volunteer support

6 Ways You Can Ignite Volunteer Support

To help nonprofit leaders better persuade others to support their missions, I’ve been studying what motivates human behavior, more specifically what motivates us to switch direction, away from our well-worn path toward something new. The more you know about human motivations, the more you can persuade volunteer support for your organization.

Is it because someone’s made a fantastically good argument, giving us relevant information that we consciously and rationally consider before deciding to shift course?  Or is it something else, something deep within our instinctual brains that drives us? 

I’m finding it’s more the latter than the former — much of what we do as humans are motivated by the social and behavioral cues of others.  And, much of it is seemingly pre-programmed.  We are simply hard-wired to act in certain ways, given certain triggers.  So much for free will!

But, if that’s the case, what do we need to change about how we communicate with supporters?  What do we need to do to get to that energized “Yes!” we need from prospective volunteers, executive management, community partners, and our peers?

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, recognized as one of the most important marketing books of the last decade, Robert Cialdini reviews the science of persuading others and breaks it down into six key principles.  It’s a great read and digs deep into the research around why we do what we do.

Fascinating stuff!

Below are the six principles, with my ideas on what you can do to enlist volunteer support for your good cause or program.

Six Keys to Igniting Volunteer Support

Principle 1: Reciprocation — All favors must be returned.   You can’t do it alone.  To effectively recruit volunteers, you need the help of others in your organization.  Garner internal support by being the first to lend a helping hand.  Offer to help other people and programs.  Whenever leadership asks you to help with something, do it.  Start banking goodwill for you and your program now, and it will be reciprocated later.

Principle 2: Scarcity — We want more of what we can have less of.   When talking about program needs and available volunteer positions, frame them as time-limited.  Give potential recruits deadlines and help paint a picture about what happens if your cause misses the boat.  Be careful not to paint the situation as completely desperate, but do talk about what’s at stake.  Also, in your appeals, mention how many slots are currently left for your next volunteer orientation or training and explain that space is limited.

Principle 3: Authority — We will follow, even if it is wrong.   This is sad but true.  So, use it to your advantage.  Ask local authority figures to vouch for your program.  Present their stories and testimonials about your good work and the transformation you bring about in your community.  According to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, technical experts and academics rate as the most trusted people.  Government officials are at the bottom of the list.  So, choose wisely.  Find trusted experts in your field and ask for their very public stamp of approval.

Principle 4: Liking — We prefer to say “yes” to those we know and like.   Seems simple enough; be friendly and likable   But, when interested volunteers reach your web page or walk through your front doors, are they welcomed with open arms?  Can they easily connect with real people, right away, instead of sending an inquiry to an anonymous inbox or calling only to be put off until later? Consider posting photos and interesting short bios about your staff and volunteers on-line.  Help prospective volunteers get to know the team, and they may be more ready to join.

Principle 5: Social Proof — Popular items have been chosen by others first. Humans are reassured of their choices when they see that others before them have taken the same steps.  Wherever and whenever you can, showcase your volunteers and their accomplishments.  Ask your current volunteers to help you enlist the support of others.  Their stories and calls to action are infinitely more powerful than those of paid staff.

Principle 6: Commitment & Consistency — We try to remain consistent with what we have already said and done. Organizations often make the mistake of asking for the moon right from the start. People need to test drive experiences. And, if they agree to move in a certain direction, their future behavior is likely to follow their initial actions, values, or attitudes. Try getting prospective volunteers to commit to a small act of support at first — like signing up for your newsletter or blog, making an online pledge, helping out with a small project, or visiting an informational gathering. Then, build commitment from there by consistently communicating and cultivating their engagement. It takes time, but the potential payoff can be great.

If you want more information about the science behind these principles, I highly recommend Cialdini’s book. It’s inexpensive, easy to read, and gets you thinking about the art and science of influence.

What would you suggest as the seventh principle of persuading prospective volunteers?  Write it in the comments.