3 Things About Volunteer Engagement Your Marketing Department Needs to Know
Your volunteer has two relationships you need to worry about: one with the organization you represent, and one with the mission of that organization. We’ve all seen a volunteer became disenchanted with an organization, but not with the mission. Thus, the birth of a new nonprofit serving the same mission. Clearly, more careful positive volunteer entanglements with each of our organizations serves everyone well.
There is much research on how volunteers involved in nonprofits relate to the mission of the organizations—AIDS patients, groups who are the targets of discrimination, etc. But until recently, little research has focused on how volunteers relate to the nonprofit organizations that they support.
Understanding the relationship between volunteers and organizations is important for crafting effective communications. A series of studies by Dutch social psychologists Naomi Ellemers and Edwin Boezeman provide a road map to engage volunteers and keep them supporting the nonprofit over time. As is common with this type of research, some of their findings and corresponding recommendations are surprising.
Ellemers and Boezeman identify two factors related to volunteer satisfaction with an organization:
- Pride: The extent to which people derive a sense of value from their association with the nonprofit, and
- Respect: The extent to which people feel valued as supporters.
The outcome of pride and respect is what the researchers refer to as psychological engagement, which corresponds to behavior engagement—working on behalf of the nonprofit. Or, pride + respect = engagement.
What influences a volunteer’s sense of pride? The most important factor is the extent to which the person perceives their work on behalf of the organization to be important, how much their work impacted the cause or the clientele of the nonprofit.
Here’s where it gets interesting. A volunteer’s sense of pride is not related to the public visibility of the nonprofit and its achievements. Instead, the volunteer’s sense of pride is related to two things: The personal belief that the organization is effective in carrying out its mission and the contribution of the volunteer’s work to achieve this end.
The researchers looked at two factors related to a volunteer’s sense that they are respected by the nonprofit. The first is “task support,” providing time and materials to help them accomplish work they do on behalf of the organization. The second was “emotional support,” being responsive to problems they encounter, recognizing their successes and providing encouragement.
Of the two, emotional support was found to be most important to volunteer satisfaction. Supporters were happy to figure out how to get the job done by themselves, if needed, but not being responsive to their problems and recognizing success was a killer.
Another surprising finding involved the importance of social relationships with other volunteers. There is a commonly held belief in the nonprofit world that the social connections made with co-volunteers motivates people to engage. However, because even regular volunteers usually only work a few hours per week, it is difficult to develop a sense of community with other volunteers. Researchers found that social relationships with other volunteers did not contribute to volunteer satisfaction.
Finally, it was found that when recruiting volunteers, putting out information that emphasizes the success of the nonprofit can backfire. This type of messaging can decrease the perceived need for additional support and make the nonprofit less attractive for someone to invest their time and resources. What turned out to be a better strategy for recruitment was providing information about the types of tasks and emotional support that a volunteer could expect when working for the nonprofit.
What’s the takeaway? Say you’re the chief marketing officer for a small nonprofit that raises $2 million to $10 million annually. You have a limited budget, so what should you do to maximize volunteer engagement and or direct donations?
1. Communicate Clearly About the Mission
Be explicit about the importance about the (continuing) contributions of volunteers to accomplish the mission. Internal communication with constituents and prospective supporters should take precedence over those promoting the public image of the organization.
2. Support Individual Volunteers
Convey the appreciation and respect of the nonprofit for the volunteer’s efforts. Set expectations about how the nonprofit will recognize and support volunteers and deliver on the promises made. Think of this as the psychological contract that nonprofits have with their constituents.
3. Recognize Volunteer Contributions
When communicating the progress that the nonprofit is making towards accomplishing its mission, recognize that success would be impossible without the support of its volunteers. And emphasize that future success is absolutely dependent on their continued involvement.
With these takeaways, you can avoid having the volunteers who were once your firepower turning into friendly fire.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.