February 25, 2020

How to build a volunteer corps from scratch

How do you recruit volunteers? We asked nonprofit professionals and volunteers alike to share their best tips for finding and engaging volunteers.

Mobilize your community through volunteering. Here, volunteers in Fort Meade, Maryland, beautify a local neighborhood as part of Rebuilding Together Baltimore. Photo by Emily Cowman

If you’ve been following our newsletter, Renewal 365, you know that every week we like to share best practices for creating stronger communities. Recently, we fielded a question from one of our readers, who wanted to learn how she can recruit volunteers to work in her community garden. We put the call out to our network. They didn’t disappoint.

The below responses are from nonprofit leaders, fundraising experts, corporate professionals, and fellow volunteers. This is just a sample of what they recommended to build out a volunteer corps of any size.

As always, our inbox is open if you want to add to this list, or ask a question of your own. We may feature it in an upcoming newsletter or story. Email margaret@therenewalproject.com.

1. Find your super volunteer. Art Roche of Dubuque, Iowa, suggests recruiting a “volunteer Volunteer Coordinator.” This person would be tasked with recruiting and managing volunteers. Write a job description and share it with your network. “It worked for us when I was board president of a women’s shelter organization,” Art said. “It’s tough to find the right person, but when you do, it’s a happy day for your organization!”

2a. Assemble a one-pager, then distribute this to local businesses. The one-pager should include volunteering needs and what a volunteer can expect, plus facts about the nonprofit such as mission, vision, history, says Lucy Bloom, executive director of Veronica’s Voice. She says to contact companies in your area and ask for Community Relations, or visit your local Chamber of Commerce and ask them for their recommendations for promoting your volunteer opportunity.

2b. Ask your regular volunteers where they work and pitch to their HR departments. “First person referrals are always a good start,” says Andrea Meyer, who works on the Corporate Relations team at Allstate. If your regular volunteers are retired or work independently, try cold-calling companies within a 10-mile radius. “Awareness is half the battle and proximity is important,” Meyer says. “If [companies] are going to ask employees to spend time doing something as a group, the ability to get there easily wins. The easier it is to show up and do something, the better.”

[Read more: The amazing psychology of helping people]

3. Take advantage of social media—both online and off. Eric George recommends joining a local Facebook Group based around gardening. You can also put the call out for volunteers on sites like Nextdoor, where neighbors post about everything from lost dogs to block parties. Speaking of Nextdoor, don’t forget the original neighborhood platform: community cork boards in coffeeshops and community centers. Post a flyer there, too.

4. And local papers, too. Susie Reynolds advises sending an announcement to the local newspaper’s calendar of events. “Most newspapers let you post items for free.” (Editor’s note: As a former local newspaper editor myself, I can confirm that we happily promoted local clubs and nonprofits in our weekly calendar of events.)

5. Reach out to local schools. Marie Bond says, “Invite middle school students and they will bring their parents.”

[Read more: 5 creative community service ideas]

6. Don’t forget colleges. John Rodriguez says, “I highly recommend reaching out to local colleges, universities, and even high schools for recruitment purposes. As long as the individual is focused, kept engaged in the process, and is provided partial ‘ownership’ of the project, age usually does not matter.”

7. You can also tap the organizations within those colleges. Jake Sinatra recommends reaching out to Greek life coordinators or student life staffers at local universities who would be more than willing to help spread the word. “The students also typically enjoy getting to connect with and serve those in the community.”

8. Offer something in return. Debra Ann Romano suggests putting in a free Craigslist ad offering something such as “free veggies for all who volunteer.” She says, “turnout is often overwhelming!”

[Read more: 5 proven ways to find success in your community work]

9. Show appreciation. Of course, once you find all these volunteers, don’t forget to thank them. Doreen Davis of the Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation says that her organization hosts a monthly volunteer luncheon. “I take a few minutes to indicate that the lunch is our feeble and humble method for thanking the volunteers for their invaluable service.”

10. Read more from like-minded folks. Beth Raps of Living Room Conversations highly suggests The Grassroots Fundraising Journal, which is a publication from the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT).

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers

The Renewal Project

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.
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