Episode #005: 8 Ways Your Nonprofit Website is Failing to Attract Volunteers

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.

Have you ever been to a party where you didn’t know anyone and felt completely alone?

How long did you stick around? Either It’s too quiet, hardly anybody’s there, and you’re kind of standing around in the corner wondering if anyone’s ever going to come over and say hi. Or it’s so chaotic that you’re not even sure where to find anybody, or what to do next.

What about one where you felt welcomed? You knew what you were supposed to be doing there. You were introduced to others. You got into great conversations with folks. How long did you stick around then? You probably stuck around a little bit longer.

That’s what your nonprofit volunteer website may be doing. It may be a place that people come. They don’t really understand what’s going on. They don’t feel welcomed. They feel like a stranger, and they’re out of there.

Or it could be, they come to your website, they feel welcomed. They feel like they understand who the other folks are that are there. They feel like they’re getting introductions to people. And they’re like, “You know what? I really am glad I came to this party, and I want to stay longer, get involved deeper.”

That’s what we want your nonprofit volunteer website to feel like. But most don’t. And so today I am going to share eight mistakes people make when it comes to their nonprofit websites and attracting volunteers. Unfortunately, most nonprofit websites aren’t optimized to build relationships with browsers, and to convert them into potential volunteers.

So whether you’re a website designer at your organization, or you have input into what’s included, this podcast is designed to help you design a better experience.

So that’s what we’re going to talk about today, is how to create a nonprofit website that actually, prospective volunteers want to explore further and stick around and get to know you.

There are super powerful ways that you can create a space for people to get involved, but it all starts with your website. It’s your front door, it’s the foyer of the front hallway of your party. And we want to make sure it’s as welcoming as possible.

Consider these statistics when you think about the power of your website to convert prospective browsers, people poking around on the internet, into active volunteers. There’s a process that has to be in place. And we often don’t spend enough time really thinking about how well our websites are doing this.

Here’s some stats to really open your eyes about digital marketing and specifically the power of websites. So the average internet user, age 16 to 24, spends 6 hours and 58 minutes online each and every day across all devices. That’s nearly half their day, if you don’t count sleeping, When I, when I see this – and every year this, this statistic goes up just a little bit – but nearly seven hours a day, we are on some type of a device.

And where are we going on these devices? We’re either going to apps, or we’re going to websites. So you’re starting to see why your nonprofit website needs to absolutely be optimized when it comes to attracting volunteers.

Here’s another stat, 81% of retail shoppers conduct online research before buying. The overwhelming majority of retail consumers start their journey with online research. The same goes for volunteers.

If you think about it, when people start to think about giving back to the community or in their community, it starts with an internet search. It starts with the Google, right? People log into Google or they’re poking around, or maybe they’re laying around watching TV on a Friday night, and their kids are watching the latest superhero show or superhero movie. They’re not that interested in it. So they’re like, “You know what? I’m going to pick up my phone and start browsing.”

And then, “You know what? Maybe I should volunteer my time somewhere. Huh. I wonder if there are any volunteering opportunities to work with animals.” You know, that’s what we do. We browse on our smartphones.

Everybody is researching you. So if you don’t have a lot on your website about volunteerism to educate your browsers, and folks on the internet looking around for places to serve, you’re not doing your organization a good service.

Third stat I want to share: the share of mobile e-commerce sales in total e-commerce or total sales is 72.9%. In other words, nearly three out of every $4 spent on online purchases today is done through a mobile device.

So not only do you need to have a website that’s optimized, you also need to have it optimized for a smartphone because that’s where smartphones and tablets, mostly smartphones, are where people are getting their information. So we’ve got to not only think about the information we’re sharing, but how it’s designed and optimized and laid out online. So there’s a lot to think about here.

I will hear people say, you know, “How do I, how do I create my next volunteer flyer? What do you guys think about my flyer?” And my, my next question, my first question is: what does your website look like? Your flyer doesn’t matter that much. It’s your website.

So if you have limited time on your hands – and most leaders of volunteers do, and most nonprofit staffers do – this is one place where you want to prioritize your time when it comes to attracting volunteers.

And I’ve had the opportunity recently to review a number of volunteer websites, and witness firsthand how organizations may be leaving volunteer talent on the table. I really do think that folks are coming to your website and they’re leaving, just like that party where people don’t feel welcomed, and they feel kind of like a stranger.

