Found in Translation: Volunteer Engagement Strategies from the World of Development

I read a lot in this job. In order to best support VM’s many Volunteer Maryland Coordinators out in the field, Amelia and I attempt to stay up to date on everything volunteer and nonprofit-related. As a result, I subscribe to a bunch of nonprofit newsletters, regularly attend nonprofit webinars, and read a my fair share of nonprofit eBooks and blogs. (Volunteer Maryland also subscribes to the Chronicle of Philanthropy which gets passed around the office each month.) Unsurprisingly, many of the things I read are more about fundraising and development than volunteer management. These resources on finding and engaging donors, however, are often the most useful when it comes to helping Volunteer Maryland Coordinators strategize and improve their volunteer programs.

It’s often said that a donor can give three things: their time, their talent, and their treasure. Volunteers give both time and talent, so why not treat them like donors? With this in mind, I’d like to share in this blog one of my favorite professional hobbies: translating development speak into volunteer management.

Some pieces are readily translatable to our field. Others, like Rory Green’s “Which Fundraising Disney Princess Are You” are a bit more of a stretch (I’m a Belle, duh).

Back to the former category, I recently read an eGuide by Liz Ragland of Network for Good called the Donor Segmentation Cheat Sheet, which I think is perfect for Volunteer Maryland Coordinators. In the Cheat Sheet, Liz explains both why segmentation is important for fundraisers and how you can start doing it. As I found through my own experience as a VMC, segmentation for volunteer programs is just as important.

At its core, segmentation is all about building a more personal relationship with your organization’s supporters. By keeping track of a donor or a volunteer’s habits and preferences, and being responsive to these factors, you show them that they’re not just a cog in the machine. When a donor feels personally stewarded, they’re more likely to give, and when a volunteer feels personally recognized, they’re more likely to act.

Here’s a run down of Liz’s recommended donor segments, translated into volunteer management speak. See if you already do any of these, and if there are some new segments you could adopt!

Donors and Nondonors aka Volunteers and Potential Volunteers

Liz Ragland advises readers to “reach out to supporters and ask them to make the leap to donor,” and I would encourage you to do they exact same thing with volunteers. By ‘potential volunteers’ I mean people who are somehow engaged with your organization, but not yet volunteering. This could be interested parties whose emails you’ve captured at events, the family members of individuals you serve, donors and board members, even volunteers who’ve ghosted on you in the past. Go ahead and give them an explicit invitation to join in as a first-time volunteer. Who knows, maybe they’ve been waiting for it!

Giving Levels aka Volunteer Roles or Volunteer Tenure

Looking to fill a difficult volunteer shift? It makes sense to send a different ask to an ‘old guard’ volunteer than a brand newbie. Although you might ask both groups for help, you’ll likely have a better success rate by describing it as a great way to learn more about the organization to some, and an important task where you could use someone with experience, to others.

Similarly, you wouldn’t want to reach out to volunteer tree-trimmers and drivers to pick up a last minute tutoring shift. While your volunteers understand an organization being pressed for time and people, general emails like this make them feel like faces in a crowd, not like the unique and motivated supporters that they are.

Recurring Donors aka Frequent Volunteers

You know when you buy something and then Facebook and Amazon keep advertising it to you? This is how your volunteers feel when they receive emails asking them to sign up for things they’ve already committed to. If you’ve got frequent volunteers, make sure to let them know how much you appreciate their consistent support. If you need even more help, try asking them if they’d consider adding a day or shift to their existing volunteer schedule, not asking them, along with everyone else, if they could please help you out on Tuesday. Chances are, they’ll ignore this email just like I ignore ads for another tofu press. If you want to get through, you’ve got to ask specifically.

Lapsed Donors aka Lapsed Volunteers

We’ve all got volunteers we haven’t seen in a while. A great way to get them back might be some targeted communication. Search your database for volunteers who haven’t put in hours for a couple of months, and try sending them an email letting them know that they’re missed and telling them about upcoming opportunities. This is also a great way to clean up your list- maybe some of these people have moved or changed availability. By starting a conversation you may learn some valuable new information.

Campaign Giving aka Event Volunteers

Are you planning an outdoor clean up soon? Why not reach out specifically to the volunteers who attended last fall’s clean up? Showing that you remember a volunteer’s specific contribution tells volunteers that their service really did matter and inspires them to return for more. It’s also important to reach out these volunteers immediately after an event to reiterate the impact of their contribution You could even thank them for coming back! It’s all within your power, if you’re smart about how you use your database.

Thanks again to Liz Ragland and Network for Good for allowing me to riff on these great ideas. If you want to read more about segmentation, I encourage you to download the free eGuide for yourself! Happy segmenting!


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