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How to Build a Volunteer Corps That Outlasts a Surge

Turn one-time volunteers into lifelong supporters.

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A deluge of volunteers or donations doesn't always appear when you need them most. In fact, more often than not, well thought out and regular recruitment efforts can go nowhere, while an unexpected news event can trigger a sudden avalanche of volunteers to show up at your doorstep.

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Many organizations surely witnessed this surge when the election results triggered a rush of donations and volunteering interest for all sort of organizations -- for some at a never before seen pace. While this boon was surely welcome, were the organizations prepared to take advantage?  

Related: Here's What Brands Can Learn From Hillary's Grassroots 'Differentiator'

As we’ve seen in the past, donated funds that sit unused, or volunteers who remain idle, can quickly turn an energized base of helpers into a discouraged group that's hard to win back. The key for any organization is knowing how to leverage these surges and to be ready to leverage them at any time. You want to turn one-time volunteers into lifelong supporters.

It’s all about preparation. Here are the five keys to building a corps of volunteers and donors who outlast the occasional surges.  

1. Learn the art of newsjacking.

Figuring out what people care about the most is key to this trick. Once you know that, it’s all about the timing. Newsjacking is opportunistic, but it shouldn’t seem opportunistic. You want your audience to feel engaged and connected with you, not exploited. This is not ambulance chasing. Newsjacking is nothing new -- someone even wrote a book about it -- but it takes time and consistency.

There are no hard and fast rules. Just write about news your audience cares about, have a point of view it to get them excited, and be ready with an ask and an explanation -- if you donate, we will do this; if you volunteer, we will do this. Organizations like the ACLU and the Red Cross are a couple of nonprofits that do this quite well to solicit everything from donated legal services to home goods for disaster victims. But any kind of organization can and should newsjack.

2. Study up on the Wikipedia effect.

To find out why people volunteer, a Harvard researcher studied one of the largest volunteer run sites on the web, Wikipedia. Jana Gallus, a postdoctoral fellow for the Behavioral Insights Group at Harvard University conducted the study that examined what motivates Wikipedia volunteers. The answer was not what they thought at first -- that public recognition for their contributions kept them motivated. Rather, the motivation turned out to be that they liked being part of a community.

Think about whether your volunteers feel like a part of something bigger when you turn to them. For companies that have corporate-wide charitable programs, does it make sense to also include recognition of volunteer efforts in annual reviews? It makes all the difference in the world when it comes to retaining them.

Related: How You Can Identify and Optimize Nonprofit Partnerships

3. Pay attention to intrinsic motivation.

What does that mean? Motivation comes from a whole different set of reasons for different people, so how do you know where the motivation comes from for your volunteers? Ask them, and ask them on a regular basis. Variety is the spice of life, and the same is true for volunteers. One size does not fit all, so make an effort to find out what’s key to inspiring them. Asking doesn’t have to be hard or time-consuming with all the easy online survey tools available today.  

4. Empower your volunteers.

For any volunteer effort to work well, volunteers need to feel a sense of empowerment. Volunteering is a great way to ever so slightly let go of the reins and give others a manageable sense of responsibility.  Adam Werbach, founder and CEO of Yerdle, recently spoke about the different ways to empower your volunteer corps.

In the workplace, volunteer teams can work together to solve problems and transform organizations. In the public domain, volunteers can lead efforts to impact legislation. Empowering volunteers can have far-reaching effects.

Related: 5 Ways Volunteering Helps You Do Well While Doing Good

5. Make it easy with technology.

If you do all the above, but don’t make it easy, you’ve failed. While volunteers want to give of their time and money, they don’t want to fight through logistical or technological headaches to make it happen. Community-centric fundraising sites like Kickstarter, IndieGogo and Crowdrise all have excellent platforms. This article from Crowdrux lists the top ten crowdfunding sites for nonprofits. 

And not a tip so much as hopefully a given -- show appreciation. Your volunteers and donors are choosing you and your organization to donate their hard-earned money and valuable time to. Be sure to recognize them early, and thank them often.

Rob Wenger

Written By

Rob is a successful entrepreneur and business executive with a 19-year track record in building, growing and leading high-tech companies. He has been developing social networking applications for Associations and Non-profits for nearly 10 years. He is currently CEO of Higher Logic.