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Volunteer Engagement Means Setting Expectations Upfront

increase volunteer engagement

volunteer engagement

I was talking the other day with a client who was trying to rewire their annual fundraising campaign.

They were putting together a prospect list, deciding whom to ask to serve on the campaign committee.

First, we discussed what databases or other resources they had at hand to search for bringing members on board. The list they pulled together was immense – individual and corporate donors, program volunteers and people who have attended past events. And we were just warming up!

Of course, pulling the prospect list together is the easy work.

Who among these folks would have the traits, skill sets and experiences that would match the “not-a-job description” needed for the tasks involved with a fundraising campaign? Who would be able to get pledge cards filled, make visits, calls or social media contacts and attend meetings?

And I say not-a-job, because it’s essential to remember these are volunteers giving and tailoring their time as they work to achieve the campaign’s goals.

Past picking whom to recruit, of course, comes the actual recruiting. This means being prepared to set expectations upfront when making your pitch.

Volunteer engagement means making sure those who give their time feel dialed in to the your nonprofit and part of the team.

So, being transparent and making sure volunteers know what they are being asked to do is essential. Because volunteers who feel lost soon after saying YES to your request are likely to be those same people who:

  • don’t attend meetings
  • don’t follow the process for making effective fundraising solicitations
  • you are chasing down to turn in their completed (and more than likely incomplete) pledge cards

While it’s the age of social media, email and all sorts of virtual communication, I’ve found it helpful to meet with potential committee members in person. During our short and social visit, I like to use a decidedly low-tech tool that I affectionately refer to as a volunteer description. This document is simply a description – usually a handful of bullet points – summarizing what I’m asking them to do.

Using this handout demonstrates to the volunteer that your organization is, indeed, organized. It strongly implies there is a plan in place and a thoughtfulness about your nonprofit.

For potential volunteers, having a hard copy for them to review gives them a chance to process IF what your nonprofit is asking them to do is the right opportunity for them.

This “not-a-job description” gets the discussion going. It’s also something they will refer back to after the meeting as they contemplate whether they want to join your merry band of fundraising friends.

The volunteer description breaks through the conversational ice by clearly communicating to a potential volunteer what it is they will be saying YES to when agreeing to serve on the committee. It spells out their roles and responsibilities. It also provides opportunity for the volunteer and you to ask each other questions.

You probably won’t be singing “Getting to Know You” like Julie Andrews in “The King and I.” But the handout is your calling card, allowing the potential committee member to learn more about what you’re about.

Through the give and take of the conversation, you do learn about each other.

Share your own stories, too. Be anecdotal to get your potential committee members to open up. It’s by listening to them that you will see if the role you’re asking them to fill is the right opportunity for them and for your nonprofit.

You’re saying to them, “We recognize and appreciate the talents you would bring to the table. Here’s where we think you would fit.” You want them to feel comfortable enough to honestly tell you what it is they can do (and will do), and if that’s a match for your expectations.

Here are some handy resources I’ve found to be effective in shaping and setting expectations for fundraising volunteers and folks who you might be asking to join your board of directors:

If it turns out that being on the fundraising campaign committee isn’t a fit for your candidate, that’s okay, too.

By listening, you’ve learned what that volunteer can do to best serve your nonprofit and, in turn, where they might feel most valued.

To loosely paraphrase a metaphor from Jim Collins’ best-selling business book, “Good to Great,” think of your nonprofit as a bus and you as the bus driver. You want to find the right seats for the right people who get on your bus.

There very well might be a different seat for whom you thought would have been great as part of your fundraising campaign committee. In turn, that person might very well know somebody else who would be right and happy to come along for the ride, to serve in a fundraising campaign or committee role.

So . . . ask, ask, ask. And listen, listen, listen.

Asking questions and listening show you value your potential volunteer’s thoughts and ideas. It reinforces that you realize volunteers volunteer not because they have to, but because it ultimately gives them a sense of fulfillment.

That’s the challenge for nonprofits — not just taking on every volunteer who is willing and able but putting thought into finding the right spot for those who do offer their time and talents.

By taking time to do this, you’ll be turning a potential volunteer’s skills into kinetic worth for your nonprofit. You’ll also be more likely to set up a scenario where the volunteer will feel a sense of accomplishment and become an integral, engaged part of your mission.

That’s the win-win situation we can all strive for.

And for those of you who think this advice is “sooooo basic and entry level,” ask yourself when was the last time you used a volunteer description during any recruitment process? My guess is that some (and likely many of you) stopped using this simple best practice quite some time ago.

It is time to get back to the basics, my friends!

Nonprofit Sustainability

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  • Brian Stezenski-Williams

    Rock solid!
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