Why “Tough Love” Produces the Best Volunteers

Guest post by Mike Devaney

Why Tough Love Produces the Best Volunteers“Look, this has to work for you… what do you wanna get outta this experience?” she asked, squinting.

Katerina (Kat), the hospital’s volunteer coordinator, was quietly putting to bed everything I thought I knew about recruiting volunteers. For starters, she wasn’t pleading with me to join her program. Actually, quite the opposite. It felt like she was trying to dissuade me from applying!

She wasn’t, of course. But I still remember that conversation nine years later because it was so different from all my other volunteer program inquires. Based on those experiences, I had assumed coordinators were supposed to …

  • Gladly accept anyone
  • Downplay the demands of the onboarding process
  • Avoid probing questions about motives

While Kat’s program depended exclusively on volunteers, she wasn’t looking for just anybody. Why? Because visiting sick and dying patients on a weekly basis wasn’t for most people.

Motivation Drives Commitment

The first interview with applicants, Kat later told me, revealed a lot. She could predict, with a high certainty, who would follow through with the application process and who would drop out.

The program included 20 hours of classroom training, which Kat oversaw. Again, with high certainty, she could tell who would thrive as a volunteer in the hospital and who’d wash out. Discussing the big issues of life — pain, suffering, and death — reveal a lot about a person’s motivations.

Which brings me to this point: Motivation. It’s good to question an applicant bluntly, like Kat did to me, about his or her motivations. Applicants might not be fully cognizant of their driving motivation, but they should be able to articulate more than a pat answer. Why? Because it’s what’ll keep them committed and growing as volunteers.

[Grab a list of sample interview questions here.]

Now it should be said that a volunteer’s motivation may not always be altruistic. That’s fine as long as it doesn’t conflict with your organization’s mission. I stayed with Kat’s program for 4 ½ years. We became good friends and discussed a lot of things “off the record.” Some of those discussions, I’m sure, didn’t sound particularly gracious coming from a hospital volunteer, but they were authentic.

Business, Not Personal

In business, the companies who develop thoughtful, creative, even rigorous hiring processes win. The hiring process is a branding tool; word gets out quick among job applicants about the companies who do it right. From the company’s perspective, the better they screen applicants in the early stage, the more time they can devote to promising candidates in the later stages.

The same principle is true for nonprofit and charitable organizations. Put another way, cast a wide net for volunteers using vague and undefined language, and you’ll spend more time later eliminating unqualified applicants.

In my experience working with nonprofits, particularly smaller ones, I find resistance to using “callout” language when advertising for volunteers. Callout language says to the applicant “Come closer,” or “Stay Away.” It doesn’t do both. The fear is that an otherwise awesome candidate might not apply if the language is too restrictive.

That’s when I tell them about the Peace Corps. Four years after “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” slogan debuted, applicants outnumbered openings 10:1 and by 1991, 30 percent of Peace Corps volunteers were reached through this recruitment campaign.

If anything, the slogan proved that qualified volunteers respond to “tough love.” The question is, are you willing to go there?

About the author:
Mike Devaney is a freelance copywriter and marketing consultant who helps nonprofits recruit and retain promising volunteers. In addition to the hospital mentioned above, he’s also served as a volunteer at a nursing home and a church-sponsored meal program. Visit him at mikedevaney.com
to schedule a consultation.

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