Episode #002: How to Recruit Volunteers by Building a Following First

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation podcast, bringing you practical tips and advice on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson, and if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity cause or movement, stay tuned. I made this podcast just for you.

Well, hello my friends, and welcome to another episode of Volunteer Nation. I am so excited you’re here today, because we’re going to talk about a huge topic that is on folk’s mind most of the time. If you engage volunteers, you are almost always wondering how to recruit volunteers, how to find volunteers, how to attract volunteers. And today we’re going to talk about how to recruit volunteers by building a following first, because hey, people don’t have a “buy” button in their brain.

They don’t just flip a switch and say, “Hey, I’m committing my life to doing this type of service in my community.” Usually, people are mulling things over for a while, and we don’t want to lose them in that process. I like to say commitment is a process, not a destination. People are continually making up their minds, not only to join you at the beginning, but also to continue working with you and your organization. So, I want to talk a little bit today about how we can build a following of volunteers that are still in the process maybe of making that commitment, and I want to start off with a little story.

Back in 2016, I started my journey as a Knox County master gardener, and it took me about a year to get involved with this kind of volunteering because the training for master gardener volunteers, in our county anyway, only happens once a year. So, I had to do research. I had to figure out when the training was going to happen. It happened during the weekday, and I’m a pretty busy entrepreneur. And so, I had to set aside time in my schedule so that I could take time off work and come to our trainings. So it was a bit of a, you know, a process to engage with the master gardeners, but also how to sort of integrate it into my life.

So, commitment really was a process, not a destination for me. Once I was able to do that, you know, I’ve been a master gardener now for four years and it’s been fantastic, and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. I’m having a great time being a volunteer and working with my fellow master gardener volunteers, and just helping our community learn more about gardening. It’s a joy to do it, and you’ll probably hear on my podcasts many times me talk about my experience as a volunteer.

But for purposes of today, it took me a while to get involved. And so, I want you to think about how many volunteers or prospective volunteers you might be losing if you’re not having a continual conversation with them before they actually start their active service. So that’s what today is all about.

You want to take time to cultivate interest and commitment by building a contact list of supporters that you communicate with on a regular basis. Now, I’m pretty sure not 100% of those supporters are necessarily going to become volunteers, but when you are ready and your call to action goes out for new volunteers, there is going to be a place and a community of followers that you can go to, to ask first and ask for help.

They will be primed for action because at this point, because they’ve been following you and you’ve been communicating with them, they’re already going to know a lot about your organization and how they might help. So, it is a fantastic sort of pre-recruitment activity that really generates fantastic return, I should say, on that investment of time. And I want to give you some specific steps you can take to make this happen.

You know, well, most people think social media is the biggest asset when it comes to communicating with current and future volunteers. It’s actually email that packs the most punch. Your own email list is your biggest asset.

Now with social media, the algorithms change all the time, and you don’t really own that list of followers. How many people see your posts in social media? It has been dwindling over the past several years. You know, people, social media platforms would rather have you pay for traffic and pay to get attention in their platforms. And so, email really is king when it comes to, or queen when it comes to attracting and communicating with potential volunteers.

Think about these stats. I went on the internet and did a little bit of research on what are our current engagement rates on social media and email. The average email open rate right now in 2022 is about 21.5% across all industries, 26.6% for nonprofits. So, if you’re sending out email to a general audience, then you’re going to get a little bit better open rate.

This is up 3.5% from 2020. So, things are actually getting better when it comes to email open rates. I think people are doing less spam, and people are seeing more value in the email so they’re more often opening them. The average clickthrough rate…so how many people not only open but click on links in your email content is about 2 to 5%. So, for every hundred people you send an email to, if you have a call to action, two to five of those people are going to click on that link. For nonprofits, it’s about 2.7%. So again, you’re doing a little bit better.

Active social media – let’s talk about social media for a minute. Well, there are many social millions. In fact, billions. There’s 4.55 billion users of social media platforms, with Facebook capturing about 2.9 billion in active monthly users. So, there’s a lot of people on social media. I’ll give it that, but listen to this and listen carefully.

The average organic reach of a Facebook post is estimated to be about 2.2% of your followers. Seriously, when you post, let’s say you had a thousand followers, a thousand followers, and you posted something this morning. Only 22 of them, 22 of them would see your post. That’s not very good ROI, is it?

