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?

101 Secrets to Great Volunteer Recruitment—Part One

If you know the fundamentals of your work but it still feels like you’re missing out on a secret to effective volunteer engagement, we understand.

It can be lonely being the one responsible for volunteers. All around the organization the rest of your colleagues are dug in doing their work, setting program goals, delivering services, raising funds. Meanwhile you’re trying to figure out the best way to align a prospective volunteer’s need with your own program goals.

You may also be an “accidental expert” on volunteer engagement whose people skills have been recognized but not necessarily rewarded with resources.

Recently VolunteerMatch asked our network of 80,000 nonprofits about their secrets to effective volunteer recruitment.

Readers of Getting Attention won’t be surprised to see just how many secrets are about communications best practices! Here a few of my favorites:

Go Where the Volunteers Are

Most nonprofits can’t afford billboards or TV ads to advertise volunteer needs. Fortunately you don’t need to. To get the attention of great volunteers, your message merely needs to be in the right places at the right times.

For volunteer coordinator Marjorie Williams, her best prospecting doesn’t start at her organization’s website or Facebook page, but out in the community. “We put bulletin announcements in the local church bulletins,” she said.

Likewise, Tanya Munro Erway says her creative recruiting includes a blurb in her realtor’s newsletter which goes out to thousands of area resident and posting flyers at ethnic gourmet food stores for a specific language need.

Their secret: Target your audience where it already is.

Strike While the Iron’s Hot

I once had the most amazing volunteer reach out to me. A whip-smart former Accenture consultant, she saw one of my ads online and immediately reached out. She was perfect – so too bad I was on a team retreat! By the time I dug her email out of my in-box four days later, her interest had cooled – on my organization and on me.

That’s why Joan Malley, manager of Harbor House in Rochester, NY, has a 24-hour turn-around rule. “This doesn’t allow time for their enthusiasm to cool off,” she says.

Quick response can also turn incidental interest into something deeper. Stephanie Rokich, a volunteer recruiter at a National MS Society chapter in Salt Lake City, follows up with anyone who has expressed interest in her organization because you never know. “When we post about an upcoming event on Facebook and people ‘like’ it, I immediately send them a message asking if they are interested in volunteering,” she says.

Their secret: Use responsiveness to turn the spark of interest into a fire.