Episode #027: Secrets to Building a Sense of Community with Volunteers

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas 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, membership, or movement, stay tuned. I made this podcast just for you.  

Well, hello there and welcome to another episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. I am your host, Tobi Johnson, and I am thrilled to join you today to share some of my top secrets to building a sense of community with your volunteers.  

And you know, I feel like we’ve been with a deficit of community over the last few years. You know, it’s been hard. People have been locked up in their homes. They haven’t been able to interact with folks.  

We’re starting to venture out. We’re starting to get back together with friends and family and with our volunteers. And we’re finding maybe that we just haven’t been able to build back to the strong sense of community we may have had before the pandemic started. 

And so today I want to share a few ways to do that with your volunteers. I don’t know about you, but I remember very clearly in my childhood the first time I really experienced a true sense of community with other people. It was with my girls soccer team.  

I was 12 years old. I joined a soccer team called the Norpoint Dashers. Anybody in the Tacoma area, particularly the Northeast Tacoma area knows the Norpoint Soccer Club. They’re still around now to this day, much more expanded.  

But back in the day they had teams for all ages. I mean, we had girls teams, boys teams, little kids teams, all the way up to high school, and it was a fun place to be. And, you know, it was so important to me to building my sense of community in my local neighborhood, because our family had begun to build a house in the neighborhood.  

And I was new. You know, I started going to junior high in this new community. I didn’t know anybody. And it was a way that I got to make friends and I formed fast friendships with people. Some people I was friends with for most of my life.  

So it was a really interesting and fun thing to be involved in. I didn’t know a lot about soccer when I started, but I ended up getting so into soccer that I played until probably until I was about 50 years old. I played in co-rec teams. I played in college. 

I mean, it really formed the foundation of my soccer “career.” I never got paid for it, but there you go. So what made us a community as that team? Why did I feel like I belonged? Well, there was a structure to it.  

You know, we had a club. Various teams. We had a set of guidelines. We had the rules for playing soccer. We had uniforms. Our club colors were black and red, and we had these sort of vertical stripes on our uniforms.  

We had regular touchpoints. So we were meeting and having practices and then going to games every weekend. And we had a lot of fun. And you know what? These are all the raw ingredients for developing a strong sense of community within your volunteer core as well. 

So what about that? So sports and volunteerism, there’s a connection. You know, Oxford dictionary. I went online. I was just wondering what other people were saying about community. What the heck is community anyways?  

You know, it seems very amorphous, seems hard to pin down. So I went and took a look. So “community,” according to the Oxford dictionary, is a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. 

So for example, the nonprofit community, we might call a community. But it’s also a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. For example, a faith-based community.  

And you can see that community can also be a social group. It can also be a geographic location. There’s lots of different ways of looking at community. But when we look at a volunteer community, I think we’re looking at a few particular things.  

One is, I think, volunteer communities, a sense of community built amongst volunteers includes shared vision and goals for the greater good. As people come together in association, they are looking to achieve something. And in their orientation and coming together within an organization, their goals start to align to reach some type of goal together. They’re also willing to work together for a common purpose.  

So people might have a specific goal. And it may be that, let’s say, the goals are reproductive rights, but it may be that at some point, one group is doing one thing about reproductive rights and another group is doing something else. So they may not feel a sense of community necessarily, or have a strong community connection because their strategies for promoting reproductive rights might be different. 

Within a volunteer community, people are working towards the common goal together with a common set of strategies. Volunteer communities, in my mind, share some values in common, but not all values. Folks don’t necessarily need to share all values to feel a strong sense of community within their volunteer team.  

I think about my volunteering as a master gardener with Knox County Master Garden. I would say that our Knox County area gardening tips live team, and we go live on Facebook every Saturday morning as volunteers giving out gardening advice that we are extremely different. 

And we’ve even had conversations where we have disagreed about different approaches to life and different values that we have. And yet we stick together and we still do the work because we believe in the common goal.  

You know, communities of volunteers don’t necessarily need to have a hundred percent of all the values align, but there are usually a few that align and in our group, one of the values is that we have mutual respect for one another, even though we may be different. 

One of our values is that we show up for one another, that we are committed to what we’re doing. So there’s a lot of values we have in common, but they’re not all the same. We don’t have to have all of our values be the same for us to have a strong sense of community.  

Also that people feel like they belong. I think in a volunteer community, people have a strong sense of belonging. Now I think belonging is sometimes difficult to foster. And so for today, I want to talk a little bit more about how to foster this sense of belonging. 

You know, at core, what keeps communities together is social capital. When social capital is flowing, we feel a greater sense of community with others. Social capital is the value of social network. Bonding similar people and bridging between diverse people.  

So even with social capital, we don’t necessarily have to be in our volunteer community. We don’t have to be exactly the same as one another. We can still have bridging social capital amongst diverse groups. 

When we have a common goal, the norms in social capital and using and employing social capital, the fabric of what creates a community is a norm of reciprocity. So it’s a give and get. In order to build this sense of community and your volunteers, we have to have this sense of give and get.  