It’s either super chaotic, or it’s super quiet and there’s nothing going on. They’re like, “You know what? This isn’t a party I want to stick around for.” So in this post, I’m sharing eight mistakes, eight mistakes that are made by today’s nonprofit websites when it comes to attracting new volunteers.

These are based on key assumptions about the audience and volunteers in general. And so I’m going to share mistakes, but I’m going to talk about them in terms of the thinking behind why this mistake happens. Okay?

Because I think, you know, if you follow me you’ll know, that I think mindset is almost everything in terms of what strategies we choose as leaders in the nonprofit space, there are mindsets behind why we do what we do, even when it comes to how we lay out and what we include on our website.

I’ll also offer, I’m going to talk about mistakes, but I’m also going to talk about tips about what you can do instead to improve the experience of your website visitors, to make sure they feel welcome to your party and stick around. And these changes will help improve your nonprofit website conversions of visitors into volunteer applicants.

That’s what we want, right? We want a higher majority of people who visit your website to say, “Yes, I want to volunteer. I want to serve. I want to bring my time and talent to your organization.” Now, by the way, these optimizations will also help with your donations, with your financial contributions.

So let’s get started. Let’s start with Mistake #1. Mistake #1: when people are, when you’re putting together your website, the biggest mistake that I see most nonprofit websites make when it comes to engaging volunteers, is that you assume that people already know who you are, that people already know who you are.

Maybe they were sent to your website because of other information that they received, maybe it was a flyer that someone gave them. Maybe it was a brochure. Maybe it was somebody went to a talk and learned about your organization. Maybe you have a social media post that sending people to your website.

All those could be true, but you’re forgetting also all of the people that are just poking around the internet, looking for information. So we need to make sure that on our website, we are making sure we’re educating our visitors, our potential volunteers, our browsers, about why you exist, and make sure you leave out that jargon and those acronyms.

I see that a lot in nonprofit websites, people using jargon and acronyms that aren’t spelled out. Most of the general public does not understand what you mean. And if they don’t feel like they understand the language, they’re going to leave.

Imagine if you went to a party and people, everybody, 100% of the people were speaking another language, or people were just speaking in their own insider speak. You’d leave that party, too. Cause you wouldn’t feel like you were welcomed or involved. So that’s Mistake #1.

Mistake #2, another assumption: assuming people have already made a decision to volunteer. Think about it, when you go out on that first date with somebody you’re attracted to, you’re getting along. Maybe you met on the internet, you’re getting along.

You know my husband and I met on the internet, and we spent a lot of time getting to know each other because we didn’t live in the same city. In fact, we lived across the country from one another, and we spent a lot of time sending emails, getting to know one another before we ever even jumped on the phone with one another.

So when you’re really getting to know somebody, you’re not assuming that you’re going to stay with them, or that you’re going to get married. For example, you know, when you, when you go on a first date, you don’t ask somebody to get married. You also don’t ask them to sign a prenup.

Imagine, imagine you met somebody on the internet, you’ve had a good conversation and you think, “Okay, I’m going to give this a shot” and you get together for your first date in person. You don’t sit down and go, “Hey, why don’t we get married? And by the way, here’s a piece of paper I want you to sign.”

But you know, many nonprofit websites feel that way when it comes to volunteers, because you’ll go to the volunteer page and the first thing you see is a volunteer application, which is the same as asking to get married, right? Here’s the volunteer application. I want to know everything about you. And I want to know that you are committed to the long-term.

Well, hold up. I’m not even sure I want to be in relationship with you, right? And then to top it off, some websites will ask people to sign a confidentiality agreement, a waiver, et cetera. And that feels like a prenup. Well, hold up. We’re just on our first date. I don’t even know if I’m going to share all this information with you, let alone agree to get married and sign a prenup.

So you can see how this can feel to a person who’s just browsing on the internet, looking for a place to give their time and talent, that all of a sudden it’s feeling really serious and kind of off-putting.

So, assuming that people have already made a decision, you’re already asking for all of this information upfront. Instead you might ask for an interest form. Would you like to get more information? Or ask for a freebie? Would you like to download this free guide on how to volunteer with us and to get more information about what we do? So we can’t assume that people have already made a decision or are even close to making a decision.

That brings us to Mistake #3: assuming people are ready to volunteer right now. Now people may have gotten to know you. They may have been on a few dates, right? They may have learned more about you, decided they want to help, but they may not be ready to help right now.

