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.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.