When You Can’t Get Volunteers

Starting a list of suggestions, in response to things I’ve seen in my community with nonprofits, citizen advisory boards, neighborhood association groups, grassroots organizations, and others.

• If no one wants to do it, maybe it doesn’t need to be done. Look into streamlining your processes and procedures. Eliminate unnecessary work.

• A whole separate category of unnecessary work is in-person meetings. Of all the real silver linings of the pandemic, the popularization of Zoom and other online platforms is high on the list. Keep using the vast array of freely available technology for meeting virtually (why would we stop, now that the gate has been opened!); save people including yourself time, money, and effort (while reducing carbon footprint).

• Maybe the work you’re asking volunteers to do is work that needs to be compensated in some way.

• Compensation can be money (or a gift card or similar), but think of compensation in wider terms as well. If someone has a stake in your organization or issue, they are in a sense getting paid to volunteer. Example: business bigwigs happy to serve on an advisory board related to downtown development. By serving on the board they are protecting and advancing their financial interests. Another example: If I volunteer to work a shift at the plant sale of our local native plant society, I’m getting “paid” because the work they are doing is supporting my occupation as a sustainability educator and permaculture-landscaping consultant. Also, it’s inherently delightful to be outdoors surrounded by beautiful plants.

• Which brings me to another point: If you’re having trouble attracting volunteers, add elements of fun and beauty to the work.

• Reach wider; don’t just keep tapping the “usual suspects” you know off the top of your head. “Board fatigue” is real.

• If you’re trying to get people to do work you’re not willing to do yourself, ask yourself why that is. Maybe this part of the work needs to be cut, streamlined, re-thought. For instance, if no one is willing to take detailed notes of a meeting, maybe you don’t need notes.

• As a rule, if you are starting an organization, don’t ask other people to do work you’re not willing to do yourself. It’s your organization; create it in the shape you want from the start. This is a version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

• For nonprofits: If compliance with your nonprofit status requires more labor than you are able to find volunteers for, maybe you don’t need to be a nonprofit.

• If you yourself are getting paid (or seeking to get paid), but are looking to volunteers to support your organization, take a good long hard think about that.

• Citizens’ advisory boards: Don’t ask people to show up and give of their time if their ideas aren’t going to be listened to or taken seriously. These days it’s very easy for people to get their ideas out there via email, social media, etc., and a lot of government officials are making an effort to be more accessible. If you’re asking people to serve on an advisory board, they need some assurance that they will have a bigger impact by serving on this board than by simply communicating from the comfort of their own home, on their own time.

• But really my big tip is always, When in doubt, cut it out! Eliminate excess labor; convoluted processes; meetings about meetings; etc. Organizations that perennially have trouble attracting volunteers (which unfortunately is many volunteer-based organizations I know) are unsustainable. They suck resources and energy. If you’re having trouble attracting volunteers, stop fighting against the current, and instead look for the root cause of the difficulty.