But Everyone Knows... The Case for Prospective Volunteers

Appeared as an "On Volunteers" column in The NonProfit Times

Two friends were discussing the volunteer recruitment problems of an organization they both support and asked me to look at some sample recruitment materials. After only a few moments of review, it was obvious why new volunteers were not attracted to join.

The pleas for volunteers were filled with assumptions and insider expressions, and really didn’t communicate what the organization was about. To which the friend responded “But everyone who sees these ads knows all about the organization already.”

What a mistaken premise. It’s a fantasy to believe that the public is so well-informed about your organization that “everyone knows” what you do and your needs. Even in a rural community or a local neighborhood, most people are preoccupied with their own lives and businesses. They may be aware of your organization, but unless they have a reason to pay attention, most of what they see and hear about you is only fleetingly noticed.

And in a more populated area, the competition for people’s attention comes from so many sources that your organization may hardly register as a blip on their radar screen.

Let’s say that you represent an organization that is pretty well known. How deep is the public’s knowledge? Recognizing your name or logo is a good start, but how many people can accurately explain what you do or what your activities are focused on this year? Further, how many are aware of what volunteers do within your organization?

If you’ve been around for a long time, people’s impressions of your work will reflect whatever they learned about you in the past – maybe even when they were children.  It may be worse for people to have outdated or even wrong information about you than to be unaware of your organization entirely.

Remember that we live in a mobile society. New people move in and out of neighborhoods frequently.  Even if the long-time residents are knowledgeable about the resources of their area, newcomers can’t be expected to get information from thin air. Also, people form opinions based on their own experiences.  So if someone has been in contact with your agency for a specific purpose, it is likely the person did not get an overview of the full scope of the services available.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

Here are some questions to ask to test the extent of the public’s knowledge about you:

  • How many telephone calls during the day are rejected because the caller was asking for a service you don’t provide or was somehow inappropriate to become a client?  What were they asking about; in other words, what did they think you do?
  • When a news story breaks that relates in some way to the work you do, do the local news media contact your organization for an opinion, a reaction, or background information?
  • When was the last time you invited your neighbors in for a tour or informational meeting, just because they live or work in such close proximity?  How about your financial donors? Are you certain they feel welcome to come in and ask questions?
  • Collect all media references to your organization in the past year, including publicity for volunteer recruitment. How many are there? What facts do these convey? What image? Would you be attracted to volunteer based on this visibility (or invisibility)?

The larger you are as an organization, the less even the staff and volunteers all “know” what you do.  Are you certain that every member of staff could explain to a visitor what occurs in every room or unit? Does everyone know what volunteers do in each area? Has there been a new project or service start up in the last year or so? What was done to explain to the rest of staff exactly what it was all about?

Try an experiment. During a staff meeting, ask everyone to write down the three things they feel are most important to the public about your organization or its services right now. Guess what you'll discover? You'll find very little agreement about either the three most important elements or how they are worded.

So, if the staff is inconsistent in how it exhibits the agency to the world, why be surprised that the public is baffled?

In terms of volunteer recruitment, all of this is magnified. First, if people are in the dark about your organization, don't expect them even to realize you involve volunteers at all. People are hardly likely to jump at the chance to volunteer with an organization they know little about. Further, too many invitations to volunteer are worded vaguely. "Come help us do our work" is not an effective recruitment pitch if the listener can’t picture what you do.

The assumption of "everyone knows" is dangerous even if you are not dealing with the public at large. All-volunteer organizations need their members to be informed about the group and its work. Here are diagnostics questions for you:

  • What orientation is given to new members to explain projects and committees that have been around for a long time? Do new members understand the process of how people become active in these efforts and how officers are nominated?
  • By-laws delineate the functions of officers and standing committees, but not this year's activities and goals. Can members (even veterans) explain what is happening in all the projects at any given time?
  • When was the last time the volunteer accomplishments of members were identified in meetings or in newsletters?

Whatever your setting, develop a “responder panel" of colleagues, family and friends who agree to look at your outreach materials, particularly those used to recruit volunteers. The more divorced these people are from the work that you do, the better. Ask them to read each item and then do or answer the following:

  • Paraphrase the content back to you. Is that what you meant? Really?
  • Apply the "so what?" measure and tell you if and why the information you are trying to convey strikes them as important .
  • What don't they understand?
  • Are they attracted to take any action? Do they know how?
  • What, if anything, strikes them as negative about the piece?
  • What questions did the piece evoke that it didn't answer?

This exercise is about clarity, not length. The public is often given data it doesn't need or want, while being left without information that would move them to respond to an invitation to act. Above all, never assume anyone knows you!

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