What really happens when someone wants to volunteer with you?

what really happens when someone calls, emails or stops by your organization and says, “I want to volunteer!”? Maybe you know what should happen in theory, but what’s the reality?

When I’ve consulted with organizations — both nonprofits and schools — regarding this challenge, the results are always a shock: it turns out that many volunteers are turned away, because the message from the potential candidate rarely gets forwarded to the right person, because the information given to the potential volunteer is incomplete, uninspiring or even incorrect, or because followup with the volunteer doesn’t happen quickly or at all.

How to find out what’s happening at your organization with potential volunteers? Here are some ideas;

  • Sit down with each and every person who answers the phone and have a checklist they must go through for every person who calls, emails or stops by to express interest in volunteering (be sure to get approval from that person’s supervisor before you do this). An example of the checklist could be:
    • The person who talks with the potential volunteering fills out a log sheet with the candidate’s name, phone number, email address and the date of their call, email or site visit. This log sheet should be reviewed regularly by the volunteer coordinator or other manager to see what has happened with each of these people in terms of communication by  the organization regarding how to volunteer.
    • The person who interacts with the potential volunteer on the phone, via email or in-person gives that candidate the volunteer coordinator’s name, phone number and email.
    • The person who interacts with the candidate directs the person to the organization’s web site to download and complete an application

Just these three very simple steps — none of which are any significant burden on the person answering the phone or the organization’s email or greeting people at the front desk — are enough for you to find out what’s happening to people who inquire about volunteering with your organization: How many people inquire about volunteering versus how many people come to the first volunteer training? Is there too much time between a person’s inquiry or application and when they get to come to a first meeting or get placed in an assignment? This checklist, particularly the log sheet, will tell you, as will calling people on the login sheet later to survey them about their experience.

  • Have five friends or colleagues from outside your organization call or email your organization on different days, at different times, to inquire about volunteering, and afterwards, interview them about their experiences. Also look at the log-in sheet to make sure their inquiries were recorded. What are they consistently told by your organization? What are they not told but should have been? Were they logged in properly by the person they talked with? Do they walk away with a feeling of, “We really want you involved with us!” or “We’re really busy and we don’t know when we will get back to you”?
  • Survey all people who have applied to volunteer in the last three-six months. How do their rate the experience of when they asked to volunteer? What do they remembering being told? Did they walk away from that initial inquiry with a feeling of, “We really want you involved with us!” or “We’re really busy and we don’t know when we will get back to you”? What do they think could be improved about the experience?

These activities may lead to a very harsh reality staff may be reluctant to face: you may find out that your organization is regularly turning away people who want to volunteer. Talking about this with staff can be a challenge: people may become defensive about their actions, or lack their of (“I was really busy that day” or “I’m doing the best I can!”).

With those answering the phone or the organization’s email or greeting people at the front desk, emphasize that none of the checklist activities are any significant time burden; you may even want to do a skit to show just how quickly the activities can be undertaken. Make sure their supervisor’s agree that this is an appropriate and necessary use of their time.

The harder part will be to convince staff that everyone has a responsibility to make potential volunteers feel energized about the organization. Do you believe this yourself? If so, talk with senior management individually to get each of them on board with this idea and ask them to bring it up with their own direct reports. Also, talk about it when you meet with individual staff in formal meetings and informal settings, and present on the topic formally in staff trainings. If you aren’t convinced of this yourself… I think that’s something I’ll have to address in a different blog.

For trainings for staff on dealing with potential volunteers, skits can really help. For instance, present one as a worst-case scenario, in a humorous way, of someone asking about volunteering and being turned away with lack of enthusiasm, and then present another to show how easy it is to make a potential volunteer feel excited and welcomed. These can each be just a couple of minutes. The more outrageous or extreme these skits are, the more fun they will be and the more likely that staff will remember the lessons and take them to heart.

In reading this and the earlier blog entry about this challenge, you were probably assuming that I was thinking the volunteer coordinator would undertake all of the above investigation activities. But that may not be the case for all these steps; the Executive Director or an outside consultant may be that person instead. If you are that executive or consultant, what if you discover that the problem regarding volunteer recruitment is the volunteer coordinator herself/himself? What if you discover that the volunteer coordinator is not getting information in a timely manner regarding people who want to volunteer with your organization, or isn’t exhibiting an enthusiastic, encouraging attitude with potential volunteers?

I’ll address that in a blog later this week…

A version of this blog first appeared in October 2009.

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