Right on The Money: Volunteer Nights Attract New Faces

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Photograph of diverse volunteers shaking hands.

In October 2010, the Western Washington branch of Volunteers of America held a two-hour volunteer event at a local food bank near their headquarters in Everett, WA. Billed as the first of a monthly “Volunteer Night” series, the event was advertised on Facebook and scrupulously planned… and attracted only 5 people. But the organization’s volunteer services manager, Erin Pankow, wasn’t worried. She had a feeling the idea would catch on.

And it did. In November, 10 people showed up. The holiday season attracted even more. And by January, the monthly gathering had ballooned to 125 participants, leading Pankow to put a strict cap on Volunteer Night participants moving forward.

Volunteer Nights—structured public events organized around a specific task—are easy to plan and advertise, can be well suited to crowds like church and school volunteer groups, and are a great way to attract first-time volunteers to your program. Now that her own program’s monthly series has grown into something of a local institution, Pankow offered her own advice on how and why other programs might replicate the idea:

Recognize the Need

“In our country right now, people want to volunteer,” Pankow adds. “And sometimes nonprofits are not clear enough” in response. “They say, ‘Please come volunteer,’ but you really need to set a day” to inspire that first step in the door.

Pankow says the idea for Volunteer Nights grew out of the recognition that many potential volunteers were unable to help during the day. “Most nonprofit programs go Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 5, when people are at work and school,” she says. “We needed to get creative” in order to engage these folks in the program.

Get The Word Out

“We’re really dependent on the Internet,” says Pankow, who has advertised Volunteer Nights using only free online forums: Facebook, volunteermatch.org, and the United Way’s website.

In terms of non-digital advertising, Pankow says to look for existing groups who do volunteer work: “Big churches will usually have someone devoted to community outreach. Find that person and talk about a regular volunteer event,” she says. Reach out to school leadership groups, ROTC chapters, and little league teams, too.

However you spread the word, make sure to tell people what to bring, what to wear, and exactly how long the evening will last.

Plan Ahead

Once your date, venue and activities are set, take the time to plan a schedule and organize supplies. “Proper setup takes a lot of time but the project goes so much faster,” says Pankow.

When the big night comes, Pankow says to make everything as easy and fun as possible for all volunteers. A large welcome sign outside should invite people in, and there should be plenty of parking. The physical space should be big enough to accommodate more volunteers than you expect to show up, and particularly for the first few events, have plenty of program staff on hand to assist and encourage everyone.

Volunteer Nights at the food bank are designed to give everyone—young, old, experienced volunteer or first-timer—something to do. Pankