10 Tips for Recruiting & Retaining Volunteers

By Autumn Vogel

Autumn Vogel, My Meadville
Autumn Vogel

Volunteers are an essential element of Community Heart & Soul® and key to making sure any project is resident-driven. Here Autumn Vogel, Project Coordinator for My Meadville, a Community Heart & Soul project in Meadville, Pennsylvania, offers practical tips you can use right now to get volunteers on board and keep them involved.

  1. Listen!
    It’s hugely important to hear your volunteers. Learn about them and listen with curiosity when they talk about themselves. They may unveil—if you’re listening—important connections, limitations, or self-interest. Appeal to people’s self-interest. Folks are more likely to get involved and commit when an initiative has immediate relevance to their lives. For example, Jack shared that he was interested in getting involved in leadership positions in the city. I invited him to a My Meadville Leadership Team meeting. Similarly, Marissa (his girlfriend) expressed in her interview that she wanted to meet new people and get involved. My Meadville was more than capable of making that happen for her. Now, Mar and Jack are two of our most dedicated Leadership Team members.
  2. Recruit to an activity, not a business meeting. 
    We invited Christin to facilitate a table discussion at our Community Celebration. Then, later, we invited her to a Community Network Analysis mapping event. Those two events excited her enough about the project and sold her on the process so that when we invited her to a Leadership Team meeting, she was already on board! Christin is now doing great work for us and is even spearheading an early spinoff project.
  3. Meet people where they’re at and look like who you want to recruit. 
  4. Give them a chance to say “Yes!”
    For example, we were in need of transcribing. We’d been sitting on a lot of untranscribed stories for a long time, and I thought, “This work is so boring. There’s no way someone would want to do this.”  But then I just started asking people. I saw a friend of mine who’s a stay-at-home mom who just wanted a reason to work out of the new co-working space in town. So this gave her something to do! I called up my mom. She used to be a paralegal and misses dictation. BINGO! You’d be amazed what people will say “Yes” to, and you’ll never know if you don’t ask. Don’t forget: EVERY TASK A COORDINATOR DOES ALONE IS A LOST OPPORTUNITY FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO DO THAT JOB. Every envelope stuffed, every phone call made, every presentation given can be done by a volunteer. And if we want the community to own the project, then our teams and our volunteers should own it, too. In social psychology, there’s a tactic called “foot-in-the-door,” which is exactly what it sounds like: If you get someone to say yes to one small task and they accomplish it, they’re more likely to take on more tasks, maybe bigger or more sustained tasks.
  5. Be enthusiastic.
    No one wants to join something that even the recruiter doesn’t want to be part of. Make meetings fun. We always have something good to eat, and we might do a light-hearted check-in. Celebrate accomplishments. For instance, after we completed our values summit, I distributed paper plate awards at our following meeting. Everyone received an award for something notable (Zach—who hosted house meetings leading up to the event was “the hostess with the mostest.” Nancy—who covered the cost of renting additional space for childcare won the “Parents’ Savior Award,” etc). Allowing space to be silly and have fun while accomplishing the tasks at hand has proven to be good for group morale.
  6. Check in. 
    As a group and through one-on-one meetings. For example, one of our team members who was giving great input during meetings, but wasn’t doing much beyond that. I met one-on-one with him, and he shared that he really wanted something physical, tangible to work on. So he built us a “Mobile Engagement Unit.” Additionally, a few months ago, we had a conversation at one of our Leadership Team meetings in which each team member was asked how long they envisioned themselves sticking with the project and what might help them make it that long or stick around longer. Out of that came very easily-implementable action steps like binders for the Leadership Team, the reevaluation of our goals and purpose through a team retreat, and testing out some different platforms for keeping the team updated.
  7. Give room for ebb and flow. 
    We’ve had leadership team members who have needed to take a step back for personal or professional reasons. We’re trying to allow space for folks to have the freedom to do that while knowing they’ll be welcome and needed when they return.
  8. Ongoing entry-level program/ onboarding for new folks.
  9. Family-friendly meetings. 
    Food, comfortable space, and childcare are all key.
  10. Share ownership. 
    Don’t hesitate to delegate, rotate meeting facilitation, specify roles and duties, set rules, and have conversations.