Yes, you heard me right, all volunteer managers are liars.

OK, not all of them. But those who I hear saying that people don’t want to volunteer, they are liars. They perhaps don’t realise they are lying, but they are.

People today do want to volunteer. They just don’t want to volunteer to do the things we are offering them.

Look at the latest data from NCVO. It highlights two key things.

First, one of the most common reasons why people volunteer is because they had time (28% of respondents).

Chart showing 2016-17 on why people say they volunteer
Chart showing 2016-17 on why people say they volunteer

Second, one of the biggest barriers to volunteering is people having other things to do with their spare time (35% of former volunteers and 36% of those who have volunteered once a month).



Chart showing 2016-17 on the abrriers people say exist that stop them from volunteering
Chart showing 2016-17 on the abrriers people say exist that stop them from volunteering

Why this contradiction? Simple. Plenty of people do have time to give, they’d just rather spend their spare time doing anything other than volunteering1. They would rather spend their precious leisure hours with their family, seeing a movie, going on a city break, reading a book, going out for a meal, watching their favourite sports team – anything but volunteering.

Our job as leaders of volunteer engagement is to try and market volunteering to people in such a way that they want to spend some of their spare time volunteering with us.

Which brings us back to the idea of all volunteer managers being liars.

I don’t really think they are at all. It’s a headline that got your attention. And it isn’t original. I stole it from Seth Godin and his excellent book, “All Marketers Are Liars”. I’ll let Seth explain:

“I wasn’t being completely truthful with you when I named this book. Marketers aren’t liars. They are just storytellers. I was trying to go to the edges. No one would hate a book called All Marketers Are Storytellers. No one would disagree with it. No one would challenge me on it. No one would talk about it.”

Seth Godin
Seth Godin

Seth goes on to explain why stories are so powerful in marketing:

“All marketers tell stories. And if they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is vastly superior to a $36,000 VW Touareg, even if it is virtually the same car. We believe that $225 Pumas will make our feet feel better – and look cooler – than $20 no names. . . and believing it makes it true.”

In other words, as recruiters of volunteers, we need to get a lot better at telling compelling stories that make people believe that volunteering is great and make them want to give us some of their spare time. Over to Seth again:

“Marketing is about taking something people may or may not want and telling a story to turn that something into a thing people definitely want.”

Here are two things I think leaders and managers of volunteers can learn about volunteer recruitment from “All Marketers Are Liars”.

1 – Don’t try to change someone’s world-view

You do not have the time or resources to convince someone who firmly believes they don’t have time to volunteer that, in fact, they do. A much better approach is to identify a population with a certain worldview and frame your story in terms of that worldview.

Consider this example. A divorced father sees his children for a weekend every two weeks. He thinks he doesn’t have time to volunteer because of the demands of his job and his desire to spend his spare time with his children. This dad also wants to do interesting and exciting things with his kids when he has them.

The smart volunteer recruiter tells the dad a (true) story about how their organisation’s family volunteering scheme is a great way to have fun and spend time with your children doing something meaningful. This message will likely resonate more with the father – increasing the chances of him signing up to volunteer with his children – than a message asking him to spare a few hours he doesn’t think he has.

2 – Make the most of influencers

“You have no chance of successfully converting large numbers of people to your point of view if you try to do it directly. But if you rely on the nearly universal worldview that people like being in sync with their peers, you are likely to find those who believe your story will share…with their peers. If your story is easy to spread, and if those you converted believe it’s worth spreading, it will.”

This observation from Seth Godin is really important. It’s a validation, at least in part, of the power of word of mouth advertising, one of the most effective forms of volunteer recruitment. It suggests a belief that I have long held about how to influence people to volunteer: instead of encouraging people to volunteer through stories about and images of people in the public eye – typically celebrities – we need to show potential volunteers that people just like them volunteer.

Let’s go back to our divorced dad. A message from a celebrity dad in a similar situation isn’t likely to win him over to volunteering. But if we can show the dad someone like him, someone he can identify with, someone who probably faces the same pressures he does, someone who despite all that still manages to find time to volunteer and has a good time doing so, then that might go some way to convincing our dad to think about volunteering.

Instead of turning to people in the public eye, let’s turn to our existing volunteers. Let’s get them to share their volunteering stories with their friends and families. Maybe see if some of them are willing to be featured in your organisations bigger marketing efforts? It can’t hurt to try and chances are it’ll be more effective than another poster campaign saying, “Help! We need volunteers”.

Front cover of "All Marketers Are Liars"
Front cover of “All Marketers Are Liars”

So all volunteer managers aren’t liars. But we are wrong if we think people today don’t want to volunteer. To get them involved we need to create opportunities that match people’s interests and availabilities. We need to provide a great volunteer experience. We need to tell stories about those great experiences we have available in a way that resonates with the people we want to recruit.

All of this can be a big challenge for us but it is also an amazing opportunity.

Let’s get started.

  1. In fact, the top barrier to volunteering is work commitments (59% and 61% respectively) which is another way of saying people have other things to do with their spare time.
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2 thoughts on “All Volunteer Managers are liars

  1. And there’s the other barrier to volunteering: organizations, by in large, do NOT respond to people that express interest in volunteering. It is the number one complaint of people who try to use any third party volunteer recruitment site. MOST expressions of interest on these sites go unanswered. It’s something I have experienced myself when I try to volunteer: MOST organizations never respond to my application or my expression of interest.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Well Rob. That headline worked. I was so incensed that I stopped what I was doing and read your post.

    I have to say that I agree with you. We have to tell stories. Here in Nottingham we are launching a project in Volunteers Week that does just that using video, podcasts, displays and more to let volunteer tell their own stories.

    Liked by 2 people

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