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9 Ways to Entice More Volunteers, Backed by Science

Originally published here.

One of the questions I got most frequently at the Association of Music Parents was “How can we get more people to volunteer?”

I totally understand why! So often it feels like the same small core of people always does the heavy lifting for the organization. By putting some forethought into recruiting volunteers, and perhaps building some of these ideas into your yearly calendar, your organization can reap the benefits for months and years to come.

Make a great first impression.

Be intentional about designing an opportunity to engage with new parents. Many organizations just expect parents to turn up, without intentionally inviting or encouraging them. Specifically plan an event to meet new parents, and put your best foot forward!

And don’t forget that almost ANYTHING your organization does, whether it’s a fundraiser, a parade, or taking your kid’s uniform to the cleaners, may be SOMEONE’S first impression of the organization.

“The findings indicate that getting off on the wrong foot has devastating long-term consequences. Although later breaches seemed to limit cooperation for only a short time, they still planted a seed of distrust that surfaced in the end.”

Give before you get.

You know that feeling you get when someone does something nice for you? It’s a little nagging feeling that reminds you that you owe your friend a cup of coffee, or a dinner invitation? You can make that work for your booster organization!

In the book Influence by Robert Cialdini, he describes an experiment where the experimenter had an assistant do a small, unsolicited favor (in this case, buying a soda) for the true subject of the social experiment. Researchers found that subjects treated to the beverage later bought twice as many raffle tickets from the assistant than the subjects not treated to a beverage. This demonstrates the principle of reciprocity: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. More important, if you do the scratching first, people will feel compelled (often without even knowing why) to return the favor.

You can use this in your booster organization by making a point of doing something nice for parents, particularly the ones who you’d like to be more involved. Maybe it’s gifting them or their child a tee shirt. Perhaps it’s inviting all of the families in your child’s section over to your house for a picnic. While it may cost something up front, think of the dividends it may pay the organization down the road with all those extra families involved in volunteering and fundraising!

coffee w cream redFeed and caffeinate them.

Serve food and caffeine at your meetings (and to potential sponsors and donors, too!). Caffeine makes it more likely that the listener will agree with the arguments you present. And when you serve the food, make sure people are eating WHILE you make your pitch. The tendency to agree is high while the food is being consumed, but drops off quickly afterwards.

Everybody else is doing it.

We all know just how powerful peer pressure can be. You child’s director uses it on your child’s ensemble to encourage upholding high standards; it’s about time parent groups used it, too!

“People will be likely to say yes to your request if you give them evidence that people just like them have been saying yes to it, too.”

Make a conscious effort to highlight your group’s high participation rate to both current and prospective volunteers. Current volunteers will have their decision to volunteer validated, and prospective volunteers will start to feel a bit of friendly pressure to maintain the high standard of the organization.

Even if the volunteer rate isn’t where you’d like it to be, showcase what volunteers ARE doing in a very positive, public way, and bystanders will mentally fill in the blanks because it sure SEEMS like “everybody’s doing it.”

Consider thanking volunteers publicly at your meetings and/or in newsletters. Better still, make a video highlight reel. This one WON’T be of the kids and their rehearsals and performances; this one will be of the PARENTS. Capture footage of cheerful concession stand volunteers, busy uniform parents hemming pants, and plastic-gloved parents feeding a crowd of hungry band kids. Choose the right event to screen the video (don’t forget to upload it to YouTube, too!), and you may have those volunteers slots filled before you know it!

Set them up to be more supportive.

Get your potential volunteer to agree to a small, public commitment, and it opens the door to a larger role. If you choose something small enough that it’s nearly impossible to reasonably refuse (perhaps a public declaration of “I support the Hometown H.S. Band” on a window cling or a tee shirt), they’re hooked. They’ve already been spotted supporting your organization by others. If they stop, they’ll appear inconsistent, which may pave the way to another easy “yes.” They’ll feel compelled to “put their money where their mouth is.” Why does this work?

“Inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait. The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty.”
Robert Cialdini, Influence

Personally ask for advice.

Learning your marks’ names pays off. Maybe at the 8th grade concert, you arrange to take a photo of each eighth grader with his or her family. They get the photo as a keepsake (“Give before you get!”), and you make a point to learn the names of each person in that photo. 

“Just remembering the other person’s name makes you more persuasive. Asking someone how they feel, having them verbally respond, and then acknowledging that response, facilitates compliance. Listen to what they have to say and ask them to tell you more.”

Once you are on a first-name basis, ask them for advice. You’re not pressuring them to step in with time or money, just their two cents. Once they offer it, whether you implement their advice or not, they’ll feel a stronger tie to the organization. And they’ll feel that the organization needs them. “People always want to feel needed.”

“…Advice seeking is a surprisingly effective strategy for exercising influence when we lack authority.…seeking advice is among the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors, and subordinates.…research shows that people who regularly seek advice and help from knowledgeable colleagues are actually rated more favorably by supervisors than those who never seek advice and help.…When we give our time, energy, knowledge, or resources to help others, we strive to maintain a belief that they’re worthy and deserving of our help.…But here’s the catch: advice seeking only works if it’s genuine.”

Ask new volunteers how they can contribute.

Give new volunteers a chance to place themselves into the booster group structure you’ve already created. Let them visualize themselves making a difference in your organization. Don’t pressure them into an answer right away. Let them sleep on it.

“The way to do it is, “Here’s the pitch. What’s your contribution?” When the other side contributes, it actually builds something, and it’s usually a little bit better, but also the other side is more invested in it and so forth. The idea of pitching is to begin an engagement with somebody, not to necessarily convince them right there.”

If you haven’t already, check out VolunteerSpot. It allows volunteers to check out the full gamut of positions that need to be filled from the comfort of their own home or smartphone, and even see which of their friends have volunteered as well. 

Oh, and think twice about randomly assigning new volunteers to positions just because you need warm bodies. If a structural engineer volunteers, for example, you may want that person designing props instead of handing out plumes. Chances are that volunteer will get more satisfaction from their specialized role, and the group will benefit from increased parent involvement.

“Only 53 percent of volunteers who did ‘general labor’ activities or supplied transportation continued volunteering the following year. By contrast, 74 percent of volunteers performing professional or management activities continued volunteering.”

Consider assigning a volunteer to serve as “human resources” for your organization. That person should make an effort to meet and get to know potential volunteers, so available positions can be matched with just the right person. When you work with the volunteer to identify his or her signature strengths, it’ll result in a win for both the volunteer AND the organization!

“When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full month later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.”

It’ll make them happy.…

Speaking of happiness, that’s a selling point, too. Not everyone knows how rewarding it is to be a music parent. Once people get involved, though, they’re often hooked. All of us want the best for our children, and pulling together to make that happen can be incredibly rewarding.

“…Volunteer work increases happiness — not just correlation; they demonstrated causation as well.”

“Volunteering has been shown time and time again to increase happiness. So the best way to be selfish might be to be selfless. You’ll probably inspire others to do good too. Don’t have time for this? Wrong. Giving your time to others makes you feel less time-constrained.”

From the work of Eric Barker 

…And it’ll make them a better person.

As you gently ninja-convince people to volunteer, they’ll change their own self-image to match. Eric Barker explains:

“As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’ People who do volunteer work, for example, often change their narratives of who they are, coming to view themselves as caring, helpful people.”

Next time you need to beat the bushes to fill volunteer needs, put aside your dread. Use these tactics to put the odds in your favor. Chances are, you’ll be doing THEM a favor!

Has your group tried any of these tactics, either consciously or unintentionally? How did they work? If you were to pick one to try out next, which would it be?

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