Recruiting Volunteers with Two Simple Marketing Strategies  

When recruiting volunteers do you post to VolunteerMatch, your website, and social media and call it good? Ask volunteers and staff to tell their friends and you’re golden? Send an email blast to your entire list and pray for the best? 

Maybe these will work, but perhaps you need a more robust strategy to find success. 

And, yes, you can find the pot of volunteer gold at the end of the rainbow. Because there are people in your community right now who are looking for a place to contribute their time.  There are also people who are fed up or simply done with their current volunteer gig and are ready for a change.   

But you need to connect with them using smarter outreach, marketing, and communications. 

You Can Compete with the Mad Men 

I am convinced that nonprofit marketers have the potential to beat out the big-time corporate PR and advertising guys (you know, the Don Drapers of the world) in the quest for the public’s hearts and minds.  

Whether you’re trying to raise money, recruit volunteers, or get the public to support a change in legislation, you have the power.    

Repeat after me: “We have the power!”  Really?  Really.  

Consider this:   

The American public tunes out most of the advertising it is bombarded with.  I’m not sure why corporate execs still waste money on billboards, TV ads, computer popups, etc.   

Maybe it works somewhere, but when was the last time you saw an ad and immediately ran to the phone to dial the toll-free number?  

Our brains have a highly-calibrated info sensor that can tune out the irrelevant.  Corporate advertising falls into that category.  Enter the nonprofit marketer.  

What’s different about nonprofits?  Why would folks tune out corporate ads and pay attention to your message?    

Three key things set nonprofits apart from corporations:  

1)  Your work is authentic and human.   

The American public wants to hear what’s happening with real people.  Think about the success of America’s Got Talent, The Bachelor, House Hunters International, the Biggest Loser, the Real Housewives of Wherever, and a host of other reality TV shows.   

Nonprofit work is like reality TV in some ways, but much, much better.  You help real people deal with real changes in the real world, and not because the camera’s rolling somewhere.  Because you have a soul.  

2)  You’re not in it for the money.   

There’s a lot of distrust in corporations and politicians lately.  This isn’t new, but greed is definitely top-of-mind for the public, and many still struggle to make ends meet.   

Nonprofits aren’t interested in earning profits, satisfying shareholders, or winning the rat race.  You are motivated by the positive change in people and society as a whole.  You are altruistic by nature.  

3) Finally, your work is vetted by real people. 

While this is not unique to nonprofits, it can work in your favor:  

Word of mouth beats paid advertising any day of the week.  Your organization touches numerous people clients, volunteers, community partners, and other stakeholders — who can help you spread the word.   

What if you set up a rating system like travel booking sites, online booksellers, etc.?  What if the people you interact with were able to rate and comment on your work, the same way they did about their most recent stay at a Hampton Inn?  I imagine you’d get some pretty fantastic testimonials.    

So, if you’re thinking you need the power of a corporation to get attention when recruiting volunteers, think again. 

Remember you don’t need the infinite resources of the big dogs to reach the public.  You have the power.  

Recruiting Volunteers: Improve Your Communications with Two Key Strategies 

Now, that we’ve established that you have real assets to share with the public and that you can get attention with the right communications, let’s talk about what that might look like. 

Connecting with the public is a lot harder lately.  People complain about information overload.  

However, I think that’s just a symptom.  It’s not about too much information. As I mentioned earlier, the human brain has always been very adept at tuning irrelevant things out.  

So, it’s really about getting the right information, messages we can truly identify with or care about.  

This affects our work in communities, too.  With a growing need for nonprofit services and shrinking or static budgets and resources, we must be able to reach people in the most effective way possible and in a way that can be heard.   

People need help, and we just don’t have enough time in the day to spin our wheels on communications that don’t work.  

So, ask yourself Does my organization communicate in ways that truly resonate with our audiences?  

Do we touch people’s souls?  Or is our material filled with jargon and acronyms that regular folks just don’t get?  If you’re not happy with what you discover, take heart.  It’s never too late to make a change for the better.  

Strategy #1 – Try a visual storytelling exercise with your team. 

Using visual storytelling when recruiting volunteers can help you cut through the jargon and insider-speak and get in touch with your organization’s core purpose.   

You’ll then have fresh ideas and a new perspective that will help you craft messages that real people can connect with… something with soul.  

And, it’s better done with a team, but you can also opt to try it by yourself. 

Here’s how it works… 

Step 1: Review your core mission.   

Ask yourself: What’s different about what we do?  What is the change we make in the world?  What does the journey look like for the people we serve?  What would happen if we weren’t here?  Write all ideas on a flip chart.  

Step 2: Consider what people are already saying about you. 

Think about what your clients, members, and/or supporters say about you.  What are the common statements people make?  This will give you clues about what you should be communicating.  

