Setting High Expectations for Volunteers

Posted on 08/04/2019

It’s a familiar dilemma when planning an event: whether or not to charge admission. While offering free access might lead to an increase in the number of registrants, it also tends to result in a lower yield of attendees. Charging for the event could lead to fewer overall registrants, but it generally results in a more participants. Attendees who pay for an event perceive that it is more important and have personally invested, making them more likely to show up.

A similar dilemma can be observed around volunteer recruitment. It’s not uncommon to approach a prospect with a reassuring, “We’d love for you to get involved and we know you’re very busy. Don’t worry. This won’t require much of your time, and there won’t be any heavy lifting.” The challenge with positioning the volunteer opportunity in this manner is that it actually devalues the role you’re asking them to fill. While you’re trying to make it more enticing because there’s less work involved, it ends up having the opposite effect—making the role seem less meaningful and not as important to the overall success of the organization. This, in turn, makes the role less appealing to the prospective volunteer. You risk having the best prospects see these positions as a waste of their time.

Instead of underselling the role of volunteers, the advancement team at Yale goes to great lengths each year to outline the significant number of tasks and responsibilities assigned to their more than 2,000 class agents. Yale produces an annual handbook that explains both the role volunteers play in the overall success of the Yale Alumni Fund as well as their specific duties over the course of the year. Volunteers are tasked with soliciting a group of classmates, signing letters, and participating in donor stewardship efforts. With the list of responsibilities clearly laid out, the handbook goes on to provide fundraising tips from fellow volunteers and extensive customizable templates that can be used by agents when soliciting. By outlining the role—and providing resources to support the volunteers in their efforts—Yale shows their class agents that they are playing a critical role in the organization’s overall success.

Don’t downplay what you need from your volunteers just because it might make things a little more comfortable. Instead, set high expectations and don’t be afraid to ask for a lot. It’s okay if that results in fewer people responding with a “yes.” Those who do are more likely to show up reliably, contribute thoughtful ideas, and do the important work that your institution needs.