One Strategy & Six Tactics Designed To Increase Volunteer Recruitment

There’s a bit of buzz going around the nonprofit part of the blogosphere this week about LinkedIn’s new Board Connect, a premium service offered free to nonprofits to help them search for board members. Both Beth Kantor and Katya Andresen have blogged about it.

Let me be clear that neither Beth nor Katya are suggesting that Board Connect is the sole way or even the best way to recruit board members. They are merely pointing out that it’s a new resource. However, I want to make sure that volunteers and staff in nonprofits struggling to build more effective boards (and committees) don’t substitute a resource for a strategy and its tactics.

Recruiting Volunteers Should Be A Year-Round Activity

Many nonprofits get caught up in the day to day tasks of client programs and event management. A small nonprofit theater group may focus for months on producing a Gilbert & Sullivan play, then find that they have only a few weeks to appoint new members to the board to  fill vacancies or replace those rotating off.

Board Connect may well turn out to be an awesome resource to nonprofits. I hope so. But it’s a resource, not a strategy. If you want to improve your recruitment effectiveness while decreasing the time  and resources you devote to it, then you need a coherent year-round strategy. For example:

Recruitment of volunteers, including board members, is a year-round activity and is the responsibility of all volunteers and staff.

Well, that was easy. Now comes the hard part. How are we going to do it. Here are six tactics that will enable us to execute the strategy.

  1. Management will provide updated resources (training in how to recruit, job descriptions, marketing strategies and support, adding to staff performance objectives, etc)
  2. A succession plan will be implemented so that new volunteers can sign up as members of committees, then move up the ladder to positions of increasing responsibility, including the board.  (A succession plan might include term limits for committee chairs, who is the chair-elect, etc.) Senior volunteers and staff will work to develop relationships with new volunteers that will make it easy to identify those who want to move up. This means, on a year round basis, senior volunteers and all staff will continually watch for those volunteers who are promotable and work to find the best opportunities for them.
  3. Senior volunteers and staff will be provided an accurate up to date list of volunteer vacancies by priority which includes information on the negative impacts of leaving those positions unfilled.
  4. Volunteer opportunities and vacancies will be continually highlighted on our social media pages and web site in a customer-centric fashion.
  5. The diversity of the volunteer base will be monitored and strategies will be developed to recruit volunteers from groups not now fairly represented. Diversity includes race, ethnicity, profession, gender, age, geographic location, social connections, etc. See my post on Outside-In Thinking.
  6. Board Connect will be utilized where possible.

In the above strategy, Board Connect is only one of the tactics used. The two critical components are that recruitment is a year-round activity and that it is shared by all, not just a responsibility of a nominating committee begun two months before the annual meeting.

Relying solely on a resource like Board Connect (or a business process like an ad hoc nominating committee) does nothing to address the underlying weaknesses that create committee and board vacancies. A strategy similar to the one above is more likely to result in a stronger volunteer base requiring fewer resources.

The One True Metric

“I don’t know how many sales they made, but the open rate was up 13%.”

–Email marketer on a webinar about subject lines

About six or seven years ago, my nonprofit created a strategy where event participants could check a box on a registration form when they were interested in increasing their volunteer engagement with us. Once the forms were processed an email would go out to the participant inviting them to click through to a landing page where they could indicate one of four broad areas of interest. This would, in turn, open a ticket and trigger a process where our local offices would follow up to recruit the participant.

Every month we reviewed email metrics showing positive click through rates. But ultimately we canceled the strategy because we couldn’t prove that we had recruited a single volunteer.

The problem was that participants were either misunderstanding what the box on the form meant or they had been “in the moment” at the event and were no longer as interested once they were pinned down. The process itself was also cumbersome and the delay in time no doubt lost us volunteers.

Even those that were interested were hard to contact. The tickets were frequently closed with the comment, “Called three times with no response, then mailed invitation to volunteer orientation.”

We got caught up in the click-through rates and other email metrics. But the goal wasn’t to get high open rates. It was to recruit volunteers.

The number of volunteers recruited was the one true metric. Every other metric pales next to it. And by “volunteers recruited,” I don’t just mean those who sign up. They shouldn’t be counted until they have attended any orientation or training and cleared any background checks. Or, if they don’t need to attend an orientation, then they shouldn’t be counted until they accept a commitment to volunteer for a specific position or task.

Many of you are thinking, “Well, isn’t this the response rate?” In the business sector, usually. Their clicking through takes them to a cart where they purchase the product, or perhaps they download a white paper depending upon the call to action. But in the nonprofit sector, when volunteering is the call to action, the response rate doesn’t necessarily equal the number of people who wind up volunteering.

Now, if your campaign fails to achieve its goal (in this case, volunteer recruitment) then go back and analyze your email metrics. Perhaps your list contained too many uninterested people. Or your subject line didn’t offer value.Or, as in our case, your process might be too cumbersome.

It’s not the click through rate, it’s the number of people who show up to volunteer after they’ve cleared any other background checks or training criteria.