Facebook for Volunteers

This article appears in the current issue of the NTEN: Change Journal, available for free with registration.

It's easy to get the impression that everyone is on Facebook these days, and maintaining a presence on the site is increasingly expected of organizations interested in engaging constituents. It seems like a logical assumption that Facebook should also be a good way to attract volunteers--but is that true?

A recent Idealware survey showed that nonprofits typically had better luck attracting event attendees, members and clients with Facebook than volunteers, and conversations with participants revealed lackluster volunteer-recruiting results.

But several nonprofits found otherwise. We asked them about their techniques for using Facebook to find volunteers, and we asked an expert about best practices, and found that organizations may need to adjust the way they approach volunteer-recruitment on Facebook to improve their success rate.

“Facebook is a good way to attract new volunteers,” said Jayne Cravens, an independent consultant at Coyote Communications who has vast experience in online volunteerism. But she cautioned that organizations can’t just update their status to say that they’re looking for volunteers and expect their phones to start ringing.

“I treat an Internet presence like a garden,” she said. “You need to cultivate it.”

First, find out if the people you want to reach are even using Facebook, or if they’re using something else. Because the site will attract a younger group—generally, people under 50—consider whether that’s the demographic you want to reach before creating a volunteer-recruitment effort on the site. Otherwise, you’ll be excluding other groups you’ll need to reach through other channels.

Then, strategize the types of posts you think will engage volunteers. Cravens recommends avoiding direct appeals. “That’s like a restaurant saying, ‘We need you to come down and eat this food,’” she said. “It doesn’t speak to anyone.”

Instead, post photos, video or recaps of past volunteer events, which serve to recognize those people who have already volunteered while showing potential volunteers what they can expect—and that their efforts will be appreciated.

“It turns into volunteer recognition,” Cravens said. “Existing volunteers say, ‘Look, they talk about me all the time! It’s great.’ Then those volunteers are going to share those posts on their status page, they’re going to post and tweet about it.”

On the Developmental Disabilities Service Organization Facebook page, Natalie Franks said the focus of her efforts is mostly volunteer retention, but that attracting new volunteers is an intended byproduct.

“Usually, in retaining volunteers they’ll bring someone new the next time,” she said. “Our primary aim is to gain the attention of built-in community leaders who already have a group of people who would want to volunteer with them.”

The DDSO maintains a separate Facebook page for volunteering. Franks encourages volunteers to “like” it and tag themselves in photos from volunteer events. “We’ve been primarily using the Internet to attract volunteers, because we want to get a biased group who is active on line, and regularly reachable by email for coordinating purposes.”

By showing potential volunteers what to expect, Franks said, she mitigates some of the concerns people might have about walking into an unknown situation.

“Sometimes there’s an intimidation factor, because you don’t know what you’re going to walk into,” she said. “Before volunteers get on site, I want to them be aware of what our mission is and what we’re accomplishing. Then I want them to like our page so we show up in their news feeds.”

The original messages in turn reach a new audience—one that has the advantage of already being “trusted” by the existing audience.

“It’s about building community,” Cravens said. “If you just post nothing but volunteer application deadlines, you’re missing the whole point of the Internet. The Internet is social media—it’s all social media. It’s all about building community.”

For another example of an organization combining volunteer recognition with recruitment, Cravens points to the Peace Corps’ Facebook presence.

“You don’t realize it when they’re posting about what their volunteers are doing in the field, but they’re recruiting,” she said. “There’s nothing more powerful than reading about what a volunteer is doing and thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ Interspersed with that is information on deadlines for applications—they really integrate it all well into their overall messaging, both volunteer recruitment and volunteer recognition.”

She also likes the University of Oregon’s Alliance of Happy Atheists. “They use their page to keep their volunteers energized,” she said. “The current volunteers want to share that enthusiasm in their status pages with their friends, which in turn can help recruit new volunteers.”

She cautioned organizations to make sure they’re attracting the right people—if there’s a minimum age or some other qualification, make that clear in the post. In addition, if the Facebook post sends potential volunteers to the nonprofit’s website, that site needs to be engaging and helpful.

