Sunday, February 08, 2009

A Theory of Volunteerism

Sandwich making for the Casa Maria soup kitchen, August 1, 2008.
Photo by Sue Peyron.

Okay, here's the theory: if you want somebody to volunteer to help out with something, you increase the likelihood of cooperation by doing five things:
  • Ask the right people
  • Ask them personally if possible
  • Ask them at the right time
  • Make the request specific, and
  • Make it as convenient as possible to do the good deed.
I expect that community organizers, non-profits and other volunteer wranglers already know this stuff, but I just figured it out today. As webmaster for St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, I've sort of languished in the hinterlands of parish life for years, appreciated by some but basically going alone, without much input once the original pages were set up. I started an arts blog for the parish, hoping to get photos, art, poetry, reflections or whatever, but with rare exceptions I was the only contributor. What was I doing wrong?

Tactical error #1: I didn't speak up much to ask for contributions or suggestions. I just wrote a little blurb in a couple of places and waited for a response that never came.

Tactical error #2: I didn't target the right people. Addressing the parish as a whole, which I finally did at the church's recent annual meeting, may raise awareness slightly, but many of the older people in our aging parish probably aren't online, or stick mostly to email. People who don;t frequent blogs and websites, who don't know what Twitter is and couldn't care less about Facebook, just aren't going to jump in on these activities on my say so. Also, the parishioners I normally see are the ones who attend the 10:15 AM mass. This means I miss all the people at the other three masses, some of whom may well be the more internet-savvy folks of the parish.

Tactical error #3: I didn't get the timing right. If I ask someone at coffee hour after church to write something for me or email me pictures, what happens? Nothing, most likely. They aren't at a computer, and my email address, if they get it at all, will be scribbled on the back of a church bulletin or other scrap paper. People are busy socializing, and when they're done with that they'll go home and get on with their day. The email address and request for contributions will probably be forgotten, or shunted into a mental "To Do Sometime" pile. Heck, I've done the exact same thing with other people's email addresses and requests.

But in the last couple of weeks, I finally did something right. I updated the website and promoted that fact, both online and off; but that by itself wouldn't do much. What finally made the difference was sending a one-time email to a mailing list of active parishioners. The fact that they're on email at all, getting notices about meetings and causes and news, immediately qualifies them as being more likely to help with the church's online presence. Furthermore, the plea made several specific requests, which people received at the time and place most conducive to complying: when they're at their computers, and have the email and web addresses right in front of them. And you know what? It worked!

As a result of that and the Facebook group I set up, three people besides me have joined the Facebook group, a fourth person found and informed me of an outdated link that needed to be fixed in three places, a fifth person emailed and spoke with me about helping out with the church history pages, and a sixth person emailed me photos of events and activities that I didn't attend myself. You can see one of those photos above, from the sandwich-making session for the homeless that volunteers do at St. Michael's on every fifth Friday. For years I've needed photos for the page that talks about Casa Maria night, but never made it down to take the photos (or make egg salad, for that matter. Why not? Same reason: it's not convenient for me, I'm not a likely participant, and I'm never asked at the right time. And yes, I know that's a lame excuse.

Let that be a lesson to me.



Anonymous said...

Hi Karen,

You do great work!! Please don't sell yourself short - a lot of volunteer leaders are still learning your lessons - thanks for sharing!

I work for a website that takes your good work one step further - Now that you have your volunteers online, let us help you coordiante your church service projects and community outreach. VolunteerSpot is a super simple (free) point-and-click tool that automates scheduling, signing up and reminding volunteers -- all through email. We're helping church volunteer leaders coordiante soup kitchens, coffee and doughnuts committees, Sunday school, carnivals and ministry meals.

Please check us out - there is an online demo so you can see how it works.

JenPB said...

It's tough being a volunteer. Unfortunately, too many people forget we're VOLUNTEERING our time and services and that WE need help, too! I've served as editor (and often writer and photographer) of newsletters for various organization in which I've taken part. The story is always the same - editor becomes writer becomes photographer becomes distributor.... Yet I'm constantly surprised by it.

Still, we carry on. Someday, just SOME DAY, someone else will GET it and jump in with both feet to share in our volunteer post! :)