Now, I’m not saying social media can’t be helpful. We use it every day at VolunteerPro and at Tobi Johnson and Associates. So we use it, but is this the best way to communicate with potential supporters or should it be your only way? Now, if you have a really engaged following, this may not be true, but in general, not very many people are opening those posts.

In LinkedIn, it’s 5.3%. So, it’s a little bit higher in LinkedIn if your followers use LinkedIn. Here’s the other thing. It’s a pretty sad stat for social media. The average post engagement across all types of posts is 0.07% on Facebook. 0.07%. Now post engagement is likes, shares, comments, et cetera, right? 0.07%. That’s less than one person in a hundred who see, who actually see your posts.

So, while social media can be a tool to help you build your following and even your email list, it’s hard to do so without paying for space. You know, paying for ads. Plus, even if you have followers on social media, they might not see your posts anyway. So, I hope this has convinced you a little bit more that email and building a following on email might be the best route for you.

With email, you fully own your list. It’s yours forever. You have a direct line to each person on your list and if you regularly provide value to your followers, they’re going to want to open your emails every time. I have talked to VolunteerPro members in our premium VolunteerPro membership community who are getting 40%, 50%, 60% open rates sometimes on their emails because their volunteers know that there’s value inside. So, in my book, email is a clear winner in terms of consistency and as an asset.

So, we’ve kind of gone through the differences between social media and email in terms of performance and building a following. So, when we’re talking about building a following, we’re talking about building a following on email. So how do you build an email list? How does it work? What do you do? I’m going to talk about that in this podcast.

First off, some tools you need, tools you need. I want to start with this: tools you need. You need an email service provider. You can’t do this with just your Outlook. It doesn’t work that way. You need an email service provider. There’s many out there, all kinds of different email service providers, but you need one that can do a few different things for you that can save you time and build relationships while you sleep.

So, you need an email service provider that you can use to build an opt-in form, what’s called an opt-in form, that can tag, that can add a tag to a new contact and can segment your contacts. And if they add a tag, it will be able to segment your contacts.

And a final thing you want your email service provider to do is to send automated emails. It can’t be up to you to always individually respond to each person. Now, there are times to do that, but when we’re building a list, you’ve got to be, again, building relationships while you sleep.

For that email service provider, it needs to be able to build an opt-in form, tag and segment your contacts, and be set to send automated emails. Okay? Those are the things you’re looking for when you’re shopping for an email service provider.
The good news is there are plenty out there. They’re not that expensive. In fact, in the show notes, we’ll link to a few. They’re not that expensive, especially if you have a smaller list. Prices go up in sophistication of the email service provider, but also in how big your list is. But hey, it’s going to be worth it in the end to have that list. But they’re in general not super expensive and totally worth it.

And then the second thing you need in addition to an email service provider is a freebie. Something you’re giving away, also called a lead magnet in some digital marketing spaces, a lead magnet that your website visitors are willing to trade their name and email for.

So, we don’t need to capture a lot of information, but we need people to share their first name and their email with us and then they get a freebie to download. If you go to our website on TobiJohnson.com, on our homepage we have an essential guide to managing volunteers that has an opt-in form, and it’s a freebie on that website.

On our VolunteerPro website, VolPro.net, we also have plenty of freebies there as well. So, we use this strategy to build our audience. And if you’ve been following us, you’ve probably downloaded one of our freebies from time to time. I’ll give also in the show notes some links to a few of our freebie pages so you can see what those look like.

Once you have the tools you need to build this list of followers that you can engage with, and that you are having conversations about your needs, what you’re up to…what comes next? Stay with me and I’ll share your next steps after the break. So, we’re going to get into this in more detail. Stick with me. We’re going to talk about building freebie ideas and also some ideas for content that helps make the transition from observer to doer. We’re going to do that right after the break. So, we’ll catch you in a few.

If you enjoy this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the VolunteerPro Premium Membership. This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting, engaging and supporting dedicated, high-impact volunteer talent for your good cause.

VolunteerPro Premium Membership helps you build or renovate an effective, what’s-working-now volunteer program with less stress and more joy, so you can ditch the overwhelm and confidently carry your vision forward. It is the only implementation program of its kind and helps your organization build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system, the Volunteer Strategy Success PathTM. If you’re interested in learning more, visit Volpro.net/join.

