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Turning online connections into volunteer action

More than ever, people are going online to find opportunities to make their mark on the world. 

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and others have become gathering places where people discuss likes and dislikes, what they want to experience and to change, who they are and who they want to be. Show up with a compelling story, a vision worth sharing, and a sense of community, and your call for volunteers will find people ready to get involved.

A few principles to follow:

Tell a story that connects

A gift of time, expertise and labor. An investment made in exchange for making the world a better place. That is how volunteers see themselves when they sign up to work with their favorite cause. When volunteers sign up to work for a cause, they are investing time, expertise, and labor in exchange for making the world a better place. If you look at volunteers any other way, such as “free labor,” or simply a means to an end, it will affect the way you communicate with them. That communication impacts the efforts and commitment you receive from your volunteers.

Before deciding which social media channel(s) to use to recruit and connect with your volunteers, it is vital to consider who are the type of people who want to work with you and why they would want to work with you. Develop your story with your volunteers’ goals in mind, understanding what they want to get out of the experience, and then weave a story that tells how your mission aligns with your volunteers’ vision and how you can work together to achieve interconnected goals.

Demonstrate the volunteer experience

Some of the most talented and caring people are cheering for your cause from the sidelines. So why aren’t they volunteering? It may be that they don’t know how they will fit in, what the commitment level might be, or how they will get along with other volunteers.

Trying something new is scary for most people, and volunteering for the first time can be intimidating. To help your supporters get comfortable with the idea of getting into the trenches, brainstorm every question a new volunteer may have, and answer those questions with real-world examples. Describe the work they will be doing, who they will be working with, and, most importantly, what they will accomplish.

Make it easy to join

I have seen nonprofits publish great content, then put up a roadblock to volunteering by asking supporters to go through a variety of tedious steps in order to sign up. Why ask people to email you, or print something out and fax it in, when you can provide a link to a simple online form?

With a little research, you’ll find that many social media channels have already streamlined the process of getting people to act: Twitter “Website Cards,” for example, enable people to send all the information you need with one click. On Facebook, you can add a sign-up button to the top of your profile page that links directly to a form where people can express their interest; you can also add a “Call-to-Action” button to videos you post to Facebook. Google for Nonprofits also provides tools to place a Call-to-Action overlay on videos uploaded to YouTube.

Show appreciation

Every nonprofit I’ve worked with has understood the value of making sure volunteers and donors feel appreciated, but they almost always show that appreciation in private. When appropriate, why not take the opportunity to shout your appreciation from the rooftops? On your social media channels, you can show the world that your volunteers are making a difference and that they are valued. Not only will this show potential volunteers what serving is like, it will also lead current volunteers to share your post, enabling you to tap into a new group of potential supporters.

In fact, because hands-on volunteering requires a resource most people do not have in abundance—time—it only makes sense to tap their ready, and growing, supply of online connections. You can help them make a difference right where they are by providing them with content to share.

However, don’t expect that your supporters are already following your social media profiles, or will share content just because it’s there: Plan out, specifically, the message you want your volunteers to share, draft a few different versions of a post for it, and send it to them directly, asking them explicitly to share it with their networks.

Also be sure your volunteers understand the benefit of getting your message in front of people. For example, if you are partnering with a local restaurant for a fundraiser, you’ll want supporters to tell their friends to eat at that restaurant, on that specific date, in order to raise money for a specific purpose.

Social media channels have made it easier than ever to connect with volunteers, current and potential. But the basic rules of relationship-building still apply: Focus on common goals, set and meet expectations, and share a story worth passing on.

Are you getting the most from your volunteer outreach and management efforts? Contact GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group at [email protected] to discuss it with us.

Sherry Heyl is an affiliate consultant for GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group and Director of Social Media for Sensei Project. A version of this story originally appeared in the Sensei Project newsletter.

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