That Time When the Volunteers Didn’t Show Up

It has happened to all of us. We collect responses and RSVP’s from volunteers and when it’s time for their shift to start….no one is there! What went wrong? Was it me or was it them? The reality is at times volunteers (unfortunately) do not show after committing to a volunteer opportunity. In some ways, it’s simply out of our control. However, there are many things we can do to increase the likelihood that they will be present for their shift.

Over Communicate

There’s a general rule in marketing that a person must receive a message 7 times before it sticks. We should follow the same guideline when engaging volunteers – especially new volunteers. Here are a few suggestions (in addition to the standard confirmation and reminder messages you’re likely already planning to send).

  • Dedicate one message to the arrival details – parking, check-in location, look for the “XX” signs.
  • Share testimonials from past volunteers who have performed the same work.
  • Ask them to reconfirm their commitment closer to the date of their arrival.
  • Craft a message that emphasizes your organization’s dependency on volunteer commitments.
  • Have the person who will greet them on site send a personal message offering to answer any questions.
  • Review the list of actions the volunteers will take during their shift – check-in, orientation, work together, assemble ## widgets, check-out.
  • Send a quick thank you text.
  • Make a quick thank you phone call.
  • Post a general reminder to volunteers on your social channels.
  • Include photos and videos in your messages that give a sneak peek at what or where they’ll be volunteering.
  • Provide the correct phone number to call if they get lost or unsure of anything.

Funny Story

I recently heard a story of a community theater that recruited volunteers to welcome attendees and usher them in to the theater at a set time before the show was scheduled to begin. Volunteers were told to wear all black for their shift and that they were welcome to watch the show in exchange for their volunteer time. Theater staff were in the lobby on the day of the show and recognized the volunteers in all black, but noticed that the volunteers were doing much more than hanging around in the lobby. When the show started, they walked in with the rest of the attendees and then left when the show was over. The volunteers showed up ready to work, but that was it! Moral of the story? Our job isn’t over after the volunteers show up. We must provide constant, clear direction AND check in with them from time to time.

Want them to come back? Make it easy.

Learning something new can be rather intimidating to some people. Meeting new people can be intimidating as well! The more we can facilitate the learning and meeting processes for our volunteers, the less they have to figure things out on their own. We’re all human – when we don’t have to try very hard to do something, we are more likely to actually do it. Here are a few suggestions for making it easy.

  • Directional signage with arrows and “Volunteers” written in large, bold font
  • A tent or desk dedicated to volunteer check-ins
  • A live person on site welcoming volunteers at the very first door they will walk through
  • Facilitate a skills training – power tool safety, build a sample widget together then let them loose, role play a script, show a quick video (easy = 5 min or less)
  • Prepare a “cheat sheet” for the task they are being asked to do
  • Ask for their feedback at the end – no more than 3 questions (remember, make it easy!)
  • Be clear about when their job is done – at a specific time or after ## widgets have been assembled

What else do you recommend?

Want them to come back? Express gratitude.

There is no doubt in my mind that all of you are already in the habit of saying “thank you” to our volunteers. It’s important – we all like to hear those words when we have given of ourselves in any capacity. Keep saying it! Meanwhile, here are a few more ways of expressing your gratitude that cost little to nothing.

  • Give them a shout out on your social media platforms. Ask them if they would like to be tagged.
  • Recognize repeat volunteers at the beginning of the shift. Go big with volunteers who stick around for longer than a year.
  • Nothing expresses gratitude more than trusting a volunteer to lead or train other volunteers.
  • Hang their photo up in the front entrance of your offices.
  • Introduce them to the organization’s leaders.
  • Ask them to play a starring role in a new video your organization is producing.
  • Ask for their advice.
  • Feed them! At the very least, let them know where the nearest water fountain is.
  • Consider hanging a wall chart where volunteers get gold stars every time they show up. (It may sound juvenile, but we’re all still young at heart and a bit competitive!)

What do you do to express gratitude for your volunteers?