All right, welcome back. We’ve been talking about how to recruit volunteers by building a following.

First, I talked before the break about the differences between social media and email and why email takes the cake every time, and the types of tools you’ll need, your email service provider as well as a freebie. And I want to get into more detail about what that freebie might look like for you.

You know, as potential volunteers continue their journey to commitment, you want to help them bust myths. You’re going to want to reduce doubts. You’re going to want to build confidence in their ability to support you. You’ll also want to entertain and inspire your followers, so they keep opening your emails. Lots to do!

You can almost think about educating, you know, as mini trainings. Each email can be micro content that you can help your followers grow in their understanding of your cause. There’s tons to do there. Lots of fun and interesting ways you can communicate. But first you need to build your list by creating what’s called a lead magnet or a freebie. We like to call them freebies. So I want to give you some list-building freebie ideas.
In general, newsletter subscriptions. If your organization has a newsletter, that could be your freebie. So, if you have an existing newsletter, then that could be the way you’re building a list around volunteerism or the potential for joining your organization as a volunteer. Now, that means that in your newsletter, you’re going to need to talk about volunteers and volunteerism. So, your newsletter could be your freebie.

You could do a “guide to volunteering” at your nonprofit. That could be a freebie. And you know that the people who are downloading that freebie are interested in some way. They’re exploring, “How, what would it be like to volunteer? What’s required?”

Another freebie might be something like, people love quizzes and self-assessments and checklists. What about a volunteer self-assessment? So, checklist: What are your favorite things to do? You know, what are the things that interest you most? Where can you put out or put in your greatest talents to work? So, you could do something around a volunteer interests self-assessment.

I love this one a lot. I came up with this idea a few years ago, and I love it. What kind of volunteer are you? A quiz! So, let’s say your organization has some episodic, one-time one-off volunteering opportunities. You also have ongoing volunteer opportunities. You might have a few internships. You might have some skilled volunteer or pro bono volunteer opportunities. Maybe you want volunteers to think about what kind of volunteer they are. So that’s a quiz you can do. I saw once an animal welfare organization ask, what kind of dog are you? And they did a quiz around that. So, it was all about engaging their audience in some fun.

So, lots of fun ways to do this. It does not have to be serious. Your freebie could be a new volunteer info session webinar. So, it could be an event or, you know, any type of event that you’re doing online could be a freebie. Or as I said, checklists work well: “10 ways You Can Make a Difference” in whatever your cause is or your cause area, impact area. So “10 Ways You Can Make a Difference” checklist, tons of ways to create these lists, building freebies or lead magnets.

So, you want to create that, and create that opt-in form so you can start gathering people’s first names and emails. Now, the more information you put in your opt-in form, the fewer people will opt in, so I always recommend just first name and email. Now, why do I ask for first name? Because we like to personalize. Sometimes we’ll personalize our emails. We’ll add their first name to the subject line in an email or embed in the email body itself. So, I would like to have people’s first names so I can speak with them on a personal level.

So, once you’ve figured out your freebie and you start thinking about communicating with folks, you’re going to have to consider how and what will you communicate with your followers once they signed up. We recommend, we do communication with our followers once a week at least. But if you want, maybe every other week. I would not only communicate with your followers once a month, because people will forget who you are and then they’ll unsubscribe. They’ll be like, you know what? I don’t even remember signing up for this. So at least every other week, you want to send something, whether it’s a newsletter, an email with some inspiration or information.

We’re going to talk a little bit more about what might go in those emails. So, every other week I recommend at the least, but not more than once a week. You don’t want to overwhelm people either. So, you might share with people your newsletter, blog posts, podcast episodes if you do a podcast, email updates, or other freebies.

We do in our newsletter signup on our VolPro.net website, I think in the third or fourth email of our welcome sequence, which is a series of emails that we welcome people with once they join our list, we send out a free eBook “The First 90 Days” for the volunteer coordinators. And I hear back from people about that. “First 90 Days”, I wrote that “First 90 Days” book years ago, and I still get emails about how helpful people find it. So sometimes we surprise people with freebies.

