The Difference Between One-Time and Lifelong Volunteers: A Short Case Study

Sure, most of the information about your volunteer opportunities is listed on your website. But how do you handle inquiries such as this one:

“Hello,
I am interested in your cause and looking to get involved, what can I do to help?”

It’s an open window. A new opportunity to form a relationship with a volunteer. And they could either become a one-time volunteer or a lifelong supporter. How you handle these next few steps will determine which one.

We emailed six nonprofit organizations (ranging from small local nonprofits to nationally known organizations) asking for basic volunteer information.

Here’s what we learned based on how they responded:

  • Simply responding with a link that provides information comes off as cold. (If they request information, spend a few extra minutes to type out the basics).
  • Check your website for effectiveness. If they emailed you they were either A) too lazy to look for the information they needed themselves or B) it’s too difficult or non-existent on your website. Be sure the need-to-knows we mentioned above are made readily available.
  • Offer a follow-up. If they’d prefer to chat over the phone, make that an option to speed up the process and eliminate the need for a long email correspondence. Plus, it’s easier for you to sound pleasant and welcoming in a phone conversation rather than in email text.
  • Give them options. Offer multiple ways they could get involved, ranging from one afternoon to a weekly scheduled time they can give back through your organization. And if nothing else, push the constant need for fundraising.

Now, let’s apply this to a bigger picture: recruiting volunteers to your nonprofit. This is what you need to know when it comes to responding to new volunteer inquiries to ensure they’ll sign up and stick with you through thick and thin:

1. Ask Yourself What They’d Like to Know

Chances are, if they emailed your nonprofit they’re also checking out a few others to get involved with. This is your time to shine.

First come the need-to-knows: how much time they’d be committing, what types of jobs are available, any required training, and so on. These are essentials they’ll have to be aware of before committing to working with your organization.

Next is the pitch. Think of this as a first date. It’s time to put on your most dazzling outfit, freshen up your breath and be prepared that the worst thing they could say is “no thank you.”

It’s important to be flexible, knowing that they may not want to commit to volunteering just yet (but perhaps they will later on). Leave it open for them to ask questions and know that you don’t have to close the deal on the spot.

2. Be a Real Human (Sounds Easy, Right?)

Initial inquiries and follow-up questions are a make or break moment. If there’s nothing separating you and another local nonprofit, chances are they’ll go with the group that comes off as more fun to work with.

A little human flare goes a long way. Strive to make your connection feel less like a business interaction and more like the start of a friendship.

3. WOW Them with Your Brand

After you get through the initial correspondence, it’s easy to brush their nitpicky questions under the rug (some people require a lot of information before deciding where to spend their precious time—understandably so).

But new volunteers and donors are how your nonprofit will grow, so your patience is of the utmost importance. Consider having some pre-written content to answer commonly received questions. Said content should sound friendly and be easily personalized for each inquiry. Having standardized content will save you time and help eliminate one-liner responses that sound rushed and cold.

Here’s one example from a charity (which shall remain anonymous) that had a wonderful response to my general questions. I edited it slightly to make it more general. But here’s a great start for said standardized content:

Hi Kathryn,
Thanks for your interest in [OUR NPO]—we’re so excited you’re interested in volunteering with us!
To get connected to our volunteer opportunities, it’s a good first step to fill out our volunteer form: [LINK].
You should also check out our volunteer Facebook group: [LINK]
Another way to get involved with our cause is to fundraise. We make fundraising easy and with our online fundraising platform, [LINK]. You can set up your own personal campaign page, set a fundraising goal, and encourage family, friends and colleagues to donate. Once your campaign is complete we report back to you and your donors on where your money went.
Please don’t hesitate to email or call [PHONE NO.] if you have any additional questions or concerns. And have a wonderful day!
Sincerely,
[NAME]

Feel free to personalize this content—make it fun and entertaining (perhaps responding to a specific fact they stated in their initial email or asking a question about them or why they’re interested in your cause). Above all else, remember that these inquiries are an important staple to increasing your volunteer and donor base. Treat them with the care and time they deserve.

What’s something special you do to create lifelong volunteers?

  • Pingback: A Guide to Fielding Volunteer Inquiries | Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Pittsburgh()

  • Bill Walker

    This is a great start to an important and ongoing conversation. Number 2 is probably the most important! However, number 3 suffers – I don’t think you should lead with the “brand” or with a call to fundraise. If someone is contacting you about volunteering, then they are likely most interested in your MISSION or getting involved with a community of like-minded people; you need to stay on topic. Starting out with an ask makes the organization seem desperate and focused on finances. Avoid the temptation to immediately go there. Fostering a relationship with volunteers is the best way to bring them into the fold, and once they’re spiritually/emotionally committed, the dollars and advocacy will follow. Finally, number 4 – say THANKS often, but you have to mean it. Volunteers know when you’re sincere, and when they’re just a body or a number. Treat them well and they’ll commit for life.

    • Kathryn Pauley

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks for adding to the conversation.
      I agree, it’s imperative to not rush into asking for a donation too quickly. I too was more thinking along the lines of getting them hooked on your cause first.
      And yes! Always a meaningful thanks. People can smell insincerity from a mile away!

  • Jenna Jones Paradis

    Great article – and I really agree with the personal touch! I insist on phone conversations/screenings with potential one-time volunteers (who may or may not return) for our Sleepover in the Smithsonian Museum events, even though they are largely Millennials who are happy to just email and text away… I want them to hear my enthusiasm, my appreciation for their interest, and spare myself the longwinded email threads. It also helps me sense their level of interest and gives them a chance to shine as they tell me about their background.

    Thanks for posting this! I am printing it out for future reference. 🙂