One of the things I’ve noticed in the last few of years is the increasing use of dating as an analogy when people talk about volunteer recruitment and retention. So, when in 2012 I found myself back in the single life once again, I thought that I might have an opportunity to use this change in circumstances to write my own blog on dating and volunteering.
After being with my ex-partner for nearly twenty years, getting back into the dating game was a daunting prospect, not least because one of the common ways to meet new people these days is through online dating sites. Not only did they not exist the last time I was single, the internet didn’t even exist, at least in a form accessible to the general public in the always-connected way it does now. So my take on dating and volunteering is to look at six things I think online dating sites can teach those of us recruiting, engaging and leading volunteers.
Sites get to know people first and then using processes to match up people
When you sign up for dating sites you are prompted to tell them all about yourself. For the bigger sites this includes quite extensive questioning about your interests, tastes, preferences in a partner and so on. For me there are three takeaways for volunteer management arising from this extensive questioning by the site:
- Dating sites use a process to help learn about the individual. They then use that knowledge to help match the person to others. Critically, the process supports the person, helping to learn about them and their motivations. Sadly, many people who are volunteering encounter bureaucratic, impersonal processes that seem to ignore the individual, partly because their purpose is to cover the organisations backside if things go wrong. How much more attractive volunteering would be if we focused on getting to know the potential volunteer and their reasons for giving their time more than whether they’ve filled our forms in correctly.
- People are not averse to filling in forms because they expect the payoff at the end of it will be worth it. Those who use dating sites have a bigger purpose and if we view the process as an inconvenience then they will put up with it because they hope the results of doing it will be worth the time spent. Is that the experience volunteers have of giving their time to your organisation, or do they just give up when faced with your processes and go off and do something less boring instead?
- The whole process can be done easily online. If you can’t finish the form on a dating site in one sitting — and some are rather long — you can save them and come back later. It is a seamless, joined up and easy process. It might almost be said that filling these forms in is a pleasure (see my last point about payoff) — would that this were true for volunteer applications!
Selling yourself online
One of the most difficult things about online dating is writing a pithy personal advert. Aside from the fact that we Brits are not the best at speaking about or promoting ourselves, many people really seem to struggle with this task. In fact, cast your eyes over many such personal adverts on dating sites and you’ll notice that many follow the same format, make the same kinds of points and don’t really stand out.
One that caught my eye back in 2012 — out of professional rather than personal interest! — started, as many of these statements do, by saying that the lady concerned had no idea what to write about herself. Her solution? She gave it to a friend to write instead! A brave move but an inspired one.
Sadly, many volunteer recruitment adverts — both online and offline — resort to the the same formula, making them hard to stand out to prospective volunteers. What’s more, they invariably advertise the volunteer opportunity by stating what the organisation seeks to gain from someone volunteering, not what the volunteer might gain. Imagine that on a dating site — how going out with someone would make their life better but no regard given to your experience, feelings or interests. Or going on a date with someone who only talks about themselves. Both those scenarios sound like a shortcut to lifelong solitude.
So, how can we write more engaging and distinctive personal adverts for our organisations and our volunteering opportunities? How can we come across as engaging, interesting and worthy of someone’s precious time? Would you be brave enough to hand this task over to someone else — an existing volunteer perhaps — and see what they write about you?
The power of pictures
When I was single I never responded to an online dating profile that contained no pictures. It’s not that looks were everything to me in a potential date — they’re not — but they are a crucial element of the wider ‘sell’ of someone’s profile. If I couldn’t see the person then all the words in the world won’t make a difference because I felt like I was missing a key element of the wider picture, of who they are.
Pinterest and Instagram show the value in volunteer recruitment of visual storytelling. By uploading images of happy volunteers enjoying their work, organisations are seeing interest from others who ‘want some of what they’re having’.
So when we recruit volunteers, perhaps we should give some serious thought to the imagery we use. Do we show engaging images, images that show that real people volunteer here and have a great time doing so? Or do we rely on lots of text or, heaven forbid, job descriptions to try and hook people in? Even worse, do we use attractive images to hook people in that bear no relation to the reality they actually experience volunteering with us?
Levels of engagement
One thing dating websites understand is that you don’t want to rush into a date with a total stranger without having built some rapport first. Making first contact with someone and instantly asking them out for a meal risks coming across online as desperate or making people run in fear that you may be some complete nutter.
Dating sites get round this by providing different ways to engage with people. You can simply ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ a profile to signify your interest. Or you give a digital ‘wink’, although personally I found this a bit creepy — would you wink at a stranger in a bar as your first contact? Then you can email and/or instant message with someone, developing that rapport to the point that you both might feel comfortable to meet face-to-face for a date.
There’s a definite parallel with volunteer recruitment here. Often our recruitment efforts come across like asking someone to marry us the first time we meet. We ask for a long term intensive commitment from day one. Then we wonder why people run for the hills! Instead, could we provide a scale of engagement, giving people easy, no/low commitment ways to try us out, see if they like us, build rapport and perhaps move to a point in the future where they feel comfortable making a longer term commitment? It may take longer to get people to make the commitment we want, but investing that time early in the relationship with our volunteers will yield dividends later on.
Not knowing where you stand if people don’t reply
One of the most frustrating experiences I had with dating sites was finding someone you really like the look and sound of, plucking up the courage to drop them a line a say hello, and then never hearing back from them. Did they get my message? Did they not like my profile?
The same applies to volunteering. Someone plucks up the courage to get in touch and enquire about volunteering with you. And they hear nothing back. Did you get their email or voicemail? Were they not suitable? Why not? What could they have done that might have caught your attention?
Too many organisations seem to think that it is totally acceptable to respond to people within a few days or weeks — or even never — after their enquiry. Yet we live in an immediate world. People expect a reply, even just a holding reply, within a few hours at most. 28 days delivery might have met consumer expectations twenty years ago but next day delivery is the benchmark now.
How can you ensure you respond quickly to enquiries from potential volunteers? Can you use email ‘out of office’ messages to provide instant holding replies? Perhaps you could involve volunteers to help you manage the prospective volunteer enquiries?
Advice on how to get the most of the experience
One thing I liked after being on a certain dating site for a couple of weeks was that they sent me an email giving me suggestions for how to get the most from my membership. OK, it was a template, impersonal email but the advice was really good and helped me to find my feet in this new online world I had entered.
Do we, should we, or could we do something similar for volunteers? Do we help people new to our organisations to find their feet, settle in and feel at home? Or do we just drop them in at the deep end, let them get on with it and then get frustrated when they don’t do what we want them to?
So there you have it, my thoughts on what volunteer managers can learn from dating websites. Now I’d love to hear your thoughts, preferably about what leaders of volunteers can learn, how have you dealt with these issues, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.
Oh, and if you’re interested, I’m not single anymore and no, I didn’t find my now wife online.