Episode #064: Using Email to Improve Volunteer Retention – Part 1 

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, I made this podcast just for you.

Welcome everybody to another episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. This one is a two parter. I am going to talk about how to improve volunteer retention using email. But I’m doing this in a two parter because there’s a little bit of not complexity but subtlety to this that I want to make sure you understand. Now, I have talked about volunteer retention before and I wanted to mention a few episodes that I’ve talked about it in case you haven’t had a chance to check up on those yet. So there’s one.

Episode 62 Ten Ways to Create an Exceptional Volunteer Experience this was just a few weeks ago, I am on it around volunteer retention lately because I really think we need to make sure our volunteers keep coming back. And then the second one is episode 45, build a Smarter Volunteer Retention Strategy. So check those both out. I will also post those in the show notes so you can check them out if you haven’t had a chance already. So, email, let’s talk about it. I think folks sometimes have given up on email. They think it doesn’t have the kind of bling that maybe social media might. Or you’re not getting good open rates, so you’re wondering if it even works at all, or you’re just not sure what to say and you feel like you’re just filling up people’s inboxes with spam, or your volunteers tell you they get too much email from you.

There’s lots of things that come up when it comes to email and I just want to take a moment and talk about how we can do this better because I do think that email has a lot of potential for us. I also think it doesn’t have to be as much work as we make it. And so in this two parter, I want to talk about how we can do this and build relationships even while we’re sleeping. So I want to kick it off though, with a thought about keeping in touch with people. People do welcome communications if you think about it. Anytime you buy something on Amazon, you get an email that says, hey, your order has been submitted. Then when your order is shipped, you get an email. If there’s a problem, you get an email.

When you know how much it costs, they’ll give you an email with an invoice. There’s all kinds of when you buy things online, not just with Amazon but with other sellers, you get a number of emails. It’s not just usually one. And we don’t complain about it. We’re like, you know what, good. I need to know that that shipment is on the way or even when it’s dropped off at your door, we get an email that says, hey, your shipment was dropped off. So as humans, we like to have some control over our processes or at least understand where we’re at in a specific process. And when it comes to volunteerism, there are a lot of behind the scenes processes that our volunteers aren’t aware of and want to know about, especially if they’re waiting for background checks to come back or they’re wondering when the next training will be.

Those kinds of things are things volunteers want to keep up to date on. So before we get started talking about what we might include in emails and the types of email campaigns we are going to or want to send to our volunteers, I want to go through a little bit about why we would choose email over social media. And so that’s what part one is. When we’re talking about using email to improve volunteer retention, our first question, is email really the answer or is social media a better platform for these communications? So I wanted to go through a pretty detailed list of the pros and cons of email and the pros and cons of social media so we have a deeper understanding of how each works and how each can help us. I don’t think it’s a one or the other, but I do think we need to be more purposeful about how we use each of these tools. So let’s talk about the pros of email when it comes to improving volunteer retention. So first of all, one of the biggest pros of emails of email is that you own your list. When you’re using social media, you don’t own your list.

The social media platform actually owns your followers and they can change their algorithms and change their mind and change access and even take your site down if they feel like it. So when you have email, you are the one that owns your list. That gives you a lot of control and confidence and security, that all your hard work to build a list isn’t lost overnight. A second pro of email is that your content is not controlled by an algorithm which doesn’t always deliver to a follower’s feed. So not all of your posts actually go to your followers feeds because the algorithm decides what’s going to get posted and what’s going to show up. But when you have email, the only thing that might get in the way is a spam filter. But other than that, it’s going directly to the folks that you’re communicating with. The other thing about email is ad free.

Unless you’re putting promotions in your emails, there is no advertising in your emails. So it’s really direct communication that’s ad free. Another thing about email that’s nice is it’s also consumed on phones, on smartphones. So it is a mobile type of communication. Social media we often think of as a mobile communication, but email is as well. So I think that’s a positive, especially when we’re trying to reach people where they’re at. I like email because you can pre plan what people get and when, and even follow up emails can be coordinated or pre planned based on what people click or don’t. So you can set up an email system, and I’ll talk about this in part two, but you can actually decide how often you can create a full campaign of emails that you set up ahead of time.

And depending on what people click on or open, you can set up what other subsequent emails people get. You can branch, you can send reminder emails. If people don’t open emails, there’s actually quite a bit of sophistication in terms of designing series of emails. So it’s pretty cool. I also like that these series of emails can be in a logical conversation, you can send a little bit of information at a time, rather than overwhelming people with a super long email, that people most of the time will open up and go, oh, I think I’ll save this and read it later. Well, most of the time they don’t read it later. So small short bursts of information over a logical series is a wonderful thing. Email communication also is very direct.