So again, don’t let them leave your website without offering a way to stay in touch. Have them complete an interest form, or download a freebie with their name and email, so that you can continue to stay in conversation with them. So we can’t assume we…you know, people may, again may have gotten to know, you may have decided they want to help, but may not be ready to help right now. And you don’t want them to go away and forget about you.

You want to stay in conversation with them so that when they are ready…You know, maybe right now their kids are getting ready to go off to college. They’re packing everybody up. They’re driving people to school, they’re dropping them off. And right now for parents, that is like the only thing they can do.

But once they get back and they’re empty nesters, “Wow, what am I going to do with my time? Maybe it’s volunteering. Maybe that’s what I want to do. And I remember thinking about volunteering before, and I did a little research and I hear from this one organization from time to time. I think I’m going to reach out to them. I’m going to go back to their website. Oh yeah. Here’s an email I have from them.”

So we want to stay top-of-mind to folks until that point in life. That inflection point, I like to call it, where people are ready to make a true commitment. So I’ve got a few more mistakes I’m going to share with you right after this break. We’ve talked about three. We’re going to talk about five more that are related to assumptions we make about our audience.

So again, we want to make sure that we have a website that feels like a party, a party that people want to stick around and have fun at. So after the break, I’ll continue to share how you can optimize and make that party the best ever.

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So welcome back. Today we are talking about how to optimize your nonprofit website, so that it is as welcoming as possible to prospective volunteers.

And so, I’ve started off with three mistakes, three assumptions we make about our audiences when we’re building our websites, our prospective volunteers, that we want to rethink those assumptions and also design our websites around the reality of our audiences.

So let’s continue with Mistake #4. Mistake #4: assuming people have the time or inclination to read pages and pages of text. Oh, lord. I can’t tell you how many nonprofit websites I’ve looked at when it comes to attracting volunteers where their volunteer pages are scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.

Remember before the break, I talked about how many people are using their smartphones and devices, rather than laptops and desktops, to look for information on the internet? Well, we want to make sure that we’re optimized for that, because nobody’s going to scroll for five minutes on their smartphone, just not going to happen.

People are busy. So we’ve got to create content that gives it to them in short bites, not a novel. Short, digestible bites of information, not a novel. So Mistake #4 is really about how you structure and simplify your information when it comes to attracting volunteers from your website.

Okay, Mistake #5: assuming people don’t want to research on a deeper level. Now, that’s sort of the opposite of Mistake #4, assuming people don’t want to read. This is assuming that nobody wants to read anything. It’s a little bit of the opposite, but if your organization has piqued someone’s interest, then they do want to research further.

So this is all about creating links to deeper information for people who do want to do the rest of the research. You can do this by, you can link to success stories, frequently asked questions, your organization’s plans for the future, et cetera. A low-down rundown of what’s involved in your volunteer training, those kinds of things, but not on the main, what I call volunteer hub page.

You want to link to deeper information on other web pages. So you create for potential volunteers, you’re creating sort of a mini website within your nonprofit website, where there’s a constellation of information. The first page should be very short, to the point. And then you can link back to deeper information for those folks who really want to do that research.

Let’s talk about Mistake #6: assuming it’s all about you, as in your organization. This is a huge one. I see this a lot. Humans are self-centered. We need to understand that humans are self-centered. If something isn’t relevant to us, we move on. Just like I talked about being at the party. If the party doesn’t look like it’s something that we’re going to find fun, we’re going to leave, right?

So we need to speak to our audience’s needs and desires, which may be to help others. I’m not saying your visitors aren’t altruistic. Of course they are. But when we speak to our own needs, in other words, our own organization’s laundry list of requirements for volunteers.

I see this all the time. People will lead with this. You must do XYZ to volunteer with us. Well, wait a minute. I’m not even sure I am interested yet. Why don’t you share a little bit more about what I might get done with you?

So we want to communicate what I call the candy versus the wrapper. As a nonprofit, the wrapper or the features, the wrapper is all of the things that go on in your volunteer program. Do people have to complete a background check? Is there training? Is there a minimum number of hours per month or per week that volunteers are expected to contribute, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

There’s usually a laundry list of things. What is the step-by-step process to get involved? That thing is important. Those things are important to share, but they are not the thing that is most interesting to your reader. At least not at the beginning. Those are the features, the wrapper.

And if you think about a candy bar, somebody gave you a candy bar, which would you rather eat, the wrapper or the candy? I think we all know we’d rather have that chocolate. So the chocolate or the candy are the benefits.

