Why Social Media Is Not the Cure-All for Building Volunteer Engagement

By Susan J. Ellis

Each month I try to identify some emerging trend in volunteerism to discuss here, but sometimes, as the song says, “everything old is new again.” That is very true when it comes to volunteer recruitment. Everyone is buzzing about social media and climbing the learning curve of sites from Facebook to Google+ Hangouts, hoping to “go viral” and grab the attention of prospective new volunteers. That’s great (and sometimes successful), but the medium is not the message.

Let’s review the fundamentals. No matter what kind of organization you represent, volunteer role you need to fill, or type of volunteer you seek, you will vastly increase your chances of finding the best candidates if you do the following when you recruit:

  1. Be as specific as possible in defining what the new volunteer will do—and honest about your expectations (such as how long a commitment you want).
  2. Design the volunteer work in such a way that will appeal to the type of person you most want to attract (for example, skilled people want to be challenged, not do the most low-level assignment).
  3. Make sure you get your message to places where the people you most want are most likely to see it.
  4. Don’t confuse publicity (a notice that you need help) with issuing an invitation to get involved (asking) that each person will recognize as meant for them.

In all honesty, you should not even try to recruit until you have fully completed 1 and 2 above, since a vague “please help us” sort of appeal rarely produces great volunteers. So let’s take a closer look at 3 and 4.

Where to Put Your Message

In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a world that bombards us continually with messages vying for our attention, always designed to get us to do something, especially to buy something. Most of us have become expert at ignoring these commercials, beyond irritation that yet another ad is blinking or flashing at us in the corner of the TV or computer screen. Volunteer recruitment notices simply add to the noise.

This is equally true on most social networking sites, with millions of this-minute messages (and now paid promotions) pushing down messages from five minutes ago. Unless it’s a direct message to one of your followers, you can’t guarantee all of your followers will ever see a particular post and it may be long gone if they do not stay online continually. It’s best to think of social media as an old-fashioned bulletin board: give specific directions on how to take action; use colorful images and flashy statements to attract attention to your post above all the other messages; and avoid text-heavy messages as people tend to glaze over and move on to something else…fast!

This is why online volunteer recruitment sites such as VolunteerMatch (and its counterparts around the world) are so useful: someone browsing the site is actually seeking information about volunteering. But even an intentional prospective volunteer must sift through many postings to find the few of true interest or “fit.” We’ll come back to this critical point in a moment.

You can become very successful at recruitment if you are able to brainstorm where you are most likely to find the right people – not just people – and where your message will not compete with thousands of others. In many cases this will result in a series of what I call focused “mini-campaigns,” rather than a cattle call for anyone and everyone within a hundred miles.

This is easy to understand if you need one to three volunteers with a specific skill, such as coaching basketball. Why tell the world you need basketball coaches when you can instead find ways to get your request to people who really play or love the game? Where? Sites where basketball is already being played, sporting goods stores, athletic clothing stores, the local radio station that broadcasts the high school meets, etc.

But what if you need people with great personalities and dedication, rather than a specific skill set? Then you need to consider different ways of connecting. For example:

  • If you match volunteers to older or younger clients as visitors or mentors, start with each client and figure out what that person’s special interest might be. A hobby or favorite television show might do the trick – anything that would help start a conversation with an interested stranger. Then you can recruit specifically, such as a notice in a local antiques store: “Do you watch Antiques Roadshow every week without fail? Why watch it alone when you can watch it with someone who loves it too and would appreciate the company?” Or maybe a message on the Web site of a local car dealership or automobile supply store: “Can you identify every car on the road in 10 seconds? So can one of our boys who would love to challenge you (and get help with homework).” And so on.
  • Proximity can be a huge plus. If you are located in a city or town, when was the last time you intentionally aimed a recruitment campaign at the people who live or work across the street or around the corner? Just because they know your organization or facility exists, does not mean they know you are looking for volunteers or that you have something they might enjoy doing. The pitch begins with “Hi, Neighbor!”
  • If you need volunteers to help serve breakfast, why not go to people who are wide awake at that time? Such as the nightshift workers of any nearby 24-hour employer who finish work at 7:00 a.m. (And in terms of competition, how many other messages about volunteering do you think they see near their time card clock?)

Grab the Right Audience Like Uncle Sam Did

The reason the World War I army recruiting poster of Uncle Sam saying “I Want You” was so successful was the fact that his eyes followed the viewer no matter where the person turned. Are your recruitment targets aware that your invitation to volunteer means them?

If you send out a recruitment notice in a newsletter, or even in a tweet, everyone knows that the same message will be read by all the other recipients on your list, not just them. So being specific really helps: “Avid reader and writer? Always meet deadlines? Wish this newsletter had more news-you-can-use? Apply to become our new Reporter-at-Large and contribute a 350-word column every 2 months.”

On social media sites such as Facebook, the impact of your invitation changes depending on its origin. You can send the “ask” from your organization’s page, which is not so personal and easier for individuals to ignore. Or, you can ask anyone with an existing user profile – such as current volunteers – to post the recruitment information to their pages, which increases the chance that their friends will feel a connection to the “ask.”

In general, for most organizations, shot-in-the-dark calls to anyone who is the friend of anyone else may not necessarily find the right volunteers to match your vacancies. But on the other hand, the far reach of social media may help you fill a unique position or generate an inquiry from someone totally unexpected and wonderful. And such interactive sites are also great places for current volunteers to share their experiences at your organization publicly and help others imagine what they might do, too.

Finally, let’s get back to that online volunteer opportunity registry posting. Are you competitive with all the other notices in your geographic area or under the keyword a prospective volunteer might search? Do you know? Go do a search as if you were looking for a placement and see what you think. Have you created a posting that is generic, bland, one-size-fits-all? Why, when you can post several notices at no extra charge, each focused in a different way? So write one for the odd time slot (we really need someone on Sunday afternoons) or with an unexpected twist (lots of our residents speak Southeast Asian languages, do you?) – anything to stand out from the crowd and help someone connect to your invitation.

  • What do you think has or hasn’t changed in the last decade or so about volunteer recruitment?
  • How do you find the right people – where and with what tools?

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