5 Steps You Need to Know for Persuading Volunteers to Join Your Cause

It’s occurred to me that we spend a tremendous amount of time persuading volunteers.  Whether it’s a cautious applicant, a doubtful volunteer, a reluctant board member, a fatigued intern, or a tentative community partner, we are all in the business of making the case to others to join our cause or buy into our ideas to make our work better.  And yet, we spend little time understanding how to do this well.

Instead, we work on crafting the best possible job description, volunteer recruitment ad, training materials, or fact sheet.  These are important, to be sure, but maybe it’s also time to figure out how to get better at “buy-in.”

How Do We Decide?

So, just how do human beings decide to support an idea or cause, which inevitably means they make a change in their behavior?  What happens in the human makeup, the grey matter, the spirit?  Marketers have studied this for eons.  In fact, the quest to convince is the core of marketing — and they have quite a bit to offer the discussion, as do psychologists and behavioral economists. 

Lately, I’ve begun to study this, too, in relation to persuading volunteers.  Maybe as an armchair aficionado, partly because I find human behavior truly fascinating, but ultimately, because I think we in the volunteer sector can’t do without it.  The human brain is now bombarded with tens of thousands of messages each day, and it is adapting to better cope with information overload.  That adaptation may well indeed make our brothers and sisters even harder to reach.  And, we need to connect; our communities need it, and our world needs it.

So, as I study what the wise ones know about human persuasion, I’ll share what I learn with you.  And, I’ll mention how I think it can be used to garner greater support for our volunteer programs and make them more effective.  Sound like a plan?

Here’s my first foray into the topic at hand.

Five Steps To Persuading Volunteers

This week, I finished the book “Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down” by John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead.  They posit that there are four ways people try to derail good ideas — fear-mongering, delay, confusion, or ridicule.  Luckily, irrespective of the attacker’s underlying motivations, these tactics can be defused so that enough buy in can be generated to propel an idea forward.  

They suggest the following, relatively simple method, to convert attacks into support.  In their case, they suggest this would happen in a group setting.  I can imagine it working in a team meeting or retreat (I don’t think it would work well on a conference call). 

Step One: Gain people’s attention by allowing the attacker’s in and letting them attack.  While this seems counterintuitive, give them air time to better make their case.  It will position you well if you can stomach it.

Step Two: Then win the minds of the relevant, attentive audience with simple, clear, and commonsense responses.  Although our naysayers appear to represent the majority, this is rarely the case, at first anyway.  But, if you don’t respond effectively they will have an opportunity to win a larger share of your audience and thus stymie your movement forward.

Step Three: Win their hearts by showing respect.  While it’s sometimes hard to keep your cool in conflict situations,  your audience will be won over more by your demeanor than a long, drawn out debate about why your idea is best.  People decide on emotion, and they are more likely to support someone who’s likable. This means you must show — through your tone of voice, calm demeanor, and actively listening — that you respect even the people who disagree with you.  So, take the high road…always.

Step Four: Constantly Monitor the people whose hearts and minds you need: the broad audience, not the few attackers. This means scanning the audience, tracking their level of support by their body language and facial expression.  While you respect your naysayers, you don’t need to focus all of your attention on them the entire time.  Keep taking the pulse of the room to see where you’re at.

Step Five: Prepare for these steps in advance.  If you’ve already floated the idea to a few people, or have suggested something similar in the past, you likely already know what the counter arguments or issues will be.  Be ready, prepare your responses carefully, but don’t script them.  Remember, there’s no reason you can’t bring notes to your meeting to remind you.  Also, put yourself in the right mindset before your meeting.  “Open, respectful, calm, efficient” is a great mantra.

In the beginning of the book, Kotter and Whitehead recount a story of a community meeting where an idea is in the midst of getting shot down, but the leader saves the day.  It demonstrates their strategy in action, but even more helpful are their suggested responses to twenty-four common attacks — based on the four tactics people use to derail mentioned above.  

Six Common Attacks and Simple Responses

Here are a six attacks I hear frequently (with my two cents in parenthesis) and the responses Kotter and Whitehead recommend.  They’re short and to the point, which is a brilliant part of the strategy in action.

1) Attack: We’ve never done this in the past, and things have always worked out okay.  (This comes up often when we ask staff to make a significant shift in a comfortable way of doing business.  Think about what happens when someone suggests you use social media to connect with volunteers …)

Response: True, But surely we have all seen that those who fail to adapt eventually become distinct.

2) Attack: Money is the issue, not … (you fill in the blank).  (i.e., better tactics, more strategic direction, more flexibility for volunteers, a better volunteer recruitment process, increased attention to why volunteers leave, etc.  Many argue that if they just had more money, the problem would solve itself.)

Response: Extra money is rarely what builds truly great ventures or organizations.

3) Attack: We’re simply not equipped to do this. (I’ve heard this one a lot from folks.  Teams are struggling to see, and take advantage of, the abundance of resources available out there.  It’s a mindset we need to work on.  Isn’t capacity building what volunteerism is all about?)

Response: We have much of what we need, and we can and will get the rest.

4) Attack: The plan may be fine, but we cannot do it without extra money.  (This one is very similar to the attack listed above.  In this case, you do need to do your homework.  You’ll need to think through what resources would be needed to bring your idea to fruition.  If it’s over the top, and your organization cant even come close to affording it, then think again about your proposal.  Can you scale it back?  Are there ways to implement that are low cost — for example with the help of pro-bono volunteers? I’m not saying money doesn’t help, but it’s not the only thing that inspires greatness.)

Response: Actually, most important changes are achieved without new sources of money.

5) Attack: It’s just too much work to do this.  (Also, similar to the two above, this focuses on a poverty mindset — we simply don’t have the resources to make any changes right now.  Is that really true?  Imagine all the social changes that have happened in the world.  Did it happen due to a big budget?  Not so much.  And, many truly great ideas will, actually save time in the end.)

Response: Hard can be good.  A genuinely good idea, facing time-consuming obstacles, can both raise our energy level and motivate us to eliminate wasted time.

6) Attack: It won’t work here because we are so different.  (I’ve heard differences identified as rural versus urban, large versus small organization, our population served versus your population served, my neighborhood versus your neighborhood, etc.  In the end, some of the tactics you use may be slightly different, but human motivation remains the same — I’ll talk more about what the research says about that in upcoming blog posts, so stay tuned.)

Response: Yes, it’s true; we’re different, but we are also very much the same.

The Key to Persuading Volunteers is Focus

You’ll notice that all these responses are short and sweet.  To build buy in, you don’t need to come up with a huge justification to each issue raised.  You should have already presented your proposal at the beginning of your meeting, so there’s no need to rehash it.  People just need to see that you are listening, feel that they are being respected, and know that you’ve done your homework behind the scenes and are confident with your idea.  

After it’s all said and done, if everyone’s had a chance to speak, and you think you have enough buy in the from the group at large (you may hear them admitting they have a problem to fix, and they feel the proposal is good), you can close.   Take a vote or announce your decision to move forward based on your decision-making process.  If a few folks still want to debate details, do it one-on-one later, but make it clear that the decision has been made. 

This doesn’t mean it might not get altered in the future, but for now, what’s done is done.