You also want to help your audience make the transition from observer to doer. And I’m going to talk about three different kinds of content you might send.

One is a myth buster, and the myth you’re busting are myths about your cause, or, you know, related to your cause or impact. So, misunderstandings about your cause, misperceptions about volunteering with your cause, misinformation that impacts what you do. So, you know, it might be something “Five Things You Didn’t Know” about whatever work you’re doing. That kind of thing is a myth buster.

Second area, second type of content to think through: mindset shifters. So, calling out limiting beliefs that might be existing in your volunteers or potential volunteers. Widening or narrowing the lens…so, we want to show people the big picture view of what we do, or we want to show a day in the life view of what we do or how our work impacts a single person. Future pacing, I love! So, telling a story about, what if, what if we all came together to do XYZ? I love the future pacing idea. So, example might be how improving XYZ helps our entire community. So maybe it’s something that volunteers are doing to improve in the community and how that might help everybody, not just individuals or not just your cause. So, you’re widening the lens on how that type of benefit can ripple all the way out.

And then the third area is a confidence booster, instilling new beliefs about volunteer capabilities, reassuring about available support you’ll have for volunteers. Sharing hero’s journeys stories, either of volunteers or the people they’ve served. So, an example might be a day in the life of XYZ nonprofit volunteer. These again might be a newsletter article or blog post, but they might just be a story or sharing in an email just saying, “hey, we’re sharing a story this week” so that people are opening your emails and feel like they’re getting to know you better. Remember commitment is a process, not a destination. And so, you’re really getting to know people.

We talked about the difference in this episode, we talked about the differences between social media and email and why email wins every time. We’ve talked about the tools you need: an email service provider, a freebie or lead magnet. We’ve talked about communicating and cultivating a list of followers and really educating them and helping remove any barriers they might have to volunteering and helping reassure them that what they may end up doing with you is absolutely possible.

Now, again, you’re not always necessarily posting calls to action in your emails. You’re just having a conversation. And then once in a while, when you have a new training coming up, or when you have, you’re doing a recruitment for a particular event, or you have a need for more volunteers, et cetera, then you also can send calls to action. You can either put them in, embed them in your current emails or send new email series or emails.
So, if you’re not sure what might be valuable to volunteers, why not ask? Send them surveys and pay attention to what they click and open. Start to get to know what kind of content your audience really resonates with, and then double down on that type of content.

To recap everything that we’ve talked about, this has been a pretty intense episode, but I want to go into a little just to remind you that social media is not the end- all, be-all when it comes to recruiting volunteers. In fact, email is your best friend, or can be your best friend if it’s approached properly. It performs better, but it also requires some time and planning to get off the ground.

But once you commit to a regular editorial calendar, as we like to call it here at VolunteerPro and Tobi Johnson and Associates, we have an editorial calendar where we’re sharing valuable content on a regular basis. You start to build a sort of universe or solar system of people who are in your orbit. They’re traveling around your sun and sooner or later they’re going to want to get involved.

So, the next time you’re out ready, thinking about asking people to come join your cause, or participate or contribute time and talent to a specific project you’re working on, or a role that you’re recruiting for, you have a group of people you can communicate with. You’re not starting from scratch.

One last thing before we log off, you do need to maintain these lists. People will come, people will drop off. If people haven’t been opening your emails for six months, then remove them from your list because they’re probably not interested anymore. And it will improve your open rates if you have a very tight focused list and your reputation. So you don’t get sent to the spam folder so often.

So keep your lists tight. Don’t hang on to people who aren’t interested. You know, again, commitment’s a process, not a destination. The people, the right people that your organization needs are out there, and you need to communicate with them, but don’t hold on to people too tightly, not necessary. Your people will come if you educate them, communicate with them, entertain them, at the right point in their time they’ll step forward and say yes.

So, thanks for joining me today to talk about how to recruit volunteers by building a following first. If you found this episode valuable, would you do me a favor and share it with a friend? We want to make sure that as many people as possible can benefit from our podcast. And I look forward to talking to you next time. So, take care and we’ll see you on the next Volunteer Nation podcast.

Volunteer Nation is produced by Thick Skin Media. Be sure to rate, review, and follow the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at Tobijohnson.com. We hope to see you next week for another episode of Volunteer Nation.