It is a more personal and direct form of communication with your followers and it allows you to tailor specific messages to specific parts of your audience. So you can actually segment your email and say, you know what, I’m sending this series of email to my brand new volunteers. I’m sending this series of emails to a certain team. I’m sending this series of emails to folks who have lapsed in their support of our organization. So there’s a lot of different ways to segment, which is really nice because you can do a little bit more tailoring of your message and that establishes a deeper connection because your reader realizes that you understand who they are and what their experience has been. All right, let’s continue with some pros on using email to improve volunteer retention. Another really helpful part of using email is targeted messaging. With email, you have actually also you can target your emails around demographics, interests and previous engagement, making sure your folks reach the right people.

So the criteria, I talked about some criteria before around someone’s on a specific team, or they’re in a certain part of your, maybe a certain part of your volunteer journey, but it might also be that you’re targeting messaging to young people. So you can think about targeting messaging to certain groups. Maybe you have a group of bilingual volunteers and you want to target some messaging in their language. So there’s some ways to also increase people’s feeling of you understanding them as different types of people. So I think that’s really interesting. The other thing about email versus social media, when it comes to improving volunteer retention, there are higher open and click through rates with email. Email tends to have higher engagement rates compared to social media. So subscribers, if they’ve willingly signed up for your list, they’re more likely to be interested in your content and may be more inclined to open, read, and interact with your messages.

And we know that by the data that we’ve seen. If you just look at email open rates versus social media, how much engagement email gets and how much people open and actually look at it, it’s much more, exponentially more than social media. All right, so to improve volunteer retention, those are some email pros to think about. Should I use email if those are the things that are appealing to you, which I think they should be. I think email is still a powerhouse. There are also, however, cons to using email, and I wanted to call those out as well. First of all, when you want to improve volunteer retention and you’re sending emails to your volunteers, you’re competing against a full inbox. There is oversaturation in email.

People receive numerous emails every day, and it’s easy for your message to get lost in a crowded inbox. Also, emails might be sent to spam or flagged to spam, and it’s hard to get them out of the spam box unless the person on the other end purposefully moves them to their inbox or puts you on their safe list. If you are hoping to automate emails, as I’ve said, I’m a big fan of creating automated email campaigns that build relationships while you sleep. You need software to do that. It’s not going to be your inbox, your regular email software. You’re going to need an email service provider, which I’ll talk about in a minute. It’s also, for email, harder to reach audiences that aren’t currently on your list. Email can be highly targeted, but you can really only send it to people who are on your list.

The only way to really reach new audiences is to ask your subscribers to forward your emails to friends. So when you’re trying to build an audience and attract new folks, email is not really going to cut it for you. So social media may be a better way to do that. It’s also less immediate and viral. Email doesn’t really have the same instant and viral potential as social media. Now, having a social media post go viral is a very hard thing to do. It’s very hard, and sometimes we don’t even know why it happens, right? Something catches the public’s eye and it just starts getting shared like crazy. And it’s fabulous when it happens, but it’s very hard to pull off.

So amplifying social media and relying on that as a way to get your word out probably is not going to really end up doing that for you. So by the same token, it’s a con on the side of email because you really do have to rely on your subscribers to forward or share the email and it may limit its reach. And then finally email. There are rules about email, laws about email, there’s GDPR in Europe and people need to opt in. I think it’s best practice really to have double opt ins, which means when someone subscribes to your email list that you send them another email that they need to click on and say, yes, I’m confirming that I want to hear from this organization. And that will mean that you have a cleaner email list. So it’s a smart thing to do. But sometimes people don’t click on that second link, they miss it in their inbox or they decide change their mind.

Usually they just miss it, might go to spam. So that double opt in is important. So we need to be a con of emails. It’s just not just winging it. There are some best practices and some formal things we need to do with our subscribers to make sure that they are interested in hearing from us. So those are a little bit about our email cons and pros. I also wanted to talk about social media pros and cons. As I said at the beginning, email isn’t the only way.

I think it’s a very good way to communicate with your supporters. But if you want to improve volunteer retention, social media can also be a tool. And so I want to talk about some of the pros to using social media versus email. So social media has a wide reach. Social media platforms have billions of active users, allowing you to potentially reach a vast audience. It’s an effective way to increase brand visibility, attract new followers, and engage a broader community of supporters. And so if you’re hoping anytime any of your followers comment or like or engage with one of your posts, it shows up in their feed and then whoever’s following them can see what they’re interested in. So it’s a great way to share and have a wider reach than email can have.

It has that instant and viral potential. Those posts can spread quickly. Shares, retweets and comments can amplify your message and engage your reach exponentially. And these usually happen when you ask for them. So you need to be able to ask for folks to support your social media posts. So the other thing is, on social media you get real time engagement. So social media enables interaction and engagement with your followers in real time. You can actually respond to and actually direct message.

Your followers answer questions, have conversations that are visible to others, and it does foster a sense of community and immediacy. So that’s another great pro for social media. Also social media, some social media platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook have their own free groups that you can set up. So you can set up your own communities to have your volunteers have a place to go where they can interact with one another. There are also paid communities, but social media platforms offer that. Again, you don’t own your group and things can happen to that group. The algorithm might change the way the group’s rules or what’s visible might change. That happened recently with Facebook.

