If you haven’t got all the volunteers you need, make sure that you diagnose the problem correctly.

Once, there was a professional – let’s say a personal trainer named Trish – who decided to start her own business. Trish got herself a studio, gave her business a clever name and a got herself a cute logo. Then, wanting to be mindful of the budget, she placed some notices in the free ads sections of the newspaper, started a Facebook page, and waited for the clients to start rolling in.

Trish got a few clients, but they never came rolling in. They were mostly people who knew her, plus a few who found out about her service by word of mouth or stumbling across her website.  These clients thought Trish did a great job.  She gave them lots of personalized attention. They got fit, they lost weight, they felt energized.

But Trish couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t busier.  She blamed it on the economy and on all of the competition for fitness clients.

Can you see the reason why Trish wasn’t fully booked? (hint: it’s in the first paragraph.)  Yes – she relied on free advertising because she figured that was sufficient to do the job. In other words, she failed to make the investment in the marketing that she needed to succeed.

We can look at this story and judge Trish pretty quickly.  We’ve all heard the expression that a business needs to spend money to make money, right?  Sounds like this trainer was way off track in her strategic know-how.

So here’s my question for the volunteer engagement world: how come we don’t make the marketing investments that we need to cover volunteer shortfalls?

When we can’t fill our need for highly specialized, high commitment types of volunteers – advocates, mentors, crisis callers, ombudsmen, mentors – it’s easy to chalk up the deficit to scarcity.  We complain that the volunteers just aren’t out there any more, or that they only want short term positions, or that there is too much competition for too few volunteers.

I would argue differently.  We live on a densely populated planet. There are lots of people who want to volunteer in all kinds of different ways. The problem isn’t scarcity, it’s our lukewarm marketing to reach the men and women who might take on and enjoy these challenging roles.

Very few volunteer managers are trained on how to do targeted marketing. Like Trish, our outreach efforts include some free online postings for positions, and perhaps attendance at some volunteer fairs. But if we have a specialized position to fill, we need to do much more to bring in quality volunteers.

I used to track my inquiries and applications when I worked for a CASA program. There was a direct correlation between the amount of time I spent marketing the program and the number of inquiries that I received.  When my attention was directed elsewhere (during training month, for example), my numbers would drop. The pattern was incredibly consistent.

It’s at this point in a post that I usually offer some tips for remedying the problem of the week.  But here the solution is pretty clear:

  • If you feel like marketing is your pain point, it’s time to invest in some training.
  • Or – if you know what needs to be done but don’t have the bandwidth to market, then it’s time to get strategic and make the case for more staff. I’ve done many posts this year about programs that grew exponentially when they made smart hires (take the gains at New Hope Housing and Brain Injury Services, for starters).  When we don’t make the capacity-building investment, we end up running in place.

Don’t get me wrong.  We may indeed be experiencing an overall shift in the commitment level of volunteers. In last week’s post, our very thoughtful guest blogger, Laura Rundell, posed the commitment question to readers.  Her call for comments resulted in many insightful responses. Clearly, we need more conversation about the fundamental nature of volunteering and what it means to engage volunteers within a program.

Before you start that conversation, though, make sure your diagnosis is correct.  As my business coach likes to say, “If something isn’t selling, the problem is not the service, it’s the marketing.” If your high commitment positions aren’t getting filled – and those roles are essential to your mission, take a close look at how and how much you promote those roles.

Readers in DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. If you want to learn the for-profit techniques that attract volunteers who will stay and donors who give, attend my June 20 marketing intensive.  All the details are here – https://twentyhatsmarketingretreat.eventbrite.com – or email me if you have any questions.  – Elisa