Long and Short Term Volunteers

Moving Volunteers from Short-Term to Long-Term

Recruiting volunteers for a short-term event is a relatively commonplace and a relatively easy practice these days.  On practically any give weekend there are a variety of available volunteer activities, which basically require the commitment of a few hours.

The only problem, of course, is that operating a sustained volunteer effort off of these one-shot events is a difficult, if not impossible, task.  Most organizations need volunteers who are actively involved on more than once-a-year basis, and who are willing to come back once the fun event is over and do the hard work that really needs to be done.  In particular, they need volunteers who are willing to accept responsibility and perform leadership functions.

Developing a System for Encouraging Additional Commitment

Here are some tips for approaching this situation.   This will require a planned and organized effort, and you will have to invest a lot of time before you earn your reward, but you will find it well worth your time.  This is a three-step process to landing the volunteers that you really need.

Step One: Organize Attractor Events and Positions

An attractor event is designed to engage the attentions and short-term involvement of larger numbers of volunteers.  It can be organized around a clean-up, around community education, or any other activity which meets the following requirements.

  • It can involve large numbers of people in a variety of volunteer tasks and projects
  • The volunteer positions do not require any substantial training or preparation
  • The work is fun and exciting and allows people to work with others
  • The activity is photogenic, thus attracting attention

The event itself should also accomplish something wormhole, although this is not our primary aim.  In addition, the event should allow all those who participate (volunteers and the general public) to get an introduction to the cause, clientele, and operation of the organization, with a particular highlighting of the contributions made by your volunteers to the work of the organization.  This introduction can be provided via print, demonstrations, or whichever media seems to work in your setting.  The key is that current volunteers should be a prominent part of the event.  These volunteers should be encouraged to tell the new participants about the other types of volunteer work they are participating in with the charity.

Attractor positions can also accomplish the desired goal of getting prospective volunteers to “test the waters” in the organization.  Designing good attractor positions can be viewed as similar to developing assignments that might be handled by a consultant.  They should have the following characteristics:

  1. They have a defined goal or result in mind, often a defined product.
  2. They have a defined timeframe, usually flatly short
  3. They may require a particular expertise or ability.
  4. They can be “owned” by the volunteer, in the sense that the responsibility for accomplishment will be clearly bestowed on the volunteer.
  5. It is clear whether the work is done successfully.
  6. The talents of the volunteers should directly relate to a group or activity that the volunteer cares about.

Step Two: Scout for the More Engaged

During the eventcurrent volunteers should be assigned to work with groups of newcomers.  These volunteers are in addition to those mentioned above who will also participate by telling their stories.  These “scout” volunteers should be recruited for the part and one of them may provide oversight for several teams.  Part of their assignment is to help manage the work to be done during the event, but another part of their assignment involves “scouting” those who are attending-looking for those who show the most interest and potential.

These scouts should be encouraged to do the following:

  • Establish personal contact with each of the volunteers with whom they are working
  • Give the newcomers a sense of “welcome” and appreciation
  • Get the names and addresses of those attending so that they can be thanked afterward
  • Ensure that each new volunteer gets some basic information about the agency and about its involvement of volunteers, and receives a briefing the cause of the organization and its work in furthering that cause
  • Particular elements to look for in volunteers with a potential for further development are:
  • People having a lot of fun
  • People who seem to like organizing others
  • People who indicate an interest in the cause
  • People who seem to have some personal connection to the cause

Special attention should be paid to the locating those who are “in charge” of already-established groups of volunteers because they have the leadership personality-types and are willing to do additional work.

Scouts should make notes about those they think have the potential for development and a debriefing should be held following the event.  The debriefing should discuss who might be receptive to further involvement, which types of volunteer work they have shown interest in, and how they will best be drawn further into the organization.

Step Three: Nurturing Process

The process of cultivating those whose potential has been identified will vary depending upon. Your circumstances, but here are some possible avenues to explore:

  1.  If the event is a recurring one, you can increase involvement by offering additional work within the context of the event.  This might include asking them to provide feedback about the event, offering them a promotion within the activity or group with whom they served in the past year, or asking them to participate helping organize and operate the event.  This invitation should be offered by the scouting volunteer who has developed a personal relationship with the newcomer and it should be based on being impressed with the quality of the work done by the potential volunteer.  The offer should be phrased in terms of being a continuation of the work that has already been done rather than as an entirely new task or activity.
  2. The volunteer should receive some sign of promotion with the agency, such as an official title that indicates their new status, access to materials or equipment, a business card or some other item that creates an official link with the organization.
  3. While the volunteer is doing additional work on the event they should receive a further indoctrination about the agency, its work, and the variety of volunteer positions that are available within it.  It greatly helps, by the way, to have a wide variety of volunteer positions available, since offering options increases your chance of resonating with the potential volunteer.
    Available volunteer work should include short and easy projects, and then have a staircase of more difficult positions.
  4. The types of volunteer work available should represent an ascending scale of complexity and requirements.  It should include short and easy projects, and then have a staircase of more difficult positions.  The volunteer should be exposed to current volunteers in these positions, who are given an opportunity to talk about their work and why they enjoy it.  These discussions will serve as a low-pressure recruitment effort.  From time to time these current volunteers can increase the pressure by asking the potential volunteer to “help them out” on something they are working on.  This work should be something that will give the potential volunteer exposure to what the volunteers are doing without requiring a big commitment.
  5. The potential volunteer should also be introduced to staff and volunteers at the agency, and encouraged to get to know them.  Becoming friends with others in the organization can serve as an anchor which holds the connection of the volunteer to the agency.
  6. While the exposure process is occurring, further scouting of the interests and reactions of the potential volunteer should be undertaken.  This scouting should fine-tune the effort to discover the type of motivations and possible volunteer position that can be most appealing to the potential volunteer.

Potential Dangers

As in any process, there are some easy mistakes to make.  Here are some things to avoid.

Getting too greedy, too fast– Offering the volunteer more than they seem to want to do can be a fatal mistake.  The trick, as in fishing, is to make the volunteer want to take the bait, not to force it upon him.  Remember that, unlike fishing, the volunteer can always get off the hook.

Relying on make-work assignments – The early steps of this process can only succeed if the initial jobs offered to the volunteer are short-term and productive.  If a volunteer thinks at any stage that their time is wasted, you’ve lost the battle.  All of the assignments on the “career-ladder” must be meaningful and the volunteer must be able to stop at any point in the process and feel good about the work they are doing.

Having an opportunity for true advancement – The implicit offer in the process is that the volunteer can become a real leader in your organization.  This is, of course, only true if your organization has upward mobility for volunteers and if the current leaders are willing to step aside as new talent emerges.  If your current volunteer structure is petrified, it will be very difficult to get new blood into the system.