What do people get out of volunteering with you? You want to lead with that. What change is brought about in the world because people contribute their time to your organization? That’s where you start your conversation, not the wrapper. Here’s 25 things you need to know about getting involved.

Remember that people want to hear about themselves. First. You want to, you want to be volunteer-centric in your communications, and then you can share your organization’s requirements. So that’s Mistake #6, assuming it’s all about you. It’s not, it’s all about your volunteer.

Mistake #7: assuming people already know how they want to help. So people may have decided they like your organization. They want to help. They’ve even decided when they’re going to start helping, but they don’t know how they want to help.

Often you’ll go to a nonprofit website, and they’ll ask visitors to choose the volunteer roles that they’re interested in when they don’t even know what the differences are. You know, I’ve seen this a million times. What do you want to do with our organization? Here’s a checklist. Check the boxes.

Well, I don’t even know what these things are. How do I know? You want to make sure that you’re not offering, you know, offering a volunteer opportunity isn’t like offering something off of a fast food menu. Do you want to side with that? You want to supersize that? And people don’t know what that means.

Instead, offer an interest form to get people started, or take time to have them share what they want to offer. And then start to have a conversation about how it might match the needs that you have. You can describe in more detail what some of these roles are.

Or rather than offering a laundry list of specific volunteer roles, why not talk about the types of ways or, you know, do you want to be involved on a weekly basis? Do you like to do XYZ? More of, you know, sort of a personality quiz of, do you like being out in public? Do you like to do things behind the scenes?

Those kinds of things, helping people match in more and then offering people a space to talk about, you know, what are their biggest interests. Don’t assume everybody knows exactly what your roles entail, and don’t create something that feels like a fast food menu.

Okay, final mistake. Mistake #8: assuming people will wait very long for a response. People on the internet, you know in today’s world we expect to get a response back within one business day. That should be the standard.

Sometimes it takes weeks to get back to someone. I remember I applied for a mentoring program, and I wanted to become a mentor. It took them, I don’t know, three or four months to get back to me. And then when I finally did my interview as a volunteer, then they never got back to me again.

And I was like, well, I don’t get it. Should I wait? Or should I go ahead and contribute my time elsewhere? So if you’re leaving volunteers in limbo, that’s not fair because other organizations need them. Volunteers want to contribute their time; let them get on with it. So if you’re not going to utilize their time, let them know.

And when you don’t get back to folks, it gives people the impression that volunteers aren’t needed. And you know, it gives volunteer organizations as a whole a bad reputation as unresponsive. We don’t want to do that, because you know what, people don’t always discriminate between organizations. This sort of volunteerism in general feels this way.

So get back to people within one business day. Even if it’s an automated email, that’s okay. Let them know that you’ve received their inquiry. Let them know when you’ll get back to them.

Think about when people order things on Amazon. You know that the order is made. You know that the order has been received. You know when your estimated time is to get your package shipped. You know when it’s out for delivery. I mean, you know. Now I’m not saying you need to communicate to that level, but let people know the process and what step they’re in, in the process.

In this episode, we’ve talked about eight assumptions we make when we think about our audience, and how those relate to or impact how we design volunteer webpages that welcome people to our party.

So just to recap: Mistake #1, assuming people already know who you are. Mistake #2, assuming people have already made a decision. Mistake #3, assuming people are already ready to volunteer right now. Mistake #4, assuming people want to read a lot of text. And on the flip side, Mistake #5, assuming people don’t want to read more if they’re interested.

Mistake #6, assuming it’s all about you. Mistake #7, assuming people already know how they want to help. And Mistake #8, assuming people will wait very long for a response. So think about those assumptions. If they’re at work in your organization, flip the script.

Think about what the reality is of people poking around on the internet and take steps to create a place for a party that people want to not only come to, but stay at. You know, volunteers are consumers. They are consumers, and they are no doubt researching the organizations that they are going to choose to support. So it’s absolutely vital that we develop a helpful place for them to land, explore and make a commitment.

If you’re thinking about improving your volunteer recruitment results, and you only have so much time on your to-do list, start with your website. It is absolutely the first place you should go to make improvements. And when you make improvements, you will see improvements in your results in terms of the number of volunteers you have supporting your nonprofit.

So I hope this has been a helpful episode today. If you like it, if you feel like it was helpful to you, if you feel like it might help others, would you do me a favor and share it with a colleague or two?

Let them know that we’ve got this episode up here on our website, you can follow us on any podcast platform of your choosing, and we will see you next time on another Volunteer Nation podcast. Thanks for joining me.

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.