So social capital is what’s built and exchanged in a group or community. And it’s what we call on when we ask volunteers to do things for us, like raise funds or share word of mouth marketing about our open volunteer opportunities. So we’re asking volunteers to utilize their social capital, to expand our message to other groups.  

That’s one of the amazing powers of volunteerism. Certainly we’re having and asking people to come help us with tasks, projects, et cetera. But when folks are reaching into their own networks, they are using their social capital on our behalf. And we should be quite grateful for that.  

If you want to learn more about the power of community capital, as well as social capital as part of larger community capital, make sure you check out Volunteer Nation episode seven, where I talk about the power of volunteers as community capital. And we will link to that in the show notes.  

If you want to learn more about just how does social capital work, what constitutes community capital, all that good stuff. It’s a great place to learn more about that. You know, presumably the stronger our sense of community, the more likely volunteers will remain committed to the work, but also committed to one another. 

And so when we have a strong sense of community, we would hope that we would have better volunteer retention as well. So let’s pause for a quick break from our discussion about what it means to have a sense of community amongst volunteers.  

And after the break, we’ll talk more about how to build that sense of community. So we’ll be right back.  

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Okay, welcome back to our discussion about how to build a sense of community within our volunteers. You know, over the past few years, I have learned a fair amount about what it means to build community online.  

You know, we have our VolunteerPro Community. We build friendships. Peer to peer connections, learning, we’re sharing ideas. And I feel close to many of our VolunteerPro members.  

And I actually have never met well, hardly any of them in person. And yet we build a strong sense of community online. So I want to focus my conversation right now about what we can do online, because even when we are meeting in person, even when we are passing people in the halls, even when we’re having lunch or sharing a snack in the break room, even when we’re working shoulder to shoulder with our volunteers to get something done, we are still communicating with them online. 

And most of our volunteers are never going to run into one another. And when it comes to building a community of volunteers, we have to use things beyond simply in-person touchpoints. Those in-person touchpoints can be very, very essential to building a sense of belonging, but they can’t be our only tools because again, our volunteers aren’t bumping into one another and we have, you know, usually a larger group that needs to feel like it belongs to something. 

And so I want to talk about what you can do to build this sense of community. Now it’s important to understand that the role of the traditional volunteer coordinator who coordinates on-location volunteers will vary slightly from the person who really coordinates volunteers digitally.  

Now, usually we’re working in hybrid situations where people are coming in person and also sometimes we’re engaging them online. When we think about building a sense of community online, again, it relates to both your in-person volunteers, and also your online volunteers.  

I think everybody needs to learn these skills of engaging and building community online. So everybody needs to be willing to make some adjustments to their task and strategy to be successful. They need to start to see themselves as a community moderator, an online community moderator.  

This is a key responsibility that everyone who’s going to engage volunteers needs to start to build skills around. It’s a type of online leadership skill to promote a deeper sense of connection within your volunteer community. 

You know, it’s a common myth that online communities are self-sufficient right from the start. You merely set up a place for people to gather online or for people to go and get information, or simply for people to answer an email or open an email.  

You set it and forget it. Or you just send out broadcast emails and it takes care of itself. Community building happens. Well, that’s not really true. We can’t, there’s no such thing as “build it and they will come” when it comes to digital communications and marketing.  

It just doesn’t work that way. It takes some strategy behind the scenes. So I want to talk about what community moderation and building a sense of community might look like as part of your responsibilities as a leader of volunteers. 

Now, of course you can bring volunteers in to help you with this. This doesn’t have to all be done by you, but if you do not learn these skills and you sort of say, well, I’m just going to continue to do the in-person things I do, you will find that you will have less and less sense of community and that may impact your volunteer retention. 

And so these aren’t, I don’t think the skill of developing community and supporting community online is an add-on or an extra or optional in today’s world. I just don’t think it is. I think it’s something we all have to learn how to do if we’re going to engage communities on our missions.  

So let’s talk about what those responsibilities might include. Nurturing members, nurturing volunteers and encouraging their participation. So, actually reaching out to people and asking them to participate, researching current trends and late breaking news and understanding of community management.  

How does it work now? There’s a lot out there. Community, online community management is a growing field. You’ll see a lot of information out there about people who are managing branded communities.  

So lots of are the brands we buy from, the products we buy from, people will create communities around those brands. They’re usually customer support communities. And even though they’re not engaging volunteers and it’s not, or it’s not a paid community like VolunteerPro, there are still things to learn through those communities.  

I wouldn’t never say you only should be paying attention to community management information that’s related to volunteer engagement. People are people. And so we’re trying to engage people online and digitally, and there’s lots of things that people have learned throughout the years. 

And it’s a relatively new field. So we’ve gotta look to all corners to get our best practices. Another responsibility: researching current trends. Nurturing members and encouraging participation, reaching out to your super users, anybody who is really interacting.  