They made all their Facebook groups public so anybody could see what was going on. And then for another pro for social media is not all volunteers use every platform or use them frequently. So you need to make sure you know which volunteers are using which platform. So that’s a con. But in a pro sense, if you’re trying to reach a specific demographic, like younger volunteers and you use TikTok, for example, then you’re probably going to start to connect with those younger volunteers on their turf, right? So you can go to their turf using social media. So I’m going to take a quick break and when we come back, I’m going to finish us up on part one of using email to improve volunteer retention. And I’m going to talk about social media cons and some of the reasons why you might decide social media isn’t where you’re going to spend most your time and energy. So don’t go anywhere.

I will be right back. If you enjoyed this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the Volunteer Pro Premium membership. This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting, engaging, and supporting dedicated, high impact volunteer talent for your good cause. Volunteer Pro Premium membership helps you build or renovate an effective what’s working now volunteer program with less stress and more joy so that you can ditch the overwhelm and confidently carry your vision forward. It is the only implementation of its kind that helps your organization build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system, the Volunteer Strategy Success Path. If you’re interested in learning more, visit volpro. Net join okay, we’re back with our discussion about how to use email to improve volunteer retention. Part one.

And I want to talk a little bit about social media cons some of the reasons you might not want to use social media when you are reaching out and communicating and improving your relationships with your volunteers. So let’s get into this a little bit. First off, and probably primary, is algorithmic control. Social media platforms, as we know, employ algorithms that determine which content is shown to users. So this can limit what we call the organic reach of your posts. When you’re not paying for advertising, you are relying on organic reach and your message may not reach all of your followers unless you invest in paid ads or boosted posts. And I read a few months ago that as little as 5% of your posts to Facebook organically will go to the newsfeeds of your followers. It’s gone down precipitously over the past several years.

And so social media is really an advertising platform and you just get to use it for free because they like people using it right to see the ads that are placed on it. So we need to accept that that’s what this is. The other thing with social media is you have a little bit of a lack of control on social media. You don’t have complete control over the platform or the user experience. The design, layout, features, et cetera are really their purview. And what happens is they make changes and then you’ve got to figure out what those changes are. Often they don’t announce them and you just got to figure it out. You’ll log in one day and you’ll be okay what’s this? This is different.

It’s really always continuous learning. You can’t rely on it being the same every time you log in. So the other thing is policy change in policies or algorithm, they don’t share what that is but it can impact how your content is displayed and distributed. So we’re not in control, we’re just along for the ride when it comes to social media. Another con of social media is you can lose control of the narrative that you’re putting out there as people share and comment on your preliminary post. And so there can grow maybe a negative narrative about something you’re talking about and you’ve got to do a lot of work and you’ve got to monitor carefully your reputation online to make sure no one has hacked you and you’re seeing positive comments. Now it’s not that you can’t have debates and conversation on social media but because people are sort of hiding behind their social media avatars, people are sometimes less, I think compassionate than they are in email. Especially there are trolls online so you got to watch out about that and you really do need to make sure that there’s a fair amount of hacking and there’s a fair amount of phishing going on in the social media space.

I remember we did some advertising recently and I immediately started getting emails of people trying to tell me that my Facebook was not complying, my Facebook page was not complying with Meta, which is Facebook, the company’s name is changed to Meta. That Meta had that I was not complying with Meta’s rules and they wanted me to click through. And then I started looking at the email was really good, it had their logo, it looked like it was for real. And then I started clicking on things and I was like, nah, someone’s trying to fish and get my information. So I delete it and moved on. But who wants to deal with that? It doesn’t feel good. So another con of social media is that there’s just distraction and noise. Social media platforms are filled with various content and distractions as well as advertising.

Some of our ads you might see on Facebook from time to time making it harder to capture and retain your followers attention. Your message can get easily and quickly buried under amongst countless other posts and updates. So that’s another con I would also say that both a pro and a con for social media is really to get the best traction and attention, you need video. You really need video content and video content. Not everybody wants to be on video. It takes more work to create video. It doesn’t have to be super high quality, but it’s just harder to do. It just takes more time than just posting a graphic and some text.

So if you like video and you like to be on camera and you have volunteers who like to be on camera, then video is a pro for you when it comes to social media. If nobody likes to be on video, then it’s a con when it comes to social media. So, in summary, email provides more direct and targeted communication, higher engagement rates, and a personalized approach, while social media offers wider reach, instant engagement, and viral potential. So the choice between two if you want to improve volunteer retention, really depends on your goals, target audience, the nature of what you want to share. And there’s nothing wrong with using a combination of both to leverage the strengths of each platform and maximize your reach and engagement. So that’s what I wanted to share in part one. In part two, I will circle back around and I’m going to talk about more about email and the different ways you can use email to reach your audience and also improve volunteer retention. So I hope you’ll like and subscribe if you haven’t already and share this with a friend.

And I hope to see you next time, same time, same place for part two of Using Email to Improve volunteer retention. Take care, everybody. 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.