Volunteers getting ready to greet the public
I recently attended a flower and garden show in my community, one of those 'spring is just around the corner' events filled with beautiful displays and wonderful aromas (oh wait, those were from the roasted nuts stand). I went in with great expectations, hoping for fresh daffodils, but left shaking my head about the problems with volunteers and nonprofits. I can't help myself - I'm always looking at how nonprofits operate in the real world, as opposed to in the board room where I work with them on strategic plans and board development.
First, I paid my admission fee of $5 which is a fundraiser: 100% of admission fees go to a scholarship fund. I was greeted by a friendly volunteer to whom I gave a $20 bill. As he was making change, I said 'Just give me back ten dollars - I'll contribute five more'. The friendly volunteer insisted that I should get $15 back, and when I only took $10, he muttered 'have it your way'. Really? What happened to 'thank you'?
This has happened to me before, because I'm a rounder-upper. At benefit book sales I pay $30 for $26 worth of books - and am usually rewarded with a scowl for messing up the system. I'm not trying to make a big deal out of my extra couple of bucks, and I'm not fishing for praise. But I don't expect to see friendly volunteers turn sour on me. And unfortunately it leaves a bad taste in my mouth about the nonprofit or fundraiser they represent.
Next, I stopped in a booth to look at potted plants. It looked just like all the other commercial booths at the show. But as I was leaving, I noticed that the women working the booth wore name tags for one of my favorite community nonprofits. 'You're with the Good Deeds Council? That's great - I definitely need to buy a plant here', I said as I went back into the booth to fetch a few. The women rang up my purchase and took my money. They were friendly enough, but didn't ask me about my interest in their organization. How did they know I wasn't a potential volunteer, a donor, a recipient of their services? It was a missed opportunity to interact with someone who was clearly interested in supporting the organization.
Even worse, the Good Deeds Council booth did not have a sign or banner to announce itself. There were no brochures, no pictures of the wonderful work they do - no opportunities to educate, inform and maybe even recruit people to their organization. This was a missed opportunity on steroids. (And one we see a lot - how many benefit dinners, auctions and other fundraisers fail to promote the good work of the organization?)
Let's be clear - the volunteers I met are good people who are passionate about helping their organizations, and they do a great job with the tasks they've been asked to handle. But they probably haven't been asked or trained in public relations. Your volunteers can be your best ambassadors - but it's up to you to encourage them. Here are a few simple ideas to get you started, especially with volunteers who will be interacting with the general public
- Provide orientation/training for every event or new task for volunteers
- Help volunteers anticipate and react to difficult situations (like yours truly, the over-payer). Have fun with this - do some role playing.
- Provide every volunteer with talking points about your organization. Make business cards for the organization with 3-4 bullet points on the back.
- Equip your volunteers with organizational literature and other items so they have something to offer. A brochure and a smile go a long way.
- Debrief. Ask your volunteers for their feedback - how did it go and what would they change?
Finally - and this goes without saying - thank your volunteers, and then thank them again. Not only are you modeling the behavior you'd like your volunteers to adopt, but you're also investing in the most important resource your organization has.