“If you’re going to tell me to go to your website and sign up, and the web site doesn’t say what it needs to say, or there’s no info, I’m going to be angry,” she said. “Angry.”

Make sure to offer a diversity of volunteer opportunities, and to have rock-solid practices for handling volunteers in place. The Internet makes it easy for people to say they want to help, she said, but organizations need to be prepared to screen and act on each offer that comes in.

“If someone calls to say they want to volunteer, you need to get back to that person immediately,” Cravens said. “Respond quickly and screen out those who are really good at saying they’re interested, but not as good at following through.”

In short, prepare your organization for volunteers as best you can—and then begin recruiting on Facebook.

Mike McFall, communications manager for the Michigan-based Williams Syndrome Association, said he posts volunteer requests fairly regularly, and to great success.

“The whole point of being on Facebook is, that’s where everyone already is,” he said. “If we put a call out on our page, we have a really good group that seems rather responsive to everything we post. When we put a call out, generally, we do get a lot of people who respond.”

McFall said his organization offers a variety of volunteering opportunities. “As with anything, if you’re always recruiting for the exact same thing, you’re going to get the exact same people,” he said, and run the risk of burning them out.

The Williams Syndrome Association uses the organization’s main page, as well as regional chapters’ pages, to recognize volunteers.

“Our photo album is extremely active,” he said. “We like to promote people when they do things on their own, like volunteer fundraisers who host events, which then encourages other people to do the same types of things, or gives ideas to other people. We hear all the time, ‘We saw it on Facebook and that’s how we decided to do it.’”

McFall also uses the organization’s page to promote fundraising and awareness events, linking back to the main website. It’s been as effective at recruiting new volunteers as it has event attendees, he said.

By encouraging people to comment on the page, the site becomes a conversation rather than one-way communication. There’s no official policy about posting, but he concedes to monitoring it regularly for questionable posts or comments. Such comments are not edited or removed—instead, he responds to them, both to address the person’s concerns and to show that the organization is responsive and considerate.

Cravens said that’s actually an advantage of using Facebook. “Some people say they don’t want to put things up on Facebook about volunteers because volunteers can respond to it, and they may respond negatively,” she said. “They might post about an event and say it was a great event, and a volunteer might respond that they didn’t like the event.”

That gives the organization the opportunity to respond, gathering feedback and addressing concerns—an opportunity that might have been missed otherwise. But you may want to consider a policy governing whether volunteers may “like” your page or add comments so you’re prepared to handle negative or risqué posts.

“People can talk back on Facebook,” Cravens said. “They can’t talk back on a newspaper classified ad.”

Before your organization can successfully attract volunteers through Facebook, you need to have a good system in place to process them. “Make sure you pay as much attention to your volunteer management processes as you do to recruiting volunteers,” she said. “That’s a universal rule. To make any Facebook or social media campaign to recruit volunteers work, you need to first have the basic Volunteer Management 101 things in place. You can have a great Facebook presence, but if your volunteer management system isn’t bang-up-fantastic, it’s not going to matter.”

In general, you should maintain good general Facebook practices, which will help with your volunteer-recruitment efforts. If you’re just starting on Facebook, find someone in your nonprofit who is savvy about social media, and involve them.

Make sure all the other groundwork—from your organization’s main website to volunteer management guidelines and processes to a policy for Facebook commenting—is in place. Then, once you start posting, do it often enough to keep people engaged, but not so often that people feel overwhelmed—from two to five times a week, depending on the audience, mixing volunteer-related posts with other posts.

Joyce Li, the local organizer and volunteer coordinator for the New York Anti-Violence Project, said she thinks that any organization that knows how to attract volunteers through methods other than Facebook can apply that knowledge to using the site for volunteer-recruitment.

“The requirements of what an organization needs to provide when using social media is the same as attracting volunteers through the soapbox, the brick and mortar, the pounding the pavement ways of attracting them,” she said. “The expectation when folks show up, as well as the frequency of communication leading up to when they do show up to volunteer, is the same regardless of your method. Facebook just allows you to reach a higher number of people, or different populations.”


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