An alternative to ice bucketers and slacktivists

Volunteering / Friday, September 5th, 2014

On Tuesday, I challenged the idea that ice bucketing could really make a difference in the world. Today, I want to keep that convo going, and explain why I’d take 100 dedicated volunteers over 10,000 slacktivists any day of the week. Once we’ve chatted about that, I want to get practical and shoot you some top tips for engaging volunteers who are anti-slacktivists (that’s to say – they’re volunteers committed to action – volunteers you’ll keep around for longer than a tweet).

So I have three main reasons for preferring anti-slactivists over ice bucketers: first, I can be confident that a volunteer who believes in genuine activism will have taken the time to understand my organization’s mission. Second, if they believe in genuine activism, they’ll do just that by becoming actively engaged with my non-profit. Finally, genuine activists know that social change takes time, so they’ll stick around long past the latest fad.    

By now, you’re probably saying ‘sure Josh, that’s all well and good, but volunteers like this are like non-profit’s version of the unicorn – they exist in fantasy, but not in real life…’  I understand that feeling – truly I do, but the fact is, this breed of dedicated volunteer can be found and engaged with. I know because I’ve done it as a volunteer coordinator, and I know you can too if you focus on a few of the tips I have for you below. Implement these strategies, and I promise you’ll engage volunteers who will generate lasting impact.

1.) Recruit at local businesses that connect with your mission. This is one of the most underutilized tactics for volunteer recruitment, yet it is one of the most powerful. Think of it this way – your non-profit has certain goals that will undoubtedly align well with the professional goals of employees in your area. For example, Habitat recruited me by targeting the company I was working for – they came to our office, presented Habitat’s mission, and explained that by coaching Habitat families on their finances we could grow both personally and professionally. The volunteer position aligned well with my professional skills, so I accepted. The result was a 7 year volunteer relationship with Habitat that I continue to this day. I just don’t believe this kind of a relationship is possible if you can’t find a way to link up with a volunteer’s personal and/or professional goals. The best way to do this is by thinking about the employees and companies in your area who have skills that naturally align with your mission. And don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Toyota and the New York City Food Bank wouldn’t seem like natural partners, but check out this article to see why it was actually a match made in heaven!

2.) Take the time to understand a potential volunteer’s motivations. This is where you draw the line between slacktivists and activists – I believe the majority of ice-bucketers were motivated more by a social event than by commitment to a cause. Sadly, many potential volunteers become interested and come talk to you due to these same social pressures (e.g. their friends are doing it, so they feel obligated). Be careful to sniff these folks out and politely direct them to keep exploring for an opportunity that fits them. I know you need help now, but trust me – you’ll be much happier if you take the time to find genuine activists who are dedicated to your cause for the right reasons.

3.) Link up with local civic organizations. Organizations, such as Rotary, are full of service minded individuals. The catch is – for people who are part of such organizations, it’s a near guarantee that they’ll be wicked busy. To combat this, you will have to find ways to share your story so that they see how it aligns with the goals they hoped to accomplish by joining the civic club. Also, I’m using Rotary just as an example here – it will be important to find the organization(s) that have some kind of a tie into the work you’re doing (e.g. Kiwanis is heavily dedicated to children’s causes).

4.) Don’t be afraid to tell em’ no. I know this one is hard, and honestly, in my first years as a volunteer coordinator, I basically never turned away a volunteer. ‘You want to volunteer here?? Sure! We could use all the help we can get!!’ That’s what I’d always say…(you’ve said it too, right??? 🙂 but what I finally realized was that my being a ‘yes man’ was contributing to heavy turn over, high costs for my non-profit, and worse of all – the kids we were serving we being hurt by mentors who were leaving too quickly. I couldn’t allow that, so I got a whole lot better about telling prospective volunteers ‘no’ when I knew this wasn’t the fit for them. Always be polite about it, and always encourage them to search for something that is a better fit, but also know that by saying no when you need to, you are actually protecting the people you serve. Putting a laser focus on the types of volunteers you need and saying no to those for whom your movement doesn’t fit is the best way to build a dedicated team of change agents.

5.) Remember that its more about quality than quantity. The ice-bucket challenge has boasted some massive numbers on all fronts – money, tweets, shares, etc… but what about the quality of the campaign? How many slacktivists will stay involved with ALS? What will this actually do to eradicate the disease? Personally, I’d rather be able to brag that I had a ‘small’ group of extremely thoughtful and committed volunteers. I would rather brag about the time my volunteers had spent on our cause (e.g. our average volunteer stays for 5 years, volunteering an average of 2 hours per week), rather than the number of tweets and funds I had generated. And most importantly – I would rather brag about the lasting impact my volunteers had made upon the lives my non-profit is working to change.

How have you brought genuine activists into your organization? What can you do to attract them? Please answer these questions in the comment box below…