Step 3: Find photos that illustrate the concepts you have identified so far.   

If you don’t have any good photos on hand, check out Pixabay, Unsplash, or your favorite site for royalty-free pics.  Print out the ones that work well to illustrate your ideas.  

Consider which are the best metaphors to illustrate your organization or volunteer program’s best characteristics.  If you have photos of real people, fantastic.  Just make sure you have their permission to use them. 

Keep the digital versions. You’ll be able to use them later in your marketing.   

Step 4: Choose five images that, side by side, create a visual story. 

This story about your organization’s purpose and impact and will be used when recruiting volunteers to join your effort.   

Be disciplined and limit it to only five it’ll force you to keep focused on what really matters.  

Step 5: Finally, revisit your current materials and communications.   

In what ways can they be improved to better reflect what’s pictured in your photo story?  How can they be simplified to focus on your core mission?  What words can you use to replace that boring jargon?  

Want to see examples of interesting stories?  Check out these examples of exceptional visual storytelling or Flickr’s Tell a Story in 5 Frames group (it’s been around forever, but the power of a good story never fades).  

Then, the next time you are creating a program brochure, grant proposal, volunteer recruitment flier, donation solicitation, or any other communication about your work, take a look at your photo essay.   

What does it say about you?  How can you use it to describe the difference you make, so that everyone understands and can connect? 

Strategy #2 – Map your volunteer’s journey to your cause. 

Customer journey mapping is another tool you can use when developing communications for recruiting volunteers. 

When we touch the lives of others, whether through work or friendships, we have the profound ability to change lives or, at the very least, make someone’s day a little better.    

 The same goes for volunteering.  

But in our busy days, we take that for granted.   

Customer Journey Mapping is a strategy borrowed from the business world that can help you take a closer look at your regular customer interactions to improve your relationships with key stakeholders, in this case, prospective volunteers. 

As an aside, I know a lot of nonprofit people get hung up on the term “customer,” but don’t.   

I use it as a generic term that can refer to any number of people you interact with.  They can be internal to your organization or live outside it; they can be the primary person your organization exists to serve, or they can be a secondary person who also merits your attention.    

Your customers can be your service beneficiary, staff, volunteers, funders, legislators, community partners, etc.  The beauty of this exercise is that you can pick any customer with whom you want to strengthen your relationship.  

In this case, we are opting to view potential volunteers as “customers” or consumers who are weighing their options. 

You may think this is a lot of extra work.  Why not just post our volunteer opportunities and call it good? 

How’s that been working for you? 

Customer Journey Mapping can make your job easier.  Really?  Really!   

Through this process, you can identify ways to create an exceptional experience for your volunteers while, at the same time, educating them on your cause.   

I hate to say it, but exceptional volunteer application and onboarding experiences are rare for volunteers. So, when you take the time to do it well, your organization stands out.  

Don’t know how to do it? 

I outline my simple step-by-step process for journey mapping here in a recent VolunteerPro blog post. 

If you’re still skeptical, here are some more reasons why this is such a valuable strategy when recruiting volunteers.  

  • You’ll have to spend less time on advertising.
    When volunteer interactions are exceptional, word of mouth advertising spreads like wildfire. 
  • You won’t waste time on things that don’t matter or are redundant.
    You’ll be able to identify where there are unnecessary steps and eliminate them. If you’re more efficient, you waste less time, leaving you more free time to spend elsewhere. 
  • Simplification of your customer processes will make your volunteers happy.
    Business research has found that, contrary to popular opinion, more simplified choices inspire increased follow through.  Too many choices either paralyze us or lead us to regret the choice we made, imagining we could have done better. 
  • Your staff morale will increase.
    Ultimately, everyone likes to be part of a well-oiled machine.  It gives us a great sense of satisfaction.  Even more so if your team is in on developing the architecture of your success.  So, it’s a great idea to map your volunteer journeys as a team and reflect on your improvements after you implement them. 
  • Your volunteers will be happier because your customers are content.
    If you also use this process to map the journey of the customers or the clients your volunteers serve, you can reap double the rewards. This will lead to greater volunteer retention and less effort on volunteer recruitment.
  • Finally, you will beat the competition.  
    Plain and simple.  And, you have competition, right?  Maybe it’s other volunteer agencies in your community.  Or, what your competing against might simply be your volunteer’s unwillingness to contact you. Either way, this process can help you win. 

When you think about how to improve your volunteer communications, think beyond volunteers too.  It is for the good of the community and your cause.   

If you rely on volunteers, without a healthy, engaged, and active corps of helpers, you’re not going to get very far.   

So, pay close attention to how you communicate with them, and you’ll see that recruiting volunteers isn’t so hard after all.