Why can’t I get a volunteer?

© Rawpixelimages | Dreamstime.com

© Rawpixelimages | Dreamstime.com

One of the greatest challenges for any leader is getting volunteers. Whether it is getting someone to pick up extra work on a project or finding people to set up for a fundraising event, the success of the project relies on having team members who are willing to step up and help out.

But what do you do when you ask for volunteers and get crickets?

For example …

The high school band booster group exists to provide support to and conduct fundraising for the band programs, including the marching band. Throughout the year, they rely on parent volunteers to chaperone trips, manage uniforms, move equipment, run concessions and execute a couple of large events. Membership in the boosters is compulsory: if your child is in the band, you are automatically a booster. The result of this approach is that you have what LOOKS like a large volunteer pool; but the truth is that the pool is really quite shallow — only a handful of (exhausted and stressed) parents actually step up to volunteer.

On the surface, the fact that the group is compulsory looks like the problem, and it is true that it creates that false sense of size (which probably leads to designing events that require lots of volunteers). If membership in the booster organization was instead voluntary, lack of members would force the group to address their real underlying issue: a lack of trust.

(BTW: This applies equally to non-compulsory groups with disenchanted members and work teams where members are assigned by their manager.)

The Team Truth!

We know that successful teams require (in order):

  1. Trust
  2. Engagement
  3. Commitment
  4. Accountability
  5. Attention to results

When you can’t get volunteers, your team is failing at step 2. That means it’s time to go back to step 1 and do some foundational work.

Building trust within a group is a process. It is not an overnight process — it takes a deliberate, ongoing plan that focuses on communications and relationship building. Here are the key components:

  1. A strong orientation. Introduce them to the organization and why it is awesome. Provide examples of why they should want to be a part, and make the examples as real as possible. Include a clear explanation of what the organization expects of them, and make sure it is reasonable.
  2. Transparency. The leadership, the structure, the purpose, the goals and the progress (even when there are setbacks) — share all of it. They can’t trust an organization when they don’t know who is in charge or what they are doing, so make sure they know. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
  3. Accessible and appreciative leadership. Ultimately, they will be building their trust with individual leaders, not an amorphous organization. Be visible, and invite them to connect with you. When they offer to engage, recognize that effort.
  4. Give them a say. Provide opportunities for them to discuss, approve or vote on things that impact the group. Giving them a voice gives them ownership and shows that you trust them.
  5. Listen. If you ever want to get to step 2 (where they actively engage), you need to let them know you respect them as members of the group. Listen to their ideas, and understand their individual situations (not everyone has the availability to volunteer right now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future). Show them that you consider this their organization, and they will begin to believe it, too.

Back to the Crickets

Having a long-term plan for volunteer cultivation is good, but what about your current crickets? Consider what you can do right now. Send out an orientation to the project, begin showing appreciation and asking for input, and build on the responses you get. Show your trust, and they will begin to show theirs, and that is when engagement begins.

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