Updated: January 6, 2016

Recruiting Local Volunteers To Increase Diversity Among the Ranks

An organization that wants to involve volunteers has a number of goals for such involvement. The primary goal, of course, is to best serve the mission of the organization -- volunteers may be the best people to engage in certain activities in order to meet that mission, and, therefore, those activities are reserved specifically to be done by volunteers. Another goal may be to get fresh ideas and perspectives that are different from paid employees and consultants. Still another goal may be to demonstrate to donors and the public that the community is welcomed to come in and experience the work of the organization first hand. Yet another goal may be to increase the number of people talking about your organization in the community, which could encourage people to donate funds to your organization or express support for such to their elected officials.

(I hope your answer regarding why to involve volunteers isn't "Because we have so much work to do and can't pay salaries in order for the work to be done." That would mean you are involving volunteers so you don't have to pay people, and that gets a lot of people's hackles up. For more, see Mission statements for your volunteer engagement)

An organization that has fundamental volunteer management procedures in place, allowing anyone who expresses interest in volunteering, and is qualified (and meets other basic requirements), to be placed quickly into the induction process and to be quickly put into an assignment, usually has no trouble with recruitment and retaining of volunteers. Such an organization may, in fact, have more people wanting to volunteer than they have assignments. But having plenty of volunteers to do all of the work that's been identified for them usually isn't enough to say a volunteering program is successful; another indicator of success is if your volunteers represent a variety of ages, education-levels, economic levels and other demographics, or are an accurate reflection of your local community. Most organizations don't want volunteers to be a homogeneous group; they want to reach a variety of people as volunteers (and donors and other supporters, for that matter).

If you want to reach a diversity of potential donors, volunteers and other supporters, and if you want to target certain demographics not reached by the Internet (and, there are people not reached by the Internet), you must use some traditional tools for outreach, like TV and radio. The good news is that you can use many traditional outreach tools via the Internet: for instance, you can email your announcement or press release to various civic clubs, and they may, in turn, get that message into their printed materials. Or you can email your press release to a local radio program and it will be read over the airwaves. However, sending an email probably won't be enough to reach certain groups; you will have to build trust with some groups, and they will have to hear your message multiple times, not just once. That means face-to-face meetings, onsite presentations, and maybe even display booths at events sponsored by other organizations.

If you want to reach a specific cultural group -- people with a particular heritage -- then you have to know how members of that group get information. What communities of faith -- churches, temples, mosques, etc. -- serve the community you want to reach? Is there a newspaper or radio station (or individual radio program) that caters specifically to that group? Are there annual events hosted by or focused on members of this community? Does this group have its own chamber of commerce, business association, neighborhood association or civic clubs? What about a cultural center focused on people of a particular heritage? Use the Internet to start your search (look up keywords on Google.com, as well as looking at the web sites of your city and your city's chamber of commerce; compiling these resources is also a terrific task for a volunteer).

Are there demographics you want to reach that will be attending a large community event, like the county fair? A car show? A flower show? Organizers of these events may be willing to let you set up a display booth, for free or for a very low charge, to distribute information about your organization with the express purpose of recruiting volunteers (rather than soliciting financial donations, which could be seen by vendors and sponsors as competition for money).

What about trade and professional associations, unions, women's and men's clubs and civic associations? Is the membership of one of these groups made up of demographics that are under-represented among your volunteers? These groups may be happy to have a speaker from your organization make a brief presentation focused primarily on volunteering opportunities with your organization, or an item in their member newsletter.

Is there a historically black college, university or high school nearby? This is a great source for recruitment, not only among students, but also among alumni associations.

Again, just sending an email to these groups -- or becoming their fan on FaceBook or other online networking site and posting to their "wall" -- may not be enough to get volunteers from a group; you will have to build trust with some groups, and they will have to hear your message multiple times, not just once, and that takes face-to-face meetings, onsite presentations, and maybe even display booths at events sponsored by other organizations. Go to THEIR events, send them notes of congratulations when you see once of these organizations getting media attention or an award from the city or some other kind of recognition, meet for lunch - show you have interest in these organizations, not just that you want something from them.

Be up front about why you are contacting a particular group. It's okay, for instance, to say, "We would like to have more Hispanic/Latino volunteers and that's why we are contacting you." Ask for guidance in your outreach efforts. Ask what words and phrases to avoid in your messaging. If someone says you have been offensive in your messaging, get all of the details you can and apologize; if you continually come from a place of honesty, sincerity and transparency, missteps can be forgiven.

Be aware that a demographic group may not be unified; a community may be served by competing newspapers or organizations. There may be competition for leadership among representatives of different factions. Some groups united by heritage are split by religious differences. Do as much research as you can, ask questions, and do your best not to be perceived as favoring one faction over another.

Note that awareness is just part of what needs to be done to reach an audience; accommodation is also necessary. Things that prevent people from volunteering who want to include lack of transportation, lack of parking, lack of childcare and lack of availability during the times you have offered for meetings and service. What can you do regarding accommodations? Do you have information on your web site on how your organization or meeting site is reached by public transport? Do you have a way to organize carpools? Do you have volunteer orientations on different days, at various times? Can you offer parking discounts? Could you provide childcare? Could you provide volunteering activities that could be done as a family?

There can also be misunderstandings about what exactly you are asking for during volunteer recruitment:

For instance, I volunteered with a local Girl Scout service unit. When I talked to others about volunteering, they were sometimes shocked that one doesn't have to be a troop leader and doesn't have come to all Girl Scout events in order to volunteer. They were often shocked to learn I did most of my volunteering online from home (I was the communications coordinator, and could undertake most of my responsibilities from my desktop). And more than one person was surprised to discover that I received no payment, despite my saying from the very beginning that I was a volunteer.

Please note that all of the above is based on my experience with a variety of organizations, recruiting not only volunteers but also participants. I didn't use any academic research for the above, but I would love to know about such.

Other resources you might find helpful:

Also see

There are even more suggestions about how to use the Internet to recruit for diversity among volunteer ranks in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.  

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