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.