recruitment of volunteers

How to Recruit Volunteers by Appealing to the Emotions

Now, more than ever, our messages occupy a crowded landscape, and recruitment of volunteers is more difficult. Even if your volunteer/potential volunteer has opted into your communication, you’ll still be competing with all the other information they are interested in receiving via email, text, social, direct mail, etc.

How do you get your volunteer recruitment ads or emails to cut through all that noise?

Sometimes, in an effort to get as much information out as possible, we jam tons of topics into one message. Or, we shout down the audience with bold proclamations and requests.

If we remember we’re talking to a real person with real challenges and a real heart for your mission, we can start to see why this kind of chaotic, desperate communication rarely gets the desired results.

Do you like 3-page emails? Do you enjoy being guilted or shouted at on Facebook? I’m going to guess the answer is no.

On the flip side, what catches your attention? What stops your social media scroll? What kind of ads do you honestly read?

A good portion of what will get your attention is exactly the same for nearly every human being.

We’re inundated with information and since we cannot process it all, we involuntarily rely upon emotion to tell us what’s important and what’s not. It’s true for you and it’s true for your potential volunteers. How? Because our human brains react based on cues.

The primitive human brain has six main triggers responsible for that involuntary attention grab we all experience. Four are instincts, and two are sentiments. When you harness both instinct and sentiment together, you’ll find recruitment of volunteers becomes like second nature. And, responding to your recruitment ads will feel like second nature for potential volunteers.

Recruitment of Volunteers using Instinct

recruitment of volunteers

An instinct is a fixed, unconscious, (often innate) pattern of behavior. When a child is frightened, they cling to their parent. When someone is close behind you on a dark street at night, your instinct is to run. Instincts are usually present to ensure protection, so capitalizing on them in recruitment of volunteers can subconsciously make potential volunteers feel safe.

If people feel comfortable at the very first touchpoint of your nonprofit, they’ll be much more likely to click that apply button. Here are the four main instinctual triggers and how to use them in recruitment of volunteers.


Our primitive brains are completely self-centered. Even though volunteers may join us for different reasons, their brains respond to “what’s in it for me.”

Ways to Use this Instinct in Recruitment

  • Explain direct rewards of volunteering with your nonprofit.
  • In email communications use their first name where appropriate.
  • Phrase blog posts and ads like you are directly talking to one person.
  • Use the word “you” in all communications.

Clear Contrast

Our primitive brains are always looking for things that clearly stand out as different from the norm. We used to use this to help instinctively identify danger. Now our brains can pinpoint when something is worth our attention.

Ways to Use this Instinct in Recruitment

  • Clearly illustrate which text is most important by using a well-defined “large, medium, and small” hierarchy.
  • Use all caps sparingly for very important info.
  • Don’t cram too much info. Let the readers eye rest by using plenty of white space.
  • Use contrasting colors for calls-to-action and buttons.

Quick Input

The primitive brain processes information quickly and makes decisions based on what it finds. Dense, difficult to understand content prompts the brain to move on to something more digestible. This doesn’t mean you should avoid long content. You just need to focus on readability.

Ways to Use this Instinct in Recruitment

  • In ads, put the most compelling info at the very top. This isn’t the place for suspense or legalese.
  • Break up long, involved text into short paragraphs.
  • Use numbered or bulleted lists to display information.
  • Keep sections under 300 words.
  • Use plenty of transition words like “and,” “because,” “then,” etc.
  • Use concrete ideas and avoid jargon

Beginning & Ending

The primitive brain focuses on the beginning and end of things. When scanning for information, it looks for key pieces, which are often found in the before and after.

Ways to Use this Instinct in Recruitment

  • Start or end sentences with catchy phrases or words or the ad’s main idea.
  • Begin and end webpages with catchy images or headlines
  • Break up overly long or run-on sentences.

Recruitment of Volunteers using Sentiment

recruitment of volunteers

Sentiment: exaggerated and self-indulgent feelings of tenderness or nostalgia.

The keyword here is “exaggerated.” Media today is highly exaggerated politically, socially, emotionally… you name it. While you should certainly accurately portray your nonprofit, you can dip into what makes people react sentimentally by appealing to emotions.

Visual Stimuli

When we say humans are visual creatures, it’s true. The optic nerve is forty times faster than the auditory nerve, which means visual inputs hit our brain faster. Consequently, we make decisions largely because of visual input.

Ways to Use this Sentiment in Recruitment

  • Replace the stock photos
    • Find a current volunteer or staff member with some photography skills, rent a professional camera if you don’t have one, and have them spend a couple of days taking compelling, professional photos of your nonprofit. There is a huge unconscious difference between looking at good photos and low-resolution cell-phone shots.
    • Use these photos on landing pages, in social media posts, in emails, and in print materials.
  • Create a short, compelling intro video and put it on your homepage
  • Utilize social media stories – these give people exclusive looks behind the scenes
  • Try Facebook or Instagram Live – these let people connect with you how you really are

Emotional Appeal

Emotions make memories, events, and stories stick in the brain. Connecting to emotions makes a message more likely to catch attention and keep it. If you need inspiration, take a look at Instagram’s self-titled account. All they do is tell emotionally-charged stories coupled with fantastic imagery.

Ways to Use this Sentiment in Recruitment

  • Do a blog series on why current volunteers love serving with your nonprofit.
  • Research and write transformational service beneficiary stories.
  • Share before & after photos.
  • Write emotional words in your marketing efforts.
  • Use testimonials on your homepage and in advertisements.

Use the Primitive Brain, Don’t Overload It

When using these triggers in your recruitment of volunteers, aim for simplicity. As you can tell from this list, the primitive brain is not triggered by complexity.

The goal is to get more eyeballs on your volunteer recruitment ad, so playing to the primitive brain will help drive that goal. Not every set of eyeballs will sign up to be a volunteer, but you can increase the opportunities just by positioning your ad for easier consumption.

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