We Had 5,000 Supporters and Didn’t Even Know It

turn volunteers into supporters

Hidden in plain sight.

Do you ever notice all the so-called pundits who go around telling their audience of nonprofits not to fret about dwindling resources? “Hey nonprofit,” they chirp. “Turn that frown upside down! It’s a time of abundance!”

I always want to show them where to stick their abundance.

This week Shari and I were going through our VolunteerMatch accounts. We use VolunteerMatch.org to recruit volunteers just like you, and we do it for all kinds of roles and projects. Just in our Communications department alone we recruit social media interns, writers, storytelling experts, graphic designers, etc. Our Product team has its own stuff going on too, and we usually have anywhere from one to five of own opportunities in the system.

(It’s nice to be a nonprofit because so many folks want to help if we just ask.)

As I mentioned, Shari and I were poking around our newish “Manage Organization” dashboard and we clicked on the link that says “Volunteer Referrals & Reports”. I don’t usually go there because when I recruit usually I just wait for email notifications to drop into my email inbox instead.

In fact, I just got one a few minutes ago. A woman named Leslie wants to help out with her marketing skills. I need to get back to Leslie.

But in the meantime, by the miracle of the interwebs, Leslie’s email address and contact info is quietly being added to the Referral list in our VolunteerMatch account. And when Shari and I clicked that “Volunteer Referrals & Reports” link, take a guess how many other email addresses showed up. Seriously. Go on, guess.

Oh wait, the number is in my headline.


That’s how many people have signed up to volunteer with our organization since we began using the account. I almost hit the floor. Abundance.

Okay, so hundreds of these email addresses are probably my own team testing our service. But a large majority are actual folks who expressed interest in volunteering with us over the last few years.

Did they end up volunteering? Most did not. Why not? Who knows. Here’s 10 reasons maybe why not:

  • It was a bad match from the get go.
  • An important automated email got caught by a robotic spam filter.
  • A human thought an important automated email was spam and click “Add to Spam”, blacklisting VolunteerMatch forever to millions of other members of AOL or Hotmail or Gmail or whatever.
  • We waited too long to get back to them and they got annoyed.
  • We got back to them but then they blew us off.
  • They found another volunteer opportunity.
  • They lost their job and no longer had time to volunteer.
  • They got a job and no longer had time to volunteer.
  • They saw a video of Obama telling them to go volunteer and it pissed them off.
  • The saw a video of Obama telling them to go volunteer and they were inspired, but they went to Serve.gov instead where there are actually fewer volunteer opportunities and lots of duplicates.

My point is that most people who click “I want to help” at VolunteerMatch don’t end up actually volunteering. That’s why we use the word “referral” instead of “match”. We tell this to everyone but people still ask, “Why don’t you call it a match.” Sigh.

So these 5,000 aren’t really our “Volunteers”. Really they’re our “Prospects”. But that’s a terrible word too. The fact that they wanted to help us (and maybe still do) isn’t “prospective”. It’s a fact.

So maybe an even better word for this would be a “Supporter”. Just like everyone who follows your organization on Facebook is a Supporter even though really they’re just lurking.

The good thing about this word, Supporter, is that it reminds us that these 5,000 people care about us.

We know they support what we do, or at least they did at that moment that they read our listing. They were just never able to demonstrate their support. In this regard we’re like every other of the 80,000 organizations that use VolunteerMatch. Each one is hoping to create new relationships with people who care.

But the smart organizations? They do something with their Supporters – the folks who don’t end up volunteering. They add those names and addresses to Salesforce. They invite them to join them on Facebook. They send out annual donations appeals to them. Whatever.

The smart organizations have a program to keep their Supporters engaged. And maybe, with the right engagement program, those Supporters will eventually become Volunteers or Donors. Maybe even Volunteers and Donors.

As for us, after Shari and I saw this list of 5,000 we decided to add those folks to our monthly newsletter. When they get it, our Supporters will be reminded about VolunteerMatch the organization, and not just VolunteerMatch.org the Web service. And they’ll think about what we do and for whom. And maybe they’ll decide it’s important again.

3 thoughts on “We Had 5,000 Supporters and Didn’t Even Know It

  1. Love this post, Robert. Some really important takeaways here. If we take the time to connect with and nurture our supporters, some will become “matches” in the traditional volunteer sense of the word. For the rest, it’s up to us to help them find other ways to support us that work for them.

  2. I like the idea of inviting Supporters to become your Facebook fans or learn more about your organization. Sometimes they may decide that the particular opportunity they expressed interest in isn’t a fit for them, but they are interested in connecting to your cause a little more. And for VolunteerMatch, it makes sense to keep in touch with users because they have probably engaged with your website pretty significantly and because VM can offer so much to volunteers.

    But in general for other nonprofits using VM, I’m not sure I would want to receive periodic e-mails from an organization with which I barely engaged. My impression as a volunteer manager is that some VM users express interest in a lot of opportunities without really being too selective. I always take any opportunity to connect with potential volunteers and educate them about all of our offerings (not just the one they expressed interest it). I trust them to choose whether or not we are the right fit for them.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t really like getting lots of emails, newsletters, and solicitations from organizations or companies with which I have never really had a relationship. I am a little sensitive about this–it feels intrusive in some way to receive e-news I never consented to receiving. For instance, I sometimes give a small donation in honor of someone. I often then receive solicitations from that nonprofit for the next five years whether or not I care to. It’s a waste of their money (if they’re using postal mail). The organization does good work, but I am not personally all that invested in what they do and am more likely to share my limited resources with other organizations I have personally sought out. People who just click “express interest” on VM have even less of a relationship with my organization. We usually don’t know their motives for choosing that particular opportunity.

    One follow-up e-newsletter might be fine for someone who expressed interest in an organization via VM, especially if it has simple “unsubscribe” instructions. But if community users get the idea that they’ll be frequently contacted for the next five years every time they express interest in an organization, they might be more hesitant to contact us at all.

    • Colleen – Great comments and thank you for sharing. I agree that the best “engagement” strategy for folks who express interest in volunteering but never do is a moving target. It’s not quite like someone who donates some money to a nonprofit. Those folks have moved from “Supporter” to “Donor.” And even then, I agree, chasing them for years in hopes they’ll give again is sort of crazy. Yet for many of our largest and best known organizations, this is a core strategy. How do we as volunteer coordinators engage and re-engage fence sitters? I’m all ears! Thanks again.