It’s no secret that almost all successful civic campaigns rely heavily on volunteers. These volunteers could be leaders of different organizations and associations that become part of your campaign’s coalition. They could be board members, dues-paying members, or just distantly connected supporters of your campaign. But they all have something in common:
“They are busy people who want to help in a meaningful way – that doesn’t overtax them.”
Unfortunately, and all too often, campaigns forget this basic idea and fail to fully engage their volunteers; they either ask too little or too much of them. Campaigns sometimes fail because they ask them to do something that is perceived as either meaningless or overcomplicated. Other times, campaigns fail to fully engage volunteers because of their unwillingness to “let go” and allow volunteers to take ownership of their part of the effort.
Luckily, these pitfalls can be avoided. Here’s a list of ten things to keep in mind when engaging volunteers:
1. If they volunteer to help, welcome them with open arms.
It may seem obvious, but if someone cares enough about your cause and wants to help, take it! Volunteers come in very short supply these days. Even if the job doesn’t match the volunteer’s skills, find something else for the volunteer to do.
2. Make the volunteer feel important, because they are. Do everything possible to make the volunteer part of the team. Don’t shun the volunteer to some back room or hidden corner. Give the volunteer a title – it goes a long way
3. Take time to explain the big picture. If a volunteer is asked to just stuff envelopes or send ten emails, without a full understanding of why what they are doing will have an impact, you will lose that volunteer. Volunteers are smart people, just like you. If they understand what you are trying to accomplish, they can help your cause by contributing ideas of their own on how to accomplish the mission.
4. Put yourself in their shoes. If someone volunteers for (or is asked to) take a leadership role in a civic campaign, put yourself in their shoes. Do they work full time? Are they the primary care giver in their home? Are they looking to fill their free time? If you understand where they are coming from, it will help you figure out the best way to use their leadership and skills – as well as their limits.
5. Give them clear, easy-to-understand tasks.
Some campaigns like to create a big, long list of things for a volunteer leader to do. Don’t. If you can’t keep the to-do list to 5 things over a short period of time, it won’t happen.
6. If a volunteer offers a financial contribution to the effort, take it. I’ve heard campaign leaders decline a volunteer’s offer to pay for something or make a financial contribution, dismissing the offer with, “You’re giving your time, that’s plenty.” If they have invested their time, they may want to give their money too. Not only do most campaigns need money, but refusing may actually make the volunteer feel less appreciated.
7. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Information is power – and holding too much information back from others makes them feel like they’re not being trusted. Hold regularly scheduled meetings, or utilize conference calls, email, face time, or e-news updates. You might think it is a waste of your time, but it will pay off in terms of volunteer “buy in” and commitment.
8. Don’t be afraid to “fire” a volunteer. “But wait a minute – you can’t fire a volunteer.” Oh yes you can! If a volunteer is not producing, or worse yet interfering or actually damaging the campaign, you have a responsibility to the cause, your funders, your team members, and other volunteers to take corrective action.
9. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You can never say it enough, but make sure you do it the right way. You don’t have to throw big “thank you” parties or stand on your head. Just make an unexpected call to your volunteers to say job well done. Send an email (individually – not a group email). Remember, the three most important words in the human vocabulary are “please” and “thank you.”
10. Let Go! The single most important thing to do is also the hardest for some campaigns. Campaigns that rely on volunteers, and lots of them, tend to be very grassroots type campaigns. Successful campaigns of this time resemble movements, in that they feature hundreds or thousands of people taking action, via their own initiative, to help the cause. They don’t sit back and wait to be given permission – they act and make things happen. President Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns were like this, with hundreds of thousands of volunteer precinct leaders, coalition leaders, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers coming up with ideas and taking action. If you want a successful grassroots campaign, you have to be strong enough to let go!