Volunteer’s Lament: ‘Failure to Follow Up’

Today prospective volunteer James S. writes to us about his experience using our service:

I tried to start in April and May of this year. I contacted four organizations who were returned by my search and indicated they could use professional services I could render…. I have yet to start volunteering.

I called James to see what I could learn about what happened.

James’ Tale

Recently laid off, James came to VolunteerMatch and took our Webinar on how to be a great volunteer. After thinking about what he could contribute, he decided he wanted to give back his skills as a programmer of Microsoft Access databases.

Being on-site at the nonprofit was not as important to James, so using our Virtual Volunteer search, he found and signed up for four opportunities.

Of the four, James says only one responded “fairly promptly” with a phone call. The caller, however, was surprised that James wasn’t local and then got off the phone after promising that someone else would get back in touch with James. But “nobody else called,” James says.

Of the other organizations, James says that one sent an email weeks later saying they’d already filled the role. The other two, he says, “never acknowledged my offer to help at all.”

Communication Breakdown

Sadly James is hardly unique in his experience. Even with millions of satisfied volunteer members we still occasionally hear from users that it’s just not working out for them. When this happens, volunteers often feel alienated and rejected. In his email James shared his perspective:

My experience with VolunteerMatch soured me on the entire belief that I could do some good. My efforts to find a volunteer match were met by agencies that either:

  1. Didn’t really need the help for which they asked
  2. Didn’t have a mechanism to use the help that came forth to meet their requests.
  3. Didn’t have the good sense to understand that asking for help from anywhere across the country might actually produce results from a distance.

Who’s to Blame?

Not always the nonprofit. When we research these issues, we often discover a hitch in the system is stopping email referrals from reaching the right person. SPAM filters get in the way. People go on vacation. Those things will always happen.

Still, there’s no denying that common sense and accepted courtesy require follow up from nonprofits on every referral. At VolunteerMatch, we ask nonprofits to respond to referrals within 24 hours of receiving the email from our system — even if that response is simply to say “No thanks.”

The Power of Picky

Why is a prompt “No thanks” better than nothing? Well, it keeps the bruise a rejected volunteer might feel from becoming a gaping wound that might turn someone off from service completely.

More importantly, getting into the habit of saying “No thanks” is important because it conditions you as a nonprofit to becoming comfortable with the idea that the goal shouldn’t be finding any volunteer – it should be finding the right volunteer.

VolunteerMatch was founded to help generate lasting relationships between good people and good causes. Studies show that one of the biggest predictors of long-term success is a good initial fit.

For volunteers, a good fit means they’re more likely to have fun and get a sense of satisfaction from their work for you. (That’s why we suggest volunteers do some self-discovery before hitting our Search engine.) For nonprofits, a good fit means you won’t soon be back at VolunteerMatch, posting a listing for the opportunity just vacated by an unhappy former volunteer.

Thus in a vast marketplace for volunteers, the more specific you are in your search for volunteers, the better. If you need someone special, ask for someone special. Just be prepared to say “No thanks,” and do so promptly.

Webinar Series for Nonprofits

For these and other best practices on recruiting and working with volunteers, check our regular Webinars for Nonprofits. They’re all in our Learning Center.

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