Recruitment Maxims

By Susan J. Ellis

Sometimes we get into old habits and need a gentle (or hard) shove to climb out of a rut. Similarly, we can spend so much time thinking about “new” things that we overlook what has moved from standard to stale under our very noses. So this month, I decided to focus on volunteer recruitment – a subject of enormous importance and challenge to all of us.

In the interest of full disclosure, many of you know that one of my most popular books is still The Volunteer Recruitment (and Membership) Development Book, which I first wrote in 1998 and have revised twice, mainly in order to keep current with Internet recruiting techniques. Because of my writing and training on this subject, I constantly hear questions from colleagues that provide a barometer of what is really going on at ground level. And my sense is that it is very easy to repeat the same old messages to the same old places in the same old ways (usually with the same or diminishing results).

There are many places to learn about volunteer recruitment and clearly many of you are very good at it. But every day it’s possible to see amazingly dull recruitment messages, all of which start with some variation on “XYZ agency is seeking volunteers.” We simply must begin to think and act like marketing experts and approach the challenge of recruitment as a golden opportunity to educate the public about our cause, generate excitement about our organization, and discover the human riches of our community.

Volunteer recruitment does not mean wheedling, arm twisting, or asking for a favor. The best approach is that you are sharing an opportunity with prospective volunteers that you don’t want them to miss! When someone sees or hears a recruitment message from you, their reaction should be described with adjectives such as surprised, intrigued, and enticed. Getting a smile or a laugh is fine, too. (Volunteering is too often presented as formal and serious.)

So, I’d like to propose a few maxims of recruitment – principles to remember whatever your organization or your recruitment technique. Then I hope you’ll share your maxims, too.

Don’t go where there are “people,” go where there are the right people.

If you are looking for Latino men, you won’t find any at the Polish-American Women’s Club. Sounds obvious, but think how often you place recruitment flyers or give a speech somewhere simply because there is an audience, without analyzing who’s in that audience. This also means avoid mass media recruiting (everyone hearing it and no one listening) in favor of mini-campaigns targeted at specific places where you have the best chance of finding people with the skills or characteristics you want.

If you feel you’re in the right place to find the prospects you want, keep asking until you get a positive response.

Advertisers will tell you that repeated messages are what eventually have an effect. So don’t just give a presentation every three years and hope people remember they can volunteer with your organization! Give a speech, send a note the next month, send an announcement of your holiday event the month after, etc., etc. Not to nag, not to repeat the same message, but to keep your organization visible and welcoming.

Tell the whole truth from the start.

Making something sound easy is not necessarily as attractive as making it sound challenging.

Just like used car salespeople, we have a bad reputation. We say things like “this will only take you a few hours a month,” or “the committee meets every other month,” when the volunteer work is more demanding and time consuming than that. But we are afraid of “scaring people away.” Stop a moment and think about that. If telling the full story of what the assignment entails turns off the prospect from the start, what makes you think he or she would have done the work once the full picture was revealed? Much better to allow people to self-screen themselves out of the picture than to engage someone who isn’t willing to contribute what you need. Also, it’s often more motivating to sign up for a role that is a bit demanding than to take on a task clearly meant for any warm body with a pulse.

To reach diverse volunteers you have to go beyond word of mouth.

It’s gospel in the volunteer world to note that “the best recruitment is when a volunteer invites a friend to volunteer, too.” That’s fine and good if all you want is body count. But if you seek greater diversity – of any kind – you won’t get it simply by word of mouth. Why? Because people talk to people who are like them in age, economic level, values, and interests. Also, the listener pictures the volunteer opportunities in your organization in terms of who is explaining them. Therefore, you have to do proactive outreach to new places, new neighborhoods, new groups of people – in other words, to the very people current volunteers probably don’t know yet.

Get listed everywhere.

Never turn down a chance to list your volunteer opportunities anywhere, especially if the listing is free. Make sure you’re on every Internet registry, in the databank of every volunteer center within 50 miles, known to student activity offices, on the list of any corporation with an employee volunteer program, on file with RSVP, Hands On, and any other placement program, etc., etc. Participate in Make a Difference Day, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, etc., etc. But, don’t just list your agency’s name and a bland, general, “we need volunteers” message. Be specific. (List several opportunities with different titles and qualifications.) Be current. (When you’ve filled a position, remove it from the list and put up a new one.) To do this, you need to record where you are listed, date every message you send, and put a reminder on your calendar to do the updating (a volunteer can help!).

Use your own agency’s Web site.

Back in 2000, I wrote a Hot Topic called “If Not Your Home Page, Then Where?” It is still completely true today. See: /hot-topics/2000/august

Avoid competition for attention – surprise people in unexpected places.

The Kiwanis, Rotary, and church men’s club have a parade of speakers all year long. Some bulletin boards are so full of notices every message is drowned out. When you reach out to new recruits, be creative. Need volunteers to help with breakfast in your care facility? Go to the nearby factory during the night shift’s meal break (get permission, of course!). They’ll be happy to see you…who else visits them? Staff a table at a street fair in the neighborhood you most want to reach. Do something fun like face painting for children, provide take-away public education materials relevant to your cause, have volunteers wear costumes to match the theme of the event. Get noticed.

Use this Hot Topic as an excuse to assess how you do recruitment now and what you might do to spice it up. If it becomes more enjoyable for you to do, you’ll generate more enthusiasm from the public, too.

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