Recruiting Volunteers: Are you taking the Easy Way?
Updated: Feb 26
Over the past few months, there were some interesting conversations with clients who challenged me on the core best practices of volunteer management. These are intelligent managers who looking for efficient and effective approaches to recruit “enough” volunteers. They asked some good questions: Why break down my volunteer pool into specific positions with descriptions? Why not simply have a pool of volunteers and send them where needed on event day? No one signs up for the “difficult” roles (eg directing traffic, workday shifts, heavy labor). What am I going to do? So why not take the path of least resistance? Simply recruit as many people as possible. When your volunteers arrive, send them to the position you need filled. Easy. This is the easy approach and if you have a large, incredibly popular event where volunteers just want the t-shirt and the Instagram photo … well this approach may work. But unless you are in the Super Bowl category, this approach will very likely backfire. Consider that your volunteers are giving up their leisure time to help your event. The majority of volunteers want position choices. And most event managers want to build good, long-term relationships with their volunteers. What Your Volunteers Want 1. Want to select what they will be doing during their commitment. 2. Want to best match their skills and interests with a complementary position. 3. May not be interested or even negative feelings to serving in some positions. 4. May only be volunteering to spend time with specific co-volunteers. 5. To feel recognized and appreciated. Are there exceptions? Absolutely! There are volunteers who simply want to be busy and needed. I recommend that you develop a floater team for every shift. Specifically note that these volunteers will work wherever they are needed. This is very appealing to some people. But not everyone!Forcing people to take positions that are a poor fit based on interest or skills leads to dissatisfaction. It is the fastest way to lose volunteers. They won’t come back the next year but worse, they may not come back for the next shift. Short term thinking; Long term problems Most volunteer managers will tell you that recruiting is the most challenging part of job. Until you ask about retention. Then volunteer managers remember that getting volunteers to return every year is actually the most challenging part of the job. Recruiting volunteers should be compared to recruiting employees. You want to build a relationship that will last and this means matching interests and skills with manpower needs. If you put an employee in a position for which they have little interest or poor skills, they will leave. It is the same reality with volunteers. Retention requires Relationship Building Discussing and selecting long term goals with your event management team is an important place to start your retention plan. Do you want to build a long-term or at least multi-year volunteer relationship? Or is this a “one and done” recruiting mission? Do you want volunteers to recruit their friends and family to join your team? Or maybe networks aren’t important to your event? Do you value people’s time? Or are volunteers simply lucky to get the opportunity to participate in your event? Reality Check on that final volunteer requirement: Appreciation (Yes, this is a true story.) Recently I was asked by a friend to help at an event. My friend said the event was very short on volunteers for a specific evening. The cause seemed important to me. So, I offered to pitch in. The traffic was terrible getting to the event. I checked in and was pointed to my area. I started helping immediately without any directions or introductions. It was very busy. I was the only volunteer for a job that was very confusing and there were no printed directions. Later when the chaos had settled, I sit down for the first time in several hours expecting to meet the unseen team leader or someone in a leadership role. A tall woman wearing a staff shirt and badge walks right in front of me and starts complaining loudly to another staff member about the lack of volunteer commitment and effort. She complains for several moments, completely ignoring me. Finally, I stick my hand out and say, “Hello, I’m Flory. Who are you?” She looked surprised at my interruption but shook my hand and replied, “I’m the volunteer coordinator.” And then turns her back to me and goes right back into her rant. The other staff member looks at me apologetically. My friend shows up at the end of the shift, “Thank you for helping! What did you think?” Slowly I respond, “I understand why volunteers don’t come back.”