Word-of-Mouth Volunteer Recruitment – It’s Easier Than You Think!

Editor’s note: In honor of VM Summit 16, which is all about corporate/ nonprofit collaboration, this series of volunteerism-related blog posts will take one topic and explain how it’s relevant to both groups. Today’s topic? Word-of-mouth volunteer recruitment. Check out our other blog, Volunteering is CSR, for the same topic from the perspective of corporate volunteer program managers.

Word-of-mouth volunteer recruitmentFor me, there’s nothing quite like the rush of recruiting a new volunteer! Having a conversation, chatting about my experience, and seeing someone take the leap to volunteer… I love it so much that I’ve made my career out of it. Here at VolunteerMatch, I help lead the effort on growing the base of our volunteer, nonprofit, and corporate members.

For some, however, this is a terrifying idea. That’s why I wanted to share some ways to enhance your word-of-mouth recruitment efforts that can help you shape all of your volunteers into volunteer recruiters!

Over 70% of nonprofits find word-of-mouth recruitment to be the most effective way to find volunteers (with online recruitment through tools such as VolunteerMatch as 2nd) according to Hart Research Associates. As Karla Robinson from Project: LEARN of Medina County, Ohio shared, “Word of mouth is so important in volunteer recruitment because you want volunteers to have a realistic expectation of the position. Current helpers can give prospective volunteers great insights into what it’s really like to be in a position, hopefully leading to better quality recruits who will stay longer.”

Here are 5 examples showcasing how to enhance your organic word-of-mouth recruitment (and things you should consider before getting started).

Note: These stories come from various nonprofits, ranging from large teams of paid staff down to just one paid staff person.

  1. Staff & Volunteer Partnership: Add Word of Mouth to Existing Recruitment Efforts

Early on in my volunteer recruitment days, I doubled the volunteer program in a neighborhood of San Jose. How? By leveraging existing volunteers and making it as easy as possible for them to share their stories. I would recruit at least two existing volunteers to share their stories and answer questions. This way, a potential volunteer could see what it’s like to become a volunteer as well as see the support they will get if they join.

Things to Consider: It’s important to identify the characteristics of your ideal volunteer. Then, seek out existing volunteers who would help you inspire those with those characteristics.

  1. Referral Incentives that Work: “Invite-a-Friend”

For two years in a row, my team at Girl Scouts of Northern California recruited the most troops nationwide through our national “Invite-a-Friend” campaign. The incentive program worked like this: For a limited-time, recruit a friend to start a new troop and receive $50 to the Girl Scouts’ retail shop. Plus, the new leader received a Volunteer Resource Pack (badge book, pins, tote bag, and more).

Things to Consider: This program worked well for two reasons: 1) impact & scale and 2) the right incentive. Let’s take a closer look at these:

Impact & Scale: Rather than having a volunteer invite a new volunteer, this program was focused on recruiting a new troop leader. This, in turn, means bringing on about 10 girls and 2 adults if you look at the average troop.

The Right Incentive: This program had the right mix of incentives that were meaningful to both the existing volunteer and the new leader. $50 to the retail store is quite a bit of money, and the Volunteer Resource pack is everything a new leader needs to get started. The return on investment also worked well, and should be considered:

Return on Investment = Revenue (12 members X $15 = $180) – Cost ($100 per troop leader)

Remember, ROI could be based on time, too!

  1. Culture of Recruitment: “Replace Yourself in the League”

As a volunteer with the Junior League, we have mantra that you should replace yourself in the League. This means, if you decide you no longer want to volunteer with the organization, you basically find your own replacement. This is a culture that we have created and of course, building culture takes time. I’ve also seen this work effectively for Board of Directors replacements.

Things to Consider: Volunteers spend time with your organization because they care about it. So building this culture of recruiting a replacement might be a great way to help bring in new volunteers.

  1. Social Media: Who says word of mouth has to be in person?

The nonprofit Braven offers a college course to empower promising young people on their path to college graduation and strong first jobs. They do this by through leadership coaches who facilitate sessions with a cohort of students. As a former coach, it was easy for me to help them recruit. Why? They equipped me with social media content that was easy to post:


Coach the leadership development of diverse college students with @BeBraven. Learn more at https://bebraven.org/volunteer-as-a-coach/

Build the next generation of local leaders; apply to serve as a @BeBraven Leadership Coach. Learn more at https://bebraven.org/volunteer-as-a-coach/


I really loved being a @Braven Leadership Coach because [insert your reflection]. Join us in building the next generation of Bay Area leaders by becoming a Leadership Coach. Learn more at https://bebraven.org/volunteer-as-a-coach/

Braven Makes it Easy for Volunteers to Share their Stories OnlineThings to Consider: Having easily shareable content can increase the likelihood that those who would prefer to share their experience online will actually do so.

  1. VolunteerMatch

And, of course, encourage your volunteers to share your VolunteerMatch opportunity!

Throughout my experiences, I’ve discovered that retention increases among those volunteers who recruited new volunteers, and volunteer recruitment is most effective when you use multiple methods, including word-of-mouth and online recruitment.