Marketing Savvy - Our Field's Blind Spot

By Susan J. Ellis

What is it about volunteer leadership that makes us unwilling to take what we’ve got and flaunt it? I am so often struck by our lack of marketing savvy, particularly now that the Internet has opened so many new, free ways to spread the word about our work (free in terms of money, though time and effort are still needed).

First, it is my opinion that the volunteer world generates what ought to be headline-grabbing, real news on a daily basis – especially in contrast to the bleak and frightening world news blanketing newspapers, television and radio at the moment. Yet, if volunteer program managers contact the media at all, it is too often with boring stories that are anything but new.

Use what I call the “So-what? Factor” when you look for the newsworthy item. For example:

  • Three volunteers get an award for serving 25 years each. So what?
  • The summer orientation class is accepting applications. So what?
  • Ten students pass their driving test with help from their volunteer reading tutors. So what?

The point is not that these facts are irrelevant to the people involved; it’s that they are not important to anyone else. They are not news, in a public sense. News is made when certain criteria are met:

  1. Anyone can immediately see the value of the activity, outcome, etc., without a great deal of background explanation.

  2. The item is unusual (rarely occurs) or even unique.

  3. The item is connected to other issues in the news – it’s current.

  4. The item is surprising or counter-intuitive in some way.

  5. The item appeals to an emotion, whether people’s reactions might be tears, laughter, anger, or pride. If there’s no gut reaction, it doesn’t matter to anyone.

What kinds of volunteer activities or accomplishments might meet such criteria? Of course it will depend on your setting, but let’s look at #3 – some connection to national or local news stories. Follow these steps:

Step 1: Read and watch the latest news reports and narrow in on those events that seem to have the greatest relevance to people in your community.

Step 2: Look within your agency and focus on what volunteers are doing that directly or indirectly impacts on or relates to this news.

Step 3: Take photographs of the volunteer activity and then write a press release to send to your contact list. Or, call one of the local news desks to invite them to send a reporter out. You can even write a simple letter explaining why you think this is “news” and offering to work with the paper or station to find the best way to bring it to public attention. (Be sure you answer “so what?” before anyone can think it!)

Here are just a few ideas to help you gain perspective:

  • The news is filled with fear of war and terrorism. Can you show peaceful interaction among volunteers/clients (either side) who are Muslim or from the Middle East and those who are not? Do you work with children who express their feelings to volunteers who, in turn, help them see a wider world view? Can you provide the news media with comic relief of any kind?

  • Unemployment and economic woes are in the news. Do you offer ways that unemployed people can volunteer, both to keep up their morale and to add something new to their resume? Are volunteers helping clients to job hunt successfully? To start home businesses?

  • Teenagers and twenty-somethings are often perceived as alienated. Do you have proof they are not all that way? What do young volunteers do that might surprise the skeptics (pick out-of-the-ordinary things, not just walk-a-thons or visiting older people)? Similarly, confront conventional wisdom if you’re in a nursing home in which residents do service for others instead of always being the recipients.

You’ll get media attention for these types of things – and it doesn’t have to be the biggest mass media. Community or neighborhood newspapers, often weeklies, are particularly interested in such stories. So, too, the university or high school newspaper. Local radio stations are also good targets for your press releases.

Note that this sort of publicity – great for new volunteer recruitment, for volunteer recognition, and for gaining the respect of the paid staff – doesn’t take money. It takes a growing mailing list or, today, e-mailing list. It also means being alert to photo opps, since a picture is really worth a thousand words.

Even if you resist seeking media attention externally, are you doing effective marketing inside your organization? Do you make everyone aware of newsworthy actions by volunteers? Do you post photographs on a public bulletin board or on your Web site? Do you send special alert memos or at least include the news item in your regular program report? If you are not the cheerleader for volunteers, who will be?

Finally, one of my pet peeves is the way that most volunteer-related conferences are kept secret. Of course, that isn’t the intent of the organizers, but an observer might easily think the event is to be an exclusive gathering. Maybe a date saver is sent to an internal mailing list, followed by a more detailed brochure mailing. Some information may be put on a Web site. And then the registration committee waits for response.

Remember that advertisers tell us it takes seven mentions of a product before we even notice! Here are just a few marketing tips that can be applied by any conference or even local workshop sponsor:

  • Look for every possible free calendar of events that will accept your notice: on the Web and elsewhere1; directed at volunteering folks but also of interest to a wider, yet related, audience (activity directors, fire chiefs, alumni officers). In fact, unless you start posting to general community calendars, you may never discover the full range of colleagues right in your own town. Get volunteers to help find sites and then keep the list to pass on to next year’s chair!

  • Cross-publicize events with volunteer colleagues in neighboring geographic areas. Usually people in New Jersey never hear about the Pennsylvania Association for Volunteerism’s annual conference, and Pennsylvanians are in the dark about the New Jersey event. All it takes is an agreement to send each other press releases and ask for announcements in regular member communiques. Such missed opportunities abound all over the world, wherever artificial boundaries are placed on member territory!

  • Print up inexpensive flyers or bookmarks with the basic information and share the job of distributing them as widely as possible: at conferences of related professionals; at community meetings; in public libraries; and other places where group leaders meet. If every member of the planning committee agrees to find three places to put a stack of materials, think of how many new venues you can reach with little effort.

What I want to know is:

  • Do you have an example of "savvy" volunteer program marketing that others can emulate? (All suggestions for where and how to draw attention to volunteering are welcome.)

  • Why do you think so few of our colleagues take marketing action?

  • Can you brainstorm possible volunteer activities that might make “news” today?

1As always, I invite all site visitors to use the conference calendar we offer on the Energize Web site. Do not think that your event is too limited or too local to qualify! You truly never know when someone within two miles of you may be out of your regular network, yet finds the information online and shows up.

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