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Five ways to boost your communication with volunteers

1 March 2018

Could your charity exist without volunteers? Whether they’re raising money or running services, volunteers are the lifeblood of charities across the world.

They are also exceptional advocates. Volunteers will talk to their friends, families and colleagues about your organisation. Many will mention you on social media. Treat them badly, or appear disorganised or ungrateful, and you risk losing a committed supporter and damaging your brand.

A vital part of keeping volunteers feeling passionate and dedicated is communicating with them regularly and respectfully. Here are five tips and quick wins to improve your volunteer comms.

1. Make time to get to know your volunteers

They’re giving their time for free so show you have time for them. Even if you’re desperately busy, make sure volunteers never feel rushed when they contact you. Remember, if they feel replaceable or taken for granted, they’re less likely to come back (if they show up at all).

Quick win: create a ‘getting to know you’ template for new volunteers. Include questions about why they want to give their time to your charity. Do they have an experience or connection to your cause they want to share? Use it as a prompt when you first meet volunteers, or as a questionnaire they can answer by email. This information can also be very handy when you’re looking for case studies.

2. Keep things personal

Nothing beats meeting face to face, whether that’s a one-to-one to kick off a project, or a group get together to say ‘thank you’ for their time. If you don’t have the resources to meet all your volunteers, try to personalise your communications as much as possible. Some people will prefer to correspond by email, others will value a chat on the phone. Offer both. The more in control they feel over their relationship with you, the more likely they’ll be to commit.

Quick win: include a named person in all your communications that volunteers can contact if they have any questions or concerns. Give a timeframe of when you’ll get back to them, and stick to it.

3. Be clear and straightforward

Use everyday language that’s easy to understand. Even if you think of a volunteer as ‘one of the team’, never use sector jargon or acronyms when you talk or write to them. Unfamiliar terms can make volunteers feel anxious and alienated. Make sure it’s immediately clear what’s expected of them. When there’s any admin involved, explain it thoroughly and make it easy for them to complete.

Quick win: create a ‘live’ volunteering Q&A, including role descriptions. Note down any questions you’re asked by volunteers and add the answers to your document or webpage. Make one person responsible for regularly updating the content, and checking it remains clear, consistent and on brand. Share it across your organisation, as this will help make sure volunteers get the same information, no matter who they speak to.

4. Don’t sugar coat it

Let’s be honest: volunteering gigs can be hard. Race stewards at a 10k might be outside for hours in all weathers. Homeless shelter volunteers might have conversations with guests that are emotionally challenging. Be very clear in your communications if volunteers can choose what they take on, or if you need them to carry out certain tasks. Give them the choice to opt out before they turn up, and make sure they know where to go for support, both on the day and after.

Quick win(s): ask current volunteers to share any concerns or worries they had about their role before they started. Did it turn out how they expected? Don’t forget to balance it with the positives. What did they enjoy most about their experience? Use these personal stories to show new volunteers the reality of giving their time to your organisation. This will help you understand and address any barriers for volunteers in the future. Where possible, set up separate closed groups, on platforms like Facebook or WhatsApp for new and experienced volunteers to have discussions and answer each other’s questions.

If appropriate, include information in your communications to volunteers about how your charity has to pay to train them. And that you can only offer roles to people who are committed to volunteering after the training.

5. Make them feel appreciated

You couldn’t do it without them – make sure they know it. Thanking volunteers is a given, but try and be creative and consistent in the way you do it. One of the most important things you can do is to show volunteers the impact they’re having on the people who use your services. Include stats, facts and personal stories from the people they’ve made a difference to. Use phrases like ‘See the difference you’ve made’ and ‘Without you, x would still be sleeping rough/feeling isolated at home’. Don’t forget to show how their area of volunteering fits in with the broader work of your charity.

Quick win: ask people who use your services to thank volunteers. Crisis made this film to thank their volunteers and show the impact they’ve made this Christmas, and beyond. Other charities invite volunteers and people who use services to get together at a ‘thank you’ day. A heartfelt, personal message will always have a greater impact than any newsletter or email ever could.

More like this:

Three steps to volunteer-friendly comms

Useful resources: 

Internal comms and volunteers: sector perception, relationships and looking to the future

Image: Laura Pratt on Unsplash

Sarah Myers

copywriter and editor, freelance

Sarah Myers is a copywriter, editorial consultant and creative manager, with more than 20 years’ experience in the not-for-profit sector. She has worked in-house for Mencap and Macmillan Cancer Support, and at a charity copywriting agency. Now freelance, her clients include an extensive range of charities, professional bodies and specialist agencies. Her guide to Storytelling for Impact was published by the Directory of Social Change in 2022.