Participation branding – three takeaways for leaders of volunteers

89% of advertising is not noticed or remembered. Of those who do notice advertising, more and more people then take steps to actively block it. In other words, most of those adverts for volunteers you’re putting out are being ignored by people.

When you think about the amount of advertising organisations do for volunteers, and how much that costs, it’s shocking to think how little impact you’re apparently having in getting people to want to volunteer.

So, when I read this article from nfpSynergy, ”Comic Relief: How the brand connected with Millennials and Generation Z”, the term ‘participation branding’ caught my eye. That lead me to this article, ”Participation pays: Study from Iris reveals how major brands are harnessing ‘people power’”.

Here’s what I took away from these two articles and the little bit of additional research I did online.


Creative innovation network Iris believe that the most potent and efficient brands in the world today are being built with people, not for them. A new breed of brand is not just surviving, but thriving. They are outperforming the competition without outspending them. They are getting their market to do their marketing. These are what Iris calls Participation Brands.

These brands are thriving by activating the power of people to build their brand and creating content and conversations that people want to actively participate in.

Ben Essen, executive planning director at Iris, says:

“Brands no longer influence people. People do. With the Participation Brand Index we wanted to understand more deeply why people are choosing to get involved with certain brands and what the secret is for those brands who manage to get their market to do their marketing.”

“It’s become ever easier for consumers to shortcut the media-driven decision making process and access beliefs, behaviours and new ideas directly from other people. Communities can now live on their own terms and agendas without the need for organisations telling them what to do and what to buy. Participation Brands are those who have responded to this change by designing content and experiences that positively disrupt the networked lives we now live.”

The brands who top the Iris The Participation Brand Index study are those seen to not just have a positioning, but a passionate purpose at their heart. They are the ones felt not to just respond to culture but actively shape it. They are the brands creating content, conversations and experiences that people want to get involved in.

For example, the number one brand globally was Apple, who excelled against all these aspects. The number one brand amongst a millennial audience was Netflix, for whom there is a stronger sense of anticipation in ‘what the brand is going to do next’ than any other brand in the study.

The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).


I’m a big fan of taking ideas from outside our field and applying them to our work. For example, see my article about how organisations can adapt their approach to volunteer recruitment in light of what’s called influencer marketing.

So what does participation branding mean for those of us leading, managing and recruiting volunteers? Here are my topthree thoughts.

Get your market to do your marketing

Word of mouth has always been an effective way of recruiting volunteers. I am more likely to support a cause if someone I know and trust asks me than if I see a poster or leaflet saying I should get involved.

Remember the quote from earlier, “Brands no longer influence people. People do”? Put simply, participation branding is just a fancy new term for word of mouth. It recognises that a personal ask is more powerful than an impersonal advert.

How can we get more of our volunteers to talk to people they know about volunteering with us? Here are two simple tips to get started:

  • Ask your volunteers to ask their friends and family if they consider volunteering. You’d be surprised how few organisations actually do this.
  • Help volunteers to ask others. For example, tell them what your current recruitment needs are, give them some information about that, and perhaps create a hashtag they can use on social media when talking about volunteering.

Be passionate about your purpose

According to Iris, the brands who top theThe Participation Brand Index are those that have a passionate purpose at their heart. That may be hard for some corporates to find but it shouldn’t be an issue for non-profits who, by their very nature, are driven by a passionate purpose.

Yet so many volunteer recruitment messages don’t really address they purpose. They talk in a dry way about what the organisation wants people to do, but not why.

Review your recruitment messages. Do they sell the cause before they sell the organisation or role? Do they inspire people to action by showing how they can change the world with you?

Measure return on involvement

I love the phrase Iris use, “The effectiveness of participation branding is generally measured in term of return on involvement (rather than investment).”But what does it mean?

Perhaps the most helpful definition I found online was from this article:

”Return on investment to me is something lucrative that you put into a company with the purpose of getting more value back, than the money you put in.”

”Return on involvement is some engagement that you put into a company and you get more value back, because you engaged in the company.”

In volunteering we’ve traditionally tried to measure the return on investment for volunteering in a purely financial sense. Whilst this can be helpful when arguing for more financial resources to support volunteer engagement, speaking about volunteers in financial terms can cause problems.

With return on involvement we could start to look at how building relationships with volunteers brings a return for us in ways that benefit our organisation. For example, if we invest time in our volunteers, do they have a better experience and so are more predisposed to talking to others about our organisation, making recruitment easier and cheaper?

Return on involvement is a new concept to me and one I want to look into further so I can develop my thinking on this. I’d love to hear your ideas and any suggestions you might have for how it could apply to our work as leaders of volunteers.


Over to you. What do you think about participation branding and how it might apply to volunteering. Share your thoughts below.

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