Getting the word out

I’ve been thinking about the future of volunteer recruitment recently and as a result, I have been struck by a simple fact.

According to Helping Out – A Survey of Volunteering and Charitable Giving (2007 – by IVR for the Office of the Third Sector) 68% of volunteers were recruited via word of mouth. All other recruitment methods are, statistically, almost irrelevant and yet, with apologies to volunteer managers everywhere, we seem to concentrate our efforts in other areas.

We think about the future as being about technology and worry about whether we need to Tweet our volunteering opportunities, set up a blog or find new ways to advertise via SMS/text. If the feedback from volunteers is to be believed, we need to ask more people to get involved, to take on a role or to help out at an event.

This is the scary part of looking at the information available. My reaction tends to be: “It may work for a community group, or other very small charities, but how do we do this on a larger scale?”

Volunteer managers, and those whose responsibilities include the leadership of volunteering programs, know that their workload will not allow them to spend time asking people, one to one, if they would be willing to volunteer and so we turn to ways of getting our message out to large numbers of people via the media, campaigns, the internet, etc. This is a logical and time efficient way of achieving our recruitment targets and of filling those all important volunteer vacancies, but are we missing the point, failing to see the wood for the trees?

I believe that, as volunteer managers, we have a unique skill set and a range, breadth of abilities that is rare even in the overstretched world of the Third Sector, so the obvious next step, of recruiting a volunteer to concentrate on attracting more people through direct, word of mouth communication, has a drawback.

How are we to spend sufficient time training our new Recruitment Volunteer with all the skills needed to do a significant chunk of the work of a volunteer manager? Can we achieve “full cost recovery” and more than that, can we see a worthwhile return on our investment of time? Well selected and carefully managed volunteers become ambassadors for their charities and causes.

That is something that has to be nurtured and encouraged. Giving people the facts, and the rationale behind them, allows them to promote the organisations they support and take an active part in achieving aims around awareness and developing public support.

The charity I work for recruits volunteers, who we call Ambassadors, specifically to support our aims at a local level, around the UK, but I wonder whether you have already taken the next step beyond “bring a friend” recruitment and equipped specific volunteers to take your needs out into their local communities with a view to attracting new people, with the skills and abilities you need in your volunteering programs.

What do you think is the future of volunteer recruitment? Are we right to pursue technical solutions or is the way forward to be found in identifying ways to approach volunteers in the way that they have been shown to prefer, face to face with a real person?


5 thoughts on “Getting the word out

  1. Very thought provoking Steve. Face to face works for me as a volunteer, but I think that if I were recruiting I would (resources and skills permitting0 want to try as many routes as possible – this would be one step in ensuring a diverse mix of volunteers what do others think?

  2. Interesting thoughts, but I have to say, at our Age Concern we’re actually getting a great response from the internet which is outperforming word of mouth.In our area (London) in particular I think there’s a huge untapped market of working people who actually wouldn’t mind giving time to a charity, but it’s one of those vague ‘must do it someday’ to-do list things. I agree that the best advertisement for the charity is one of your friends coming up to you and saying ‘hey, I had a really rewarding experience with [your charity]’ and encouraging you to come along the next time. However, the downside is that once you have exhausted the immediate friend circle, it can be hard to find a link to the next. Actually on one ocassion I discovered a bunch of the volunteers were acting a little like a clique – they had too much ownership of the work they were doing and the people they were doing it with! Nothing that couldn’t sorted fairly easily but now something I check periodically for.I think the best route is probably a balanced one – our champions are great but you need to spread the load. Local advertising, internet advertising and word of mouth. Personally I’d steer away from a single volunteer recruitment manager and target influential volunteers as a team as this spreads the risk of ‘not getting enough back’ for my time and also because I’m not sure where the next rich seam of volunteers is going to come from.

  3. I’m not advocating word of mouth as the only way forward, I was really just trying to point out that as VMs we should try to include face to face / one to one in some way, as part of our recruitment portfolio.  I also wanted to explore with fellow VMs the idea of a volunteer recruiter and to discuss the pros and cons.  It would be great to widen the debate on recruitment or indeed, hear from someone who already has experience of engaging a volunteer in this role. Regards Steve

  4. Hi Steve,We’re looking at the role of the volunteer recruiter, but more in the sense of working with shop managers to help them build recruitment plans.  Happy to tell you more if you’re interested.With regard to word of mouth, I incorporate a lot about this in our training for managers of volunteers.  I tend to look at it in these terms:i) the experience of your existing volunteers is key to recruiting new volunteersii) really getting into the community, getting known in the community and understanding how the community works is really the key.  A lot of people can see WOM as an excuse to sit back and watch volunteers multiply by themselves – but in my experience, WOM has to be really proactively generated. Overall, it is nice to know that the secret doesn’t lie in pretty posters though!I’d be really interested to hear how other people interpret ‘word of mouth’ and actively generate it though.Georgia Boon, Head of Volunteering, Oxfam

  5. Hi Georgia,There is some research looking at word of mouth recruitment like Katharine Gaskin’s Choice Blend report (PDF) for IVR from 2003. It tends to emphasise the advantage of the personal touch, but the disadvantage that it can limit the diversity of volunteers recruited. I think the question of how you actively generate word of mouth is really important though and that it should not be taken for granted.One of the approaches we’ve tried is developing a specific ‘ambassador’ role so that volunteers who are interested in championing the cause more get the training and support they need.Also it’s interesting to see the role online methods can help extend and increase the effectiveness of the word of mouth potential of your current volunteers and supporters. The web can make it easier to let friends and colleagues know about the volunteering you do, without it being too in their face.  

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