Non-Profits Do Have a Product – It’s Called Volunteering

Many of the non-profits that I have worked for and/or worked with don’t necessarily offer a service or a program, per se.  Yet, they provide an invaluable resource that is often delivered only with the help of a dedicated pool of volunteers.  I believe that several factors have contributed to a rise in volunteerism: kids needing service hours, people without or in-between jobs, parents wanting to open their children’s eyes to the reality of the world, and retirees wanting to put their experience to good use.  All of these provide a fabulous source of hard work and talent.

The volunteer opportunities that you provide are, in a sense, your product.  This is what you are selling in hopes that your volunteers will buy.  When consumers buy a product they like, they often buy it again or upgrade it or even better (for you), encourage their friends to buy it.  That’s why you need to consider treating your volunteers like valued customers.

By creating an experience that helps your volunteers grow even more committed to the cause, you create not just volunteers but ideally, life-long advocates and donors.  You create that experience by:

  • Communicating effectively – Don’t take anything for granted when it comes to providing details.  Make sure they know: where (including directions and parking), what to bring, what to wear, how long they can expect to be there, whether it’s ok to bring friends or family, any forms or waivers to be filled out, any restrictions or cautions to be aware of, and any funding that you are expecting or requesting that they bring.
  • Communicating efficiently – Too many e-mails, or e-mails that are not neatly formatted are easily looked over.  Bullet points are your friend, detailed attachments are not.  Being able to spot the piece of information you need in a bulleted list will enable a volunteer to answer their own question.  Adding attachments, rather than including information in the body of the e-mail, increases the likelihood that the information won’t be read.  The obvious exceptions here are things like waivers or health forms.
  • Tying them to the cause – Any time a volunteer can work with or alongside a program recipient dramatically increases the emotional tie they have with your cause.  Think about the difference between building a home and building that same home right next to a Habitat for Humanity homeowner.   Or, consider what happens when a soup kitchen volunteer has the chance to strike up a conversation with a mother who just lost her home and is using this as a way to get her family a meal.
  • Treat them like employees – Many volunteers bring extraordinary talent with them.  Consider working with them to write up a Job Description and get their buy-in and what you can expect them to give to you and what they need from you to do their job.  Use this as a way to check in and make sure everyone is happy.  Where possible, give them some sort of compensation – even two movie tickets to “give you a night back after all the nights you gave to us” is a thoughtful, sincere, and inexpensive way to say thanks.  Writing a review on their LinkedIn profile or  a recommendation letter just to have on file is a free but incredibly powerful way to retain valuable talent.  It’s also a great way for you to have a potential employee pool right at your fingertips.
  • Let them be ambassadors – I’m a firm believer in having multiple people spreading the gospel of your organization.  As long as the messaging that you give them is accurate and up-do-date, you’ll find a lot of volunteers willing to speak on your organization’s behalf.  What a great way to market your organization without you having to be the one out every night at an event!
  • Ask them for their opinion – Someone who is emotionally tied to you but on the outside of the organization is looking at you with a very unique pair of eyes.  Encourage them to tell you what they think about your work, your mission, your methods, and your programs.  Ask them why they like you or why they like other organizations – you might not like the answers in some cases, but you’ll get valuable info if you ask for it.
  • Respect their time – Given the choice between working volunteers to the bone or under-working them, the biggest mistake is (you guessed it) under-working them.  We live in a society of multi-taskers who have not yet solved the problem of being two places at once, yet insist on trying.  If someone gives you an hour, a day, or a week of their time feel free to load them up.  Note that I’m not suggesting pushing anyone past their limit, and it’s common sense that checking in on your folks is critical.  It’s just that my experience has been overwhelming in favor of volunteers who leave sweaty and exhausted because they always leaved fulfilled and motivated to do more.
  • Get the kids – Get the kids, you’ll often get their parents.  In our litigious society, this often presents a problem because it’s hard to find jobs that kids under 16 are legally allowed to do.  Yet, by applying some creativity, you can often find exciting jobs for these kids that are meaningful to them and helpful for you.  Oh and by all means, don’t patronize them.  These kids are capable and savvy and in most cases, they really do crave hard work.  There are obvious exceptions to that, but don’t let the kids that seem to be seeking employment as a Professional Texter form your opnion of teenagers.    There are some real gems out there and they grow up and get jobs that allow them to give back so get them while they’re young!
  • Say thank you – Say thank you promptly and sincerely and leave them with other opportunities to share their time, talent, and treasure in other ways.

While it may seem overwhelming to do anything but ask for volunteer help and get it, using these tools can dramatically increase your effectiveness in delivering programs and also turn your volunteers into donors, rather than turning them away after one experience.

Good luck!