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Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as intersectional queer feminists.
Whether you’re starting a campus club or running a major advocacy campaign, the ability to recruit and retain volunteers is crucial to success. A critical component of community organizing is building relationships with people and that includes relationships with volunteers.
Volunteers may be needed to help with specific tasks or volunteers may be needed in leadership roles. It’s not unusual that everyone working for an organization or on a campaign or project is a volunteer, including the person managing volunteers!
“Cultivating” a volunteer means investing time and resources into your relationship with your volunteer, engaging the volunteer to turn them into an ambassador for your cause, and supporting the skills and leadership growth of a volunteer to build your overall capacity to get shit done.
I started actively volunteering in middle school, doing stuff like packing boxes at the food bank and serving hot meals at a homeless shelter as part of my school’s Learn and Serve America program. A passion for helping others ultimately led me to pursue a personal and professional path in organizing! Over the years, I’ve volunteered and managed volunteers in many different roles, so here are my quick tips for engaging and retaining activist volunteers. Feel free to add your own in the comments!
1. Be Upfront!
The easiest way to lose a volunteer is to be unclear about what the job you want them to do. Especially if the job requires special skills or background or is very time-intensive or labor-intensive, but also for simple volunteer jobs, it’s super important to lay out the details about the volunteer work upfront.
- What is the job? What, specifically, will volunteers be doing?
- Are there special skills or requirements volunteers must meet?
- How long is the commitment? One hour? One day? One week? One year?
- Who will the volunteers report to or work with?
- Will volunteers be working alone or with others?
Most of all, don’t ask people to “Join the Cause!” unless there’s actually something you’re going to ask them to do.
2. Make it Matter!
Volunteers give because they care about the mission of the work. Even if a volunteer is just stuffing envelopes or making phone calls, be sure that you make it clear how much the time they are giving matters to you personally and to the campaign/organization/project/group. When advertising a volunteer position, frame it as helping to achieve the end goal — which it is!
For example: “Help Defeat HB2!” not “Help Us Make Phone Calls!”
When you win or achieve a major milestone, let your volunteers know and thank them for all they did to get you there. Include them in the celebration!
3. Incentivize It!
If you had a bunch of money for cool swag and prizes, you probably wouldn’t need volunteers. However, incentives are what keep volunteers coming back.
This can be something tangible like a t-shirt or gift card or free food. It can also be something intangible like public recognition or the ability to be part of a super important activist movement or the opportunity to build professional skills!
4. Create Community!
Volunteers want to feel a part of something bigger than them and part of that is meeting other like-minded people. Whether you’re running a one-day phone bank or recruiting for hotline volunteers, create opportunities for volunteers to interact with each other.
Have volunteers at a phone bank working in the same room and have a bell to ring whenever someone gets a positive call so everyone can cheer for them. Have coffee or a meal at a set time with your volunteers. Do icebreakers or team builders with your volunteers.
If your volunteers typically work alone, invite them to a semi-regular in-person party or event to socialize with each other. Set up a Facebook or Slack group for your volunteers to meet and communicate with each other online.
Building a sense of community makes the volunteer work feel social and engages volunteers on a personal level.
5. Give Thanks!
Volunteers want, more than anything, to feel useful and appreciated. Be sure to spend time with your volunteers, both training them and providing positive feedback! Make sure they feel like part of the family by making yourself available to them as much as possible. Check in and make sure they don’t have any questions and are feeling comfortable with the job.
Give volunteers regular updates about the work they’re doing and be sure to thank them over and over and over. Send a thank you note after the volunteer is done with their work.
Feeling respected and needed makes a volunteer much more likely to come back and volunteer again!