A Different Look at Volunteer Recruitment:
Using the Science of Influence

When it comes to effective volunteer recruitment for your nonprofit, faith-based organization, or public sector program, understanding human nature, psychology, and brain science is key.

Why? Because our brains determine everything we do. By better understanding what triggers humans to act, volunteer managers can become better influencers and, ultimately, better marketers.

Human evolution and experience have molded our brain’s neural network to favor sensory and cognitive functions that have helped us survive as a species. Our circuitry is hard-wired to work through the path of least resistance.

On other words, our brains are lazy.

read more below …

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Our behavior is often pre-programmed, partly because our brains simply cannot process all of the information coming at us each day. So, we react in stereotypical ways based on cues that tell us, in shorthand, what is going on in front of us.

Most people assume we arrive at decisions through a conscious and deliberate rational thought process. In fact, the opposite is true.

Research has shown that we unconsciously will an action before we are consciously aware we are directing it. First, our brains will access emotional memories from similar past situations and apply them to snap decisions in the present.

We will act and then rationalize our snap decisions later.

volunteer recruitment system thinking

Two systems are at work in our brains:

  • System 1 Thinking – Experiential, quick thinking, emotion, feeling, less effort (our attention reacts to imagery or strong words & affects how we feel)
  • System 2 Thinking – Rational, deliberative, careful, slow, how we are taught in school, harder to operationalize

System 1 is infinitely more powerful in motivating behavior.

In the end, our fight-or-flight impulse controls much of our behavior on a subconscious level. Pro-social behavior, like volunteering, is largely fueled by primal impulses — some call it our “compassion gene,” but hormones can also positively affect whether or not we help others.  Hormones like the “feel good” oxytocin, for example, can make us more trusting of strangers and perhaps more likely to assist.

What Does this Mean for Volunteer Coordinators?

If you want to better influence the decisions of prospective supporters, it makes sense to work with the brain not against it.  Here are a few ways you can tap into System 1 thinking and generate hormones that can inspire response to your calls to action:

  • Convey positive emotions, fun, and anticipation in your recruitment language to foster “feel good” hormones (e.g., oxytocin) that increase trust and follow through.
  •  Help volunteers see how they are part of the same “in group” who believe in your cause and can make a difference, regardless of other differences (race, ethnicity, language, education, roles, points of view, past experience, departments, etc.).
  • Communicate simple, concrete ideas and do away with any acronyms or jargon that will slow the brain processing.
  • Create a sense of anticipation (which also increases dopamine production and helps people remember) by previewing the intrinsic rewards the volunteer will gain from the experience and then by repeating them at the end of the appeal.
  • Use compelling photos and video to liberally to tell your story — a picture truly is worth a thousand words when it comes to human decision making.
  • Reinforce the reasons for volunteering to applications throughout their onboarding process, not just at the beginning.  This will help reinforce their decisions by supporting System 2 thinking.