10 lessons you should take to heart when building a team of volunteers

Helen O’Hara has recruited hundreds of volunteers in the course of her work with Love Castlebar, a community initiative set up to reinvigorate and enhance the town of Castlebar. She has kindly shared some of her most important lessons with us on how to find and keep volunteers:

1. Start with who you know

The best starting point for building your team is your own circle of family and friends. It’s harder for them to say no 😉 ! They’ll be forgiving in the teething days, and when you have confidence to reach out further, asking everybody to refer a friend is a great organic way to grow your team.

2. Spread your message

Inspire all of your volunteers around the bigger vision and not just around the single event or aspect you are asking them to help with. I think it’s something we were great at in the beginning and later on as the organisation grows, we assume that people already know what we’re all about (she says reflecting on herself!) Don’t assume! A clear common vision is a powerful motivator.

Also on communication don’t forget that your future volunteers are often already in your audience. Every Facebook post, Tweet or Mail campaign can sway them towards joining or not. I personally love making small videos, so I often use those to create excitement around what we are doing.

3. Have fun!

Having the craic is the magic dust of building a great team. Try to make it feel ‘not like hard work-ish’! If you send people home once the work is done you are missing a great opportunity. Tea, cakes, a street BBQ, a shared pizza, some great music, time to chill, to chat, we do it as often as we can. Give yourself and your volunteers the opportunity to create social networks, you build friendships and those friendships build a great, lasting community.

4. Keep it casual

We ask volunteers to do what they want, when they want. Sounds risky? I think that people are often turned off volunteering by the burden of commitment. We find out what projects they are passionate about, what their particular skills are and then we do our best to match them accordingly. We respect the hectic and unpredictable nature of life, we really appreciate that when somebody can find a little time to help, it’s amazing!

I’m aware this won’t work in every volunteering context but it has allowed us to attract a huge base of volunteers without making individuals feel over burdened.

5. Celebrate the successes

Emphasise the impact that volunteers have. We started with no money at all (we’ve now grown substantially to having hardly any money at all!) but by unleashing the power of volunteers we are able to change the world (Castlebar, next stop world!)

You can’t say thank you too often. Try to follow up with people very shortly after an event. It’s so easy to neglect that part after the main work is done.

> See a Thank You Video Helen made here

6. Make it personal

The number one recruitment tool is to directly ask a person for their help. We have learnt that mass call outs often get lost in the realms of “somebody else will do it” or “if they need me they’ll ask me”. Social media, press releases and mass emails (We use Mail Chimp) are great tools to keep people informed, build an audience and communicate your broader vision, but in terms of getting volunteers for a particular event it’s a false economy.

Take the time to reach out to people directly, a phone call is great. It takes less time than you might expect and you’ll be sure you have enough volunteers confirmed for any given event.

7. Lookout for leaders

Embrace the potential and talents of your volunteers. Over time we’ve had five volunteers joining the core development team of Love Castlebar (also volunteers!). I think that constant renewal is the key to long-term survival. Remain open if you don’t want to close!

8. Serve

Don’t allow yourself to become distanced from the tasks you are asking volunteers to undertake. Serving together builds mutual respect and understanding.

9. Be where volunteers go

Build a great relationship with your local volunteer centre, it’s a potential volunteer gold mine! Every individual they interact with is looking for a team to join. Take some time to register detailed descriptions of the various volunteering opportunities available.

10. Learn from your mistakes. Or mine!

I have learned a lot along the way but I still have a long way to go. I once made the mistake of recruiting 35 people at a volunteer expo and then not giving them any chance to engage for months. We didn’t have any upcoming events but if I had the chance again, I would just get them together socially. They felt totally rejected.

I have had several ‘if I had the chance again’ moments during the past three years, luckily volunteers are an empathetic crew who tend to be very generous with second chances, use them wisely!

What mistakes have you learned most from when building a team of volunteers? Please share your experience with recruiting volunteers in the comments below.

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