5 Strategies for Engaging Volunteers & Activists on Social Media

Guest post by Levi Olmstead.

Sometimes, an ask is all it takes.

While approximately one-fourth of all Americans volunteer on a regular basis, research shows that 90% of people want to volunteer but just haven’t taken the steps necessary to make it happen.

So what’s holding them back?

While many Americans cite time and scheduling as the main barriers preventing them from entering the world of volunteerism, there’s another surprising reason that’s keeping 25% of people from volunteering: no one’s asked them.

When you consider that so many Americans want to volunteer and simply haven’t been asked, and the seemingly low barrier of entry, building these networks is an area that’s ripe for improvement and an opportunity for nonprofit organizations to thrive on.

The numbers indicate that there’s an audience willing to take action. You just need to figure out the best way to reach out, captivate your audience and inspire them to engage with your cause.

The ideas below should help you begin connecting and engaging the right people to get your volunteer projects and activism campaigns staffed with passionate volunteers who want to serve your cause.

1. Create a connection list

Take every email address you have in your contact list and compile them into a spreadsheet or list. In fact, take every email address you can get your hands on – your coworkers, your friends, your parents – and pull those addresses into a cold email list as well.

Once you have some traction with building a potential activist/volunteer list, reach out to the people on it. You can use email tools specifically designed to help you grow your email subscribers, then take advantage of the initial contact to opt them into future volunteer communications. There are also many volunteer automation and management software tools for larger nonprofit organizations with bigger supporter lists.

In your initial contact, don’t just start off by asking potential volunteers for something. Similar to how you’d reach out to influencers, focus on building a relationship. Build trust and establish rapport by highlighting benefits and common interests, and offer them something of value related to your cause (a guide, fact sheet, testimonial or checklist could do the job nicely).

You won’t get a ‘yes’ from everyone, but you’re laying the groundwork to securing their ongoing support with your organization’s endeavors.

2. Humanize your efforts

The social media community is tight-knit, and people are ready and willing to unite in support of a good cause. Even when the cause isn’t necessarily altruistic, the people populating social networks (Twitter and Facebook in particular) are ready to jump in and lend a hand or open their wallets when they feel a cause is deserving.

Billy’s Donuts, for example, was just a small mom-and-pop shop with a grand opening no one wanted to attend.

One emotion-driven tweet from the owner’s son found a wide audience of sympathetic, listening ears. The son shared how sad his dad was about the empty shop. Within hours and 300K retweets later, the donut shop was packed and their inventory sold out.

The quality of the donuts wasn’t important. The sparkling newness of the storefront didn’t matter.

People connected and chose to take action based on the human being behind the story, the crushed donut shop owner. Even though this story isn’t explicitly altruistic, you can seek unique ways to create emotional resonance with your social media followers and volunteer community.

The same goes for email.

When sending your cold emails, don’t focus on bullet points about your organization. Instead, put a human face on your efforts by sharing a testimonial from someone you’ve helped, using video technology for a face-to-face feeling, collecting signatures electronically, or sharing a story from another volunteer about a profound encounter they had during their volunteer efforts.

3. Make it easily shareable

The legendary Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago seemed like a strange idea – pour a bucket of cold water over your head to raise awareness for ALS.

Well, it might have been silly, but it worked. The challenge raised more than $100 million for ALS research in less than a month, and the funds enabled studies that led to scientific breakthroughs.

What made this challenge work for so many? It had the right mix of simplicity, a low barrier to entry, competitiveness, time-sensitivity and old-fashioned peer pressure, which led to a huge spike in sharing and donations.

While no one can predict the viral success of a guerrilla marketing campaign like the Ice Bucket Challenge, you can still make your message easy and fun to share across social media networks.

Take a look at other trends like the “Trash Tag Challenge” and “No-Shave November.” They all incorporate something out of the box that’s fun to bring up as part of your water cooler chat. Try to create intelligent discussions around something funny, heartwarming or quirky as a way to keep your name in front of your followers and build trust with your brand.

4. Highlight hashtags

Search specific hashtags and keywords to find people posting about issues that matter to them.

Social media users often use tags like “#bulldogsofinstagram” to share their pets with like-minded dog owners and lovers. For a nonprofit seeking to recruit volunteers or activists to help with pet rescue or spaying efforts, these hashtags combined with geolocation tools can be a goldmine of potential event volunteers. Additionally, including the best hashtags and automating posts with scheduling tools vastly increases your reach.

Similarly, English comedian Richard Herring has been praised for dedicating his time on International Women’s Day each year to keyword searching and responding. He searches for all detractors who ask “When is International Men’s Day?”, corrects their misapprehensions regarding the day then asks for donations to a domestic violence shelter.

Through this savvy keyword tracking, Herring was able to raise more than £123K this year alone. That’s with only a simple ask, no additional campaigning or follow up required.

5. Connect in groups

Just as hashtags allow people with similar interests to connect via social media, online groups can be a great place to pitch your volunteer/activism message to interested parties.

You can connect with groups based on location or interest. For example, if you’re looking for volunteers to participate in an email campaign related to a national political issue, the location may not be as important as finding people who are passionate about the specific topic.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for volunteers to staff or participate in a fundraising 5K for a local community theater, you might need to get more targeted and look for art lovers and/or running enthusiasts in your specific community.

Connecting in groups doesn’t mean only connecting through a web host or on Facebook either.

Often, you can tease useful content in the group, then offer to provide a longer PDF or other information outside the social platform. Then, you have an opportunity to connect by email or through a landing page, get an opt-in and add your latest potential volunteer to your ongoing list or blog subscription.

Volunteers want to give back and feel good about their efforts, and they want to know that the time and money they’re contributing makes a difference. Don’t give up on connecting with them once you’ve added them to your contact list. Make sure you follow up via your website builder, email marketing service or use a calendar app to schedule meetings, and share results and photos of those they’ve helped.

What’s your best tip for connecting with potential volunteers and gaining greater awareness for your cause? Please share it in the comments section below.


Author bio: Levi Olmstead is Head of Community and SEO at G2, a B2B software and services review site with over 650,000 real-user reviews. Levi is an Indiana-native and Indiana University alum who in his spare time enjoys solving paranormal mysteries with his dog Frodo. For more insights from Levi and G2, follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @levi_olmstead.

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