Flipped Volunteering: The Better Way to Invite and Engage

We’ve had it backwards for far too long.  

We’ve been telling prospective volunteers about available leadership committees and positions and then asking if they are interested.  Instead we should have been learning about their interests and then suggesting possible volunteer opportunities that match.

Amazingly, very few associations or other nonprofit organizations do that.  In fact, many if not most know next to nothing about the talents, interests, and experiences of their members and how those might connect to volunteer opportunities within their organization.  As a result, our achievements are far less than what they could—or should— be.  It’s time to change that, and a good place to begin is by finally flipping the conversation and getting it in the right order.

Instead of pushing the standard list of committees, councils, and task forces, let’s first focus on learning about each and every member and then offering a customized invitation to engage.  Moreover, let's make this a standard part of the membership application process (or the confirmation of joining) instead of treating volunteer recruitment as a separate effort done at a different time.  In doing so we send the message that what people are joining is a community of contributors, one in which getting involved is seen as normal and natural … for everyone, not just a select group.

 If we then match people quickly to an opportunity they find attractive, we more rapidly convert them from a passive joiner into an active member, one who is expanding their network of like-minded colleagues and experiencing the value of our association much more rapidly than how it has been in the past.  We move them from simply paying dues … to doing things that matter, ones that pay them back by letting them make a difference with others.

Here are the questions changing our model needs to include.

What do you care about?
If the annual Call for Volunteers (a nice, but wholly insufficient recruitment mechanism) fails to attract a sufficient response, leaders often lament the apathy among members and write it off as the 80-20 rule.  No one is apathetic.  Everyone cares about something. They may simply not care about the opportunities you’ve presented to them.  Find out what people care about and then look for the ways in which those intrinsic interests and passions connect to your organization's work and the achievements you're pursuing.

What type of contribution would you like to make?
Volunteering in many organizations is like buying a home in a new housing development: all the houses look pretty much the same.  Today’s members often seek custom-built homes, volunteering opportunities that are tailored to their time and talents.  Some want to contribute by serving in a formal leadership position; others seek a short-term assignment.  Some want an opportunity that allows them to work as part of a group; others prefer a project or task they can complete on their own.  Some would most enjoy a small commitment made regularly; others find their calendars better suited to a short-term deep dive. We need to dramatically diversify the ways in which members can contribute their time and talent and to fully embrace the more ad hoc paths that research shows those in the governance ranks often don't always see as formal volunteering opportunities.

What constraints should we know about?
To tailor the opportunities we present to the needs and interests of the individual, we must also know if they have any limitations what they would find doable or attractive.  These could include time commitment or availability on select dates, skills needed, willingness to travel, financial resources to support their attendance at required conferences or meetings, et al.  With this additional information, we can then present individuals with options consistent (1) with how what they care about connects to our aspirations and efforts and (2) their desired contributions and constraints.    By no longer having this interest-invite process backwards, we should significantly increase the pool of people involved in moving our organizations forward.

What support would help you fulfill your commitment?
It’s hard to help people be successful if we don’t know what support they need.  Once individuals agree to specific responsibilities, we must then learn what they need to start doing their work.  Instead of assuming that all volunteers seek the same support or oversight, smart leaders tailor their interactions based on what individuals indicate as helpful. But without asking for that information, you're left to treat everyone the same based on what you think is supportive.

How can we best communicate/connect with you?
When telephoning was the only option, this question may not have been necessary.  Today, however, we need to know if phone is the best way to contact someone and if so, by what number and are they OK with/do they prefer text messages.  Also, which email address do they want us to use and what is their general response turnaround so they know what to expect?

What other resources could help with our cause?
As we engage more people in doing mission-related work for our organizations, this expanded pool brings additional experiences and new perspectives.  Finding out other resources (conferences, content, or contacts) that they know about should become a standard inquiry during the volunteer orientation process.  In doing so they help expand the resources available for others to use in their efforts.

Who else do you think might value getting involved with our community?
People give money and get involved because they are asked to do so, and the most effective invitations come from people you know and respect.  Research has also shown that the best promoters of an association and its efforts are those actually involved with the organization's work.  Helping volunteers promote additional involvement with individuals in their circle of influence is one of the easiest, but often overlooked, ways to deepen the talent pool involved in our efforts.

So many organizations leave so much human capital on the table because of the unsophisticated and unsystematic way in which we approach individuals and invite them to get engaged with our organizations and our efforts.  By flipping from extending generic invitations and then assessing interest to collecting information related to individuals' interests and needs and offering customized invitations, more people are likely to RSVP and join the community of contributors moving our organizations (and the profession or industries they serve) forward at an accelerating pace.