As the need for social distancing drops along with COVID-19 infection rates, it’s likely that your nonprofit will begin to welcome back in-person volunteer visits, whether it be large corporate groups or individuals just wanting to lend a hand. It’s time to start thinking about volunteer retention (if you haven’t already).
Given that so much time has passed, don’t assume that your past volunteers will suddenly snap into action at a moment’s notice. If you haven’t spent the last 18 months stewarding volunteers or moving them into other (virtual) forms of support, it’s not too late to start to warm them up to come back on-site as your offices, facilities, and worksites re-open.
Here are three volunteer retention tips for getting your pre-pandemic volunteers back on-site:
1. Segment your communications
If you want a specific outcome from a specific group of supporters, the best thing you can do is send them dedicated (or segmented) communications. A segment is simply a list of supporters that share common characteristics; in this case, your past volunteers!
Other segments could be all of your monthly donors, first-time donors (donors who have given once but not twice), or donors who give above a certain dollar amount. The point is that you likely have very specific things to say to (and ask of) each group that may not carry over to another group.
Where volunteers are concerned, it may be appropriate to further segment the monolithic “volunteers” groups into smaller groups instead of “seglumping” them, such as:
- in-person volunteers who haven’t volunteered at all since March 2020
- in-person volunteers who converted to some kind of virtual support on or after March 2020
- volunteers who have always been virtual
- volunteers who became donors instead of volunteering
- volunteers who also donate
The more you define your segments, the more likely you are to deliver content that resonates with the recipient (not to mention avoiding any faux pas that could annoy a recipient).
If the only time you address volunteers is in a larger, broader communications vehicle (like your monthly email newsletter) you run the risk that volunteers won’t see it amongst all the other content in the newsletter. Consider firing up an email that is only sent to volunteers, specifically folks who haven’t been able to volunteer since the pandemic began. With a smaller, captive audience, you’ll have better open, click-through, and conversion rates.
So what should you say?
1. Recognize past support
First things first: Say “thank you” and “we miss you.”
No matter how long it’s been since your last volunteer outing, it’s not too late to say thank you. And I can’t imagine that you don’t miss the support.
2. Re-introduce the case for support (as well as new safety guidelines)
If you’re restarting your in-person volunteer activities, explain why. What’s changed? Why is it safe to do so, and how will you keep volunteers, staff, and other stakeholders safe?
And, of course, explain the value of the volunteer activities. What is the need? How do the activities further your mission? “We need dog walkers” might not be enough information. Why do you need them? What will happen if you don’t get the help you need? Create some urgency, and don’t be afraid to focus on the outcome for the volunteer as well as the service recipient. Why will it be a fun and rewarding experience for volunteers? Including quotes, photos, and videos from past volunteers will help prospective volunteers imagine themselves on-site.
3. Reduce friction
Even the most beautiful marketing materials with expertly written copy and tear-jerking videos won’t save you if a prospective supporter literally cannot sign up to volunteer, whether it be because of a clunky or broken website form, a bad URL, or a general lack of contact information.
Test all of your calls-to-action, whether they be digital or analog, to ensure that volunteers can register, schedule, apply, or simply know when and where to show up to help.
2. Mitigate the impact of employee turnover
If your organization has undergone turnover, especially where volunteer management and engagement is concerned, your past volunteers may have a new point of contact with the organization. Similar to how a portfolio of major donors would be transferred with kid gloves to a new major gift officer, you will want to ensure that your volunteers receive a smooth handoff.
This is especially important when it comes to long-time volunteers. One of the worst things you can do is alienate a dedicated supporter by treating them like a first-time volunteer.
A few years back I was volunteering for a local film festival, screening film submissions on a committee that discussed and evaluated films for inclusion in the program. After doing so for a few years (1000s of hours), there was turnover in the organization. In an effort to take an inventory of screener resources, all volunteers were asked to “re-apply” and explain their past volunteerism to the organization. Needless to say, this did not go over well with volunteers who felt the organization should already know (and value) the details of their past service.
If you’re tracking volunteer information in your nonprofit CRM, this data should be accessible to any new volunteer coordinator and manager. It’s not a bad idea to create a forum to introduce that person to volunteers, but you absolutely don’t want to put the burden on volunteers to re-introduce themselves to the new volunteer manager at the organization.
3. Re-evaluate your orientation process for volunteer retention
Volunteer retention hinges on the entire volunteer experience lifecycle, from the volunteer recruitment process all the way to the post-volunteerism acknowledgement.
Much like how you would steward a new donor immediately after their first gift, how a brand new volunteer is treated during the orientation process will set the tone for the entire experience going forward.
As you welcome back volunteers, now is a great time to re-evaluate the materials, training, and communications that a new volunteer receives prior to being cut loose on the tasks and activities you have planned for them. When was the last time your brochures, presentations, FAQs, or videos were updated? Are your release forms and waivers adequate? Will volunteers understand the connection between the work they will be doing and the mission impact?
Volunteer orientation needs will vary depending on the needs of the organization. For example, if you’re an environmental organization that needs volunteer support for picking up trash in public parks, your volunteer orientation may not be as intensive as, say, an organization that is preparing or handling food.
That being said, it’s important not to treat your work as trivial, no matter how simple you think the help you need is. Remember, volunteers who have shown up to help believe in you and take your mission seriously; so don’t downplay the work they’ll be doing or the tasks they’ve been performing. If you take it seriously, so will they! If a volunteer gets to the end of the day thinking that what they did didn’t matter, don’t expect them to be back the next time you need weeds pulled or a barn painted.
Be patient as you start to think about volunteer retention and inviting volunteers back on-site. Remember, it was a tough year for everyone, and you never know how folks’ circumstances have changed. If you lead with gratitude, it’s hard to go wrong!
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