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.

9 thoughts on “Volunteer’s Lament: ‘Failure to Follow Up’

  1. Just wanted to throw in my 2 cents about responses. I always respond promptly by email to volunteers who have indicated interest in our opportunities at Volunteer Match and other sites. However, I rarely receive acknowledgement of my emails or any follow-up at all from potential volunteers. I ususally assume that my reply has been filtered out by the person’s email service, but it’s unlikely that’s the only reason volunteers don’t get back to me. I have also heard versions of the response Trude described in which the potential volunteer had been surfing the Volunteer Match site on a day off, indicated interest in numerous organizations at the same time, and thus had no recollection of who I was or why I was contacting them. Although this may maximize the chance that the volunteer will receive positive responses from organizations, it probably minimizes the chance that we will hear back from all the people we contact. Unfortunately, I’ve also contacted potential volunteers who tell me I was the only organization to get back to them, even though they applied to several. This indicates that we ALL need to work on our communication skills, and be sure to provide potential volunteers with the common courtesy we would like to receive from them.

  2. I agree with pretty much everything that has been said:
    * not every volunteer is right for your organization
    * volunteers don’t always follow up either
    * sometimes a volunteer’s expectations are beyond what many small/understaffed nonprofits can meet in terms of follow up
    The most important thing is to follow up, even if it is awhile later; be professional and courteous; don’t be surprised if every potential volunteer can’t do what they thought they could, either!

  3. Good article to remind us to follow-up with everyone even if the answer is a “no thanks.” I have begun checking my SPAM folder on a more regular basis to avoid missing any important emails from potential volunteers. We also need to remind volunteers to respond back when an organization contacts them even if they have changed their mind. Unfortunately in my experience, the majority of volunteers do not respond to my follow-up emails or phone calls. When I finally got one student on the phone after I had left 3 messages, she said, “Oh, I was checking so many organizations that day, I didn’t remember which ones I clicked.” In the past few years that I have used VolunteerMatch, I have received a couple of quality volunteers to make the effort here worthwhile. However, courtesy and professionalism should be recommended to everyone participating in this valuable web service. This is a great opportunity for both volunteers and non-profits who need help!

  4. Marissa: I shared your discomfort with how to best communicate the occasional but inevitable “no, thanks” that is sometimes required. I’ve managed volunteers in a hospice environment for 14 years. I learned over the years that you do no one a service, not the mismatched volunteer, not you and your time management, and not the patients and families if you ‘string them along’. The purpose of the initial phone interview or ‘get to know you’ chat is for the prospective volunteer to tell you a little about themselves and for you to describe the organization and the role of an appropriate volunteer. When you use the valuable assessment skills that got you the job in the first place to point the volunteer in the right direction, everyone wins.
    The exact term you used “not a good fit’ is exactly what I usually say. If the person has skills and talents which are better suited elsewhere, I’m not shy to offer an alternative volunteer site. Best of luck!

  5. It is really hard to say no thanks. I think those of us who work at non-profits are conditioned to say yes and to please everyone. Saying no thanks gently is something that I’ve had to learn. I have a great boss who believes in right fit. We usually spend some time laying out our needs and the restrictions on our volunteers (need to be 18, working with mentally ill children, only need volunteers during these times). If you have your parameters, it is easier for the volunteer to see how they don’t fit. They may be frustrated but hopefully they won’t take it so personally. Also I find it helps if I have some other suggestions, agencies that I know take a wider group of volunteers.

  6. From the standpoint of a relatively new to the field coordinator, what’s the best way to say “No thanks!” when they’re not a fit?

    It’s hard to do that when a nonprofit is afraid of leaving a bad taste in someone’s mouth. We realize that when people are unsatisfied customers, they tell approximately 8 people. When people are unsatisfied with the way a nonprofit has treated them (by either ignoring them or saying “no thanks,” do they do the same?

    Thanks for bring our attention to this issue and opening it up for conversation. I’ve gotten feedback from people who’ve been impressed with the fact that I have followed up with their interest, due to other nonprofits ignoring their interest or not utilizing them.