How to Turn Your Organization into a Volunteer Magnet

In early May we held a workshop taught by facilitator Martin J. Cowling, CEO of People First – Total Solutions and an expert in volunteer management.  Martin hails from Australia; we first welcomed him to Victoria three years ago when he taught two half-day workshops for us on topics related to managing volunteers.

Since Martin was very well received here in 2007, (his first time training in Canada!) we asked him to come back this year.  He delivered a full-day workshop entitled “How to Turn Your Organization into a Volunteer Magnet” to 37 participants, who all have roles managing volunteers at their organizations.

The workshop is based on a free e-book of the same name, a resource to which Cowling and other experts in volunteer management have contributed.  It’s full of dozens of articles organized around the themes of volunteer program administration, recruiting volunteers, supporting and retaining volunteers, attracting diverse volunteers, and being “magnetically imaginative.”  It is a great read for anyone involved in managing a volunteer program.

At the workshop – and drawing on the analogy of a magnet – Martin took participants through a host of information and exercises designed to make us analyze our own volunteer programs.  For example:  magnets attract, so how do we attract volunteers to our programs?  How could we unknowingly be repelling them?  Once we have attracted volunteers, how do we hold them fast and keep them motivated?  How do we produce “electricity” in our volunteer program and encourage brilliance?

Learning how organizations could unknowingly be repelling potential volunteers was very eye-opening.  Martin quoted a 1999 U.S. study carried out by Hobson & Malec in which 500 charitable organizations in Chicago were called by researchers posing as potential volunteers.  The researchers found the following:

  • Only 49.3% of the callers received an offer of assistance (e.g. “May I help you?”)
  • 69.3% did not receive the name of the staff person answering the phone
  • 26.4% were not referred to the appropriate contact person
  • When the contact person was not available, only 48.7% were asked for their name and phone number
  • Only 30% actually received callbacks
  • In 16.1% of the phone calls, prospective volunteers were not thanked for calling the agency*


What do these results mean for today’s volunteer-driven organizations?  They highlight the fact that organizations have to be constantly aware of how they present themselves to potential volunteers.  They need to consider how best to attract volunteers to their agencies and how not to turn them away.

Learning how volunteers are attracted or repelled, held or “electrified” is crucial to enhancing an organization’s volunteer program and ultimately the organization itself.  Martin J. Cowling helped workshop participants start to make changes in this direction.  One participant from the workshop said it all:  “Great, useful, practical information.  We left feeling like we were ready to change our organizations.  Thank you!”

For more tips on responding to potential volunteers consult the Colleague Connections section of Volunteer Victoria’s Winter 2008 newsletter.

*Source: Steve McCurley article “Reverse Polarity and the Volunteer Magnet”, located in e-book mentioned above.

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