You know, it’s not going to be a large percentage. It never is. And people who are your super users who interact with your platforms, whatever you’re using, whatever tools you’re using, whether it’s an online community or you’re having zoom meetings or whatever you’re doing.  

You’re sending emails and asking for responses. You’ll have your group of super users. You need to cultivate and nurture them because they’re going to help you understand how to do better and they’re going to become ambassadors for you. So it’s important to reach out to your super users and build a subcommunity with them.  

Seeding content and structured conversation. So this in particular works well in an online community platform or a portal where it could be a private Facebook group. It could be a paid portal. We use a portal called Circle. We love it. It’s where we built our VolunteerPro Community. It’s fantastic! 

So we want to seed content. We want to have regular content we have that we share, and we want to structure conversations with people. You also need to of course manage the technology tools as well as learn how to manage community live community events. 

So everybody talks about zoom fatigue, and I have done over the pandemic. And even now we’ll do a half day to a full day online where I’m delivering training online, but there’s a lot I do. And I implement within that online event that virtual that keeps people involved.  

People are like, “There’s no way someone’s going to sit around for three hours.” Well, first of all, they’re not sitting around. And second of all, we structure in a way so it’s very engaging, and we take breaks and we create an online experience that can be almost as good as being in person.  

And so you need to learn what it takes to create and manage a really fantastic online community event so that your volunteers will come. 

Also, monitoring activity and evaluating performance. So how well is your volunteer sense of community? Are you checking on it? How much are people interacting with your different strategies? Do you know your volunteer’s level of satisfaction or feeling of belonging?  

These are things that you’re going to want to track over time so that when you make interventions, you know, whether or not they work. So part of this is about tracking what you’re doing. Part of it is about setting and creating the tools and setting them in the way that works.  

And part of it is about generating creative and structured conversations. It’s one of the most important roles I think for online community moderators. It’s how are you interacting. You know, you may assume that technologically skilled volunteers already know how to, and when to interact with people online.  

We think sometimes it’s really only the low-tech volunteers that need help, but the reality is you need to help guide everyone. So, you know, one of the other skills is productive volunteer community conversations, and that requires some proactive facilitation. 

Whether your volunteers are skilled with tech or not. So skilled with tech, for both sets of types of people, both sets of skills. You need to plan for structured conversations that can bridge gaps, increase frequency, quality, and depth of interaction online.  

I want to share a few other things about structured conversations that you might create online. Facilitated conversation. So you could do a live community chat. We’re going to brainstorm around a particular problem, or we’re going to have some social time, whatever it is, a facilitated conversation.  

Whether it’s a zoom meeting, we’re doing breakout rooms or you’re online doing live community chat. You can have structured conversation around an issue or question that’s relevant to volunteers. Like what would you like to see at our next blah, blah, blah.  

And you can create a community post. Let’s say you have a private Facebook group. You’re creating a community post where people are having some conversation about that. And you’re getting feedback.  

You can structure communications by giving folks a determined set of guidelines, like, “Hey gang, here’s how to post and introduce yourself” for example. You’d think that people would know how to do this, but people often don’t communicate and don’t post inside of a community because they feel like they’re going to get it wrong. 

And so if you can provide just a quick set of guidelines. For example, introduce yourself, here’s what we want you to share. Super helpful. Supporting resources, handouts, downloads, videos, anything like that, also engages people in your community.  

And the wonderful thing about online communities is when you have a lot of, if you’re posting replay recordings or you’re keeping your community portal and your community forum going, those conversations really act as an artifact for later reference and memorialize the concepts and the ideas that the community generates as a whole.  

So the mere fact that you have a place where people go to gather online that also can boost your sense of community. Now I shared a lot about building community online. I’ve talked about what it means to be part of a community, what it means to build a sense of community. 

I’m going to talk a lot more about this as the months go on. This is an area that I’m super interested in. I feel like it’s the area that is missing sometimes from our volunteer management conversations. I feel like we spend a lot of time on paperwork and policies and procedures and all that good stuff that forms the foundation for our volunteer efforts. 

But I also feel like it’s the people and our feeling of belonging that is really the juice that gets things done. It’s really the juice that gets things done. So today was really a preliminary conversation to just get the ball rolling.  

I’d love to hear in the comments what, how would you define a volunteer sense of community and what have you done at your organization to build and foster that sense of community. Because I think the more that we can build community in this world in this time in particular, and we can tap and foster and improve our social capital, I think our organizations are going to benefit from that.  

So let’s keep this conversation going. I’m really excited about it. I love this idea of rebuilding community. I’m going to investigate even more and I’d love to hear what you think.  

So make sure you rate and review and post in the comments to scroll to the bottom. Post in the comments and share, or tag us at VolPro.net, our VolunteerPro side of our house. And we will respond. We’d love to hear from you what you think about volunteer community. 

All right. So that’s what I’ve got for today. I hope you’ll join us next time, same time, same place here on the Volunteer Nation.  

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review so we can reach people like you who want to improve the impact of their good cause. 

For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at TobiJohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.