Marketing to Volunteers: How Do You Get People to Give Their Time?

 A couple weekends ago I was in a room with twenty-seven volunteers, working with our city councilman to help make our district and our city a better place.   He’s new to his position and reaching out to his constituency to find out what matters and to create a leadership council.  

There’s just one problem—over 70% of the folks there were over 50, if not closer to 70.  Even though our district has their share of retirees, I can tell you for a fact that 70% of our district population is not over the age of 70.    When the attendees were asked what the #1 concern of their neighborhood was besides crime/safety issues –the answers varied but included potholes, gophers, code enforcement, fiscal responsibility, parks, graffiti, and the next generation of leadership.

They, too, were wondering where the younger faces were.  Why was it so hard to get people to volunteer for leadership positions?  In talking with a gentleman afterwards who has a son my age, he said he blames himself.  He understands that we are a time-crunched generation, but he feels like he failed to instill the value of giving back– and not simply by writing a check.

Running a neighborhood group as part of a larger parents’ organization I see the same cycle repeated.  In a recent blog by the Hands On Network,  they cited that in the recent year [2011-2012] only 26% of the US population volunteered.   I’m actually surprised it is that high as you talk to most leaders of a volunteer organization and they’ll tell you that 10% does the work for the other 90%.    When this happens, leadership gets burned out and the future of the organization is in jeopardy.

I’ve solved many complex marketing problems in my time, but I find that convincing participants to become volunteers is my hardest marketing challenge yet.    Some tactics that I am looking at using in the coming months include:

  • Recognizing Talents and Strengths—sometimes all it takes is reaching out to someone and telling them that they did a great job.   Then, asking if they’d like to apply those same talents for more people.   For instance if you know someone who has an extensive set of Pinterest boards, why not ask them to start a Pinterest presence for your organization.
  • Strategic Intent and a Higher Inspiration—members of your organization usually believe in your cause, but are they clear about what the organization hopes to accomplish in the next three- five years?  I had the great privilege of studying under the late C.K. Prahalad, author of many books and articles on topics like core competencies. His co-authored article on Strategic Intent I’ve never forgotten. Organizations and companies often struggle when there isn’t a shared understanding of the greater vision.   No one is clear what to do next because they aren’t sure where they are going besides the next event.  Reiterate vision, mission and purpose in your communications.
  • Creating Smaller Pieces—most people are afraid of long-term commitment and endless meetings that they don’t have time for.   Whether it is an annual event, reviewing by-laws or managing a social media presence, create opportunities for people to contribute that are time-bounded.   Most people can give an hour or two, and they are more likely to if that is the real commitment.

That’s just my starting point.  I’d love to hear from the non-profit community about how you get your members, especially your 25-45 year old members,  to volunteer.