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volunteer recruitment nps signWhen developing volunteer recruitment appeals, your first instinct for messaging might not the best one.  In fact, it might just shoot you in the foot.

If you’re in deep need of volunteers and are not at capacity, it may seem that painting a complete picture of your needs and vacancies might engender more sympathy and more response. But, research may indicate the contrary.

In fact, desperate pleas for help from an understaffed volunteer team, may cast doubts in your audience as to whether the program is worth supporting. In your audience’s mind, if others aren’t volunteering for you, there must be a good reason.

Social Norms in Action

Social Norms Theory suggests that human behavior is influenced by perceptions of how our peers think and act. Moreover, we are more likely to be influenced by perceived norms (what we view as typical or standard in a group) rather than on the actual norm (the real beliefs and actions of a group).  Consider how social norms can drive both positive and negative behavior in the environment.

To help reduce the theft of petrified wood artifacts in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, psychologists Robert Cialdini, Steve Martin and Noah Goldstein designed an ingenious study. The Petrified Forest had long suffered from theft and had used this message “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time” in an attempt to curb theft.  It wasn’t working.

So, researchers tested the effects of for alternate warning signs and included a zone with no sign to control for effects.  They placed petrified wood in designated locations. At the end of each time block, they counted and replaced the removed wood pieces, changed the sign, and began again over a 5-week timeframe.

The two signs read:

  • “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” (accompanied by pictures of three people taking wood)
  • “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” (accompanied by a picture of a lone visitor stealing a piece of wood, with a red circle-and-bar symbol superimposed over his hand)

The results were significant. The first message, where a negative norm is described with a group involved, resulted in a 7.92% theft rate.  The second message, with a more neutral norm and only one person involved, resulted in a 1.67% theft rate.  The control (no sign) resulted in a 2.9% rate (previous research had estimated a theft rate of approximately 3% with the former signage).

Cialdini concluded that, “It is a serious error to focus an audience on the descriptive norm (i.e., what is done in those situations); instead, public service messages should focus the audience on the injunctive norm (i.e., what is approved or disapproved in those situations).”

Later, Cialdini repeated the study with four different signs and a control.  Similarly, he and his team surmised that it is better to use positively-worded messages that also demonstrate that many people comply when attempting to influence an audience “by conveying to recipients that the desired activity is widely performed and roundly approved, whereas the unwanted activity is relatively rare and roundly disapproved.”  Cialdini further elaborates on the effectiveness of a variety of environmental messages here.

Social Norms in Volunteer Recruitment

Imagine how the phenomenon above might be harnessed for successful volunteer recruitment.

When volunteer recruitment is an issue, and insufficient umbers of supporters have joined an organization, volunteer testimonials about positive experiences may be one way to communicate an injunctive norm (or what is approved).  On the contrary, if the descriptive norm is used in messaging (that not enough people apply), then a larger majority of the audience may not respond.

When developing volunteer recruitment appeals, nonprofit marketers must careful what perceived social norms they are promoting. Is it the norm that no one supports you right now?  Or is it the norm that supporting you is good for the community and the cause (and that some people are stepping up to he plate)?  Your message may make all of the difference in the world.