Juggling Act: How to Serve Clients and Recruit Volunteers at the Same Time

This week, I’m at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Train-the-Trainer in Atlanta.  I had a chat with some wonderful volunteers and staff from a local Area Agency on Aging (AAA) who help beneficiaries navigate the complex world of Medicare. They need more volunteers, but are struggling with how to fit volunteer recruitment into busy days filled with direct service work.  

While there are no silver bullets — engaging high quality volunteers takes time, and volunteers rarely recruit themselves — there are some ways to make your work more productive and efficient in this area.  Here are a few ideas.

Volunteer Recruitment for Extremely Busy People

  • Consider Restructuring Your Current Volunteer Involvement — Check your current volunteer schedule and determine whether everyone’s time is being used effectively.  Are people matched with the right jobs?  Can anyone help with any of your tasks, including volunteer recruitment?  If you’re not sure, brainstorm all of your tasks and then evaluate each.  Ask yourself, which are tasks that can only be done by me?  Keep those, and share the rest.
  • Look Upstream — Engagement in a cause often starts with small steps.  Don’t neglect getting people involved in small ways before they make a bigger comittment.  Identify people who are predisposed to support your cause, but haven’t yet.  Can you engage them in some small way before you ask them to volunteer long-term?  This could include a day of volunteering but could also involve doing something else online or via social media — like voting on an idea, giving feedback, sharing your information with friends, etc.  Think about the baby steps a supporter could take.  Then, keep in touch and let them know when volunteer opportunities become available.  
  • Use Do-it-Yourself Application Systems —  You don’t need to stop everything to help a potential volunteer apply for your program.  Post info about volunteer requirements, training, application materials, and testimonials from current volunteers on your agency website. This allows interested applicants to access your information at any time, without waiting for a call back.  Make sure there is a direct link to this informaton from a button on your organization’s home page, and provide your name and direct contact information, should someone want to talk to a live person.
  • Make Word-of-Mouth Marketing Work for You — Spend time building trust and “mission moments” with your current volunteers.  Give them something absolutely fantastic to share with their friends and family — something surprising, delightful, exceptional, unusual, etc.  And, make sure your volunteers’ positive experiences are easy to distribute through video, photos, email, and social media.  Be worth taking about.  This is the best way to build buzz about your volunteer opportunities. 
  • Plan Annually — Don’t plan volunteer recrtuiment by the seat of your pants, or worse yet, not at all.  Put together an annual calendar that includes all of your activities — grant and reporting deadlines, special events, holidays, volunteer recruitment campaigns, volunteer training dates, etc.  Estimate the volunteer and staff hours you’ll need for each activity. Then, share your plan with your boss.  Ask for their feedback on priorities and any ways to save time.  If there are more hours than FTEs available, have a candid discussion about what’s possible and what may need to be given up, at least in the short term.  Emphasize the value volunteers bring to the table in terms of positive program outcomes, and then negotiate a specific amount of time in your schedule to be devoted to volunteer recruitment. 
  • Get Some Temporary Help — See if executive management will agree to hiring temporary paid staff in your department.  Be clear about what you want them to do and how they will help you get ahead.   Make this ask in conjunction with the discussion of your annual plan.
  • Schedule Regular Volunteer Orientations — Rather than hosting them willy nilly, consolidate your efforts into monthly open houses and assign people (staff and volunteers) to conduct them.  Invite anyone who’s interested in volunteering to come down and learn more about your program at that time.  Make sure you schedule both day and evening times, so that applicants with different schedules can attend. You can also post an on-demand orientation webinar online they could view from home.
  • Ask your Development Department & Board of Directors to Help — Ask your current supporters and donors to help out, either as volunteers for your program or to help spread the word about your volunteer needs.  Your development department can help you craft appeal messages that make sense and will dovetail with their fundraising efforts.  If they are skeptical, tell them that volunteers are more likely to donate than non-volunteers, so helping you is helping their own fundraising.
  • Ask Current Volunteers to Expand their Hours — See if they are willing to take on short-term projects that will help you get ahead.  Be clear about how long these projects will take and agree to the maximum number of hours they would work in any week.  If they have the time, most volunteers will be more than happy to help in the short-term, provided there is an end date.
  • Use a Student Intern — Get a student onboard to help with office administration and volunteer recruitment efforts.  Don’t expect them to recrtui on their own, though.  They’ve never been trained and probably don’t know what to do.  College students do, however, know a lot about social media and using the internet.  Have them help you set up a communications campaign that reaches far beyond your traditional comfort zone.  You can also work with local colleges to recruit teams of student interns — such as pharmacy, social work, communications, business, or nursing students — who can help out with direct client service or building an volunteer marketing plan.  Advertise it as an internship, versus a volunteer gig, and give plenty of training and acknowledgment.
  • Use Pro-bono Professional HelpThere are highly-skilled people around the world who want to help, and they frequently have more volunteers than projects.  Be sure to set up a work agreement with them, even though they are not being paid, so that everyone understands the project’s main objective, their roles, and the timeline. 
  • Focus Your Recruitment Seasonally — Instead of recruiting all year round, consolidate your recruitment, orientation, training, and mentoring.  Mount your campaign(s) during times of low-volume client service, if you have them.
  • Use an Ounce of Prevention: Have Current Volunteers Help with Succession Planning — Your planning for the new generation of volunteers should be ongoing.  Ask your current volunteers to develop desk references that their replacements can pick up and run with.  Also engage them in in-service training and coaching new volunteers.  That way, you aren’t left in the lurch later.

Do you have any hot tips to share with our friends at the AAA?  If so, please post in the comments.