itself in a crisis with no time to build such a cycle. Four of our five board members will leave at the end of this year and our call for nominations has resulted in only one response. We’re afraid our 27-year-old organization will fold if we don’t get more help quickly. Suggestions?

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