Volunteer Recruitment Personas: It’s about them, not you.
When you imagine your ideal volunteer, what kind of work are they doing in your organization? How do they interact with you, your co-workers, other volunteers, your clients? What skills do they have? What values? How do they communicate?
Just pause for a minute and luxuriate in the picture and the feeling of that ideal volunteer.
It’s probably pretty easy for you to come up with that picture. This is the ideal that answers to all your needs. If you could design the perfect volunteer, it would meet all of your needs and then some.
So how do we get to the point where your program is full of exactly that kind of volunteer? Oddly, it hinges on shifting your eyes from your needs to the needs of that potential volunteer.
Volunteer Recruitment Personas
In order to build a truly targeted message, we need to focus on the audience we intend to be on the receiving end of that message. Who are they? More, what are their motivations and fears when it comes to your message?
We answer these questions in the process of creating audience personas, or in our case, volunteer recruitment personas.
When doing this, there is a lot of data to consider and several different ways to get it. The easiest place to start is with the big buckets of information that are most readily available to you.
Look at your current pool of volunteers (or the ideal one you would create) and choose some broad categories that help categorize them. This isn’t about stereotyping or labeling. This is about understanding the groups of people who feel most compelled to your work, or who fit in best with your work or mission.
For example, if your volunteer program requires hoisting heavy bales of hay, or moving big buckets of rocks, more than likely your ideal volunteer isn’t going to be in an older age demographic. This isn’t to say that there aren’t extremely fit and able-bodied grandmas out there, but that you probably aren’t going to design your messaging to target them. You’d be better served by targeting an audience that is more densely populated with people in good physical fitness – young adults, for example, or people who participate in your local fitness clubs.
It’s possible (if not probable) that you’ll have more than one audience group to target. Great! It’s also likely that the definition of those groups will change as you build your audience persona – also great! You have to start somewhere, so once you have those big buckets defined, you can move on to building out the specifics.
Age bands don’t have to be super specific, but they are often a good place to start when categorizing your persona groups. Gender identity, if any, can be another broad category. In some cases, gender may not matter, but for certain types of work, it can matter a great deal. For example, domestic violence shelters often limit volunteers with certain genders for the safety and comfort of their residents. A third category that may be a good place to start is with cultural affiliation, especially for missions that predominantly serve specific cultures. If you run a program where the people who volunteer do not look like the people you serve, definitely take a look at affiliations and how they can play a stronger role in your messaging.
From these categories, you can start to think broadly about your persona’s life stages and interests. As you reflect upon a persona’s age, gender, and affiliation, think about what life might look like in their shoes. Are they busy running kids to soccer practice? Are they in the early stages of retirement? Maybe just finishing college and starting a career? What can you probably assume about the group given their life stage?
Now let’s get a level deeper. Within your persona group (which maybe needs to split into more groups now), what kind of educational attainment do you commonly see? Is it scattered or pretty much one level of educational attainment?
What kind of interests does your persona group typically have? (Outside of volunteering for your organization, obviously.) Do they tend to be involved in other social causes? Are they yoga practitioners, wine drinkers, dirt bike riders? Are they crafters or sports fans? Again, you’re not looking for a specific activity that everyone in the group does, but, generally speaking, in what kinds of things does your group have interests?
From there, maybe you can imagine some of the unappreciated or overlooked nuances the group might experience. The vast working knowledge of retirees is often overlooked, for example.
Note of caution: If at any point you start to have more “I don’t knows” than good estimates, invite individuals from your volunteer recruitment personas to coffee and ask if you can pick their brain to help build your volunteer program. You can also use this technique to verify your assumptions along the way. It’s ok to have “I don’t knows.” These are just areas where you need to get to know your persona better along the way, in whatever way works for you.
Where are they? Who are they with? Who do they trust?
Now that you’ve got some baseline demographic data established, it’s time to dig into more behavior-based data.
First, ask yourself if you were to go into your community or online, where would you find members of your persona group? At the dog park? At work? (What kind of job?) At kids activities? A museum? On Facebook? Watching Netflix? Network news?
Who are they with when they are in these spaces? Among the people with whom they spend time, which do they trust the most? Who do they trust for information?
When you begin thinking about a persona’s influencers, you get closer and closer to understanding where and to whom you need to be targeting your message.
This level also starts to tell you more about where you need to go in order for your persona to see or hear your message. If your persona couldn’t give two hoots about social media, do not spend time targeting them on Twitter. If you’re looking for people who do crafting, your flyer probably isn’t getting much traction at the monster truck rally.
Once you know a bit about your people, go to where they are. Do not expect them to just show up on your doorstep.
Next, you’ll want to categorize what your group values and what they fear, in order to get at what motivates them. For example, if a group values career advancement and fears never getting a job that will pay enough, you know they are motivated by career-advancing and resume-building volunteer opportunities. If the group generally values community health and individual contributions and fears repercussions of the opioid crisis, they may be motivated by being able to do something tangible to help someone in recovery.
Do not overlook personal connections as strong motivators for any cause. In fact, you may find that you have a whole population of people who are good potential volunteers because they’ve been personally impacted (directly or indirectly) by your mission. That is some serious motivation (and possibly a whole other persona!).
Finally, consider the group’s barriers. As we get caught up in motivating people to volunteer, we can forget that there are people out there who genuinely want to volunteer but can’t for whatever reason. Some of those barriers you might be able to alleviate. Perception barriers or ones related to ability or know-how are all ones that you can help alleviate with messaging or training.
A careful assessment might also uncover barriers you are inadvertently creating. Maybe changing your shifts would align better with the bus schedule, allowing volunteers to get to you safely and without long waits. Do you have processes that are unnecessarily burdensome for volunteers to complete prior to getting a volunteer slot? Can you maintain organizational needs and adjust the process to make volunteering more accessible?
Even if you can’t alleviate all the barriers, you need to be aware of them and periodically assess how you can help diminish them. This is especially important in programs that lack diversity. Too often the good intentions of one group create barriers for another and as proud stewards of volunteerism, we need to be aware of and change that wherever we can.
Volunteer Recruitment Personas: It’s all about them
Notice that even though this process is focused on the ideal volunteer for your organization, this process has very little to do with you or your organization. It may seem odd at first, but finding your ideal volunteers has little to do with you.
When you know what matters to an ideal potential volunteer, you can respond to match that value. You attract the volunteer of your dreams by showing them how you can match their dreams. That’s what we call a win-win. Your goal is to understand your potential volunteer so well that, to them, volunteering with your organization feels like a no-brainer. Notice that the goal isn’t to understand your needs. It’s to understand theirs.
Give each of your personas a specific person’s name and make it your mission to get to know them, little by little. Call in members of the volunteer recruitment personas and ask what they think about your messaging for their group. Take note of how your groups respond to different messaging and adjust your definition accordingly.
Eventually, you can start asking yourself How would “Marissa” the middle-aged mom respond to this request? Is “Bill” the retired tradesman more likely to be motivated by an emotional appeal or one that’s data-driven (or both)?
Building volunteer recruitment personas is a process, and one that will evolve as you learn more about your people and as the needs of your program change. Also, since it’s a process, if you can’t get all the way through it right now, that’s ok. The further you can define your audience the better, even if it’s just basic demographics to start.
Developing knowledge of your ideal volunteer is what will eventually lead back to that picture of your ideal volunteer at work in your program. You’ll attract the skills, values, and styles you need by focusing first on what the people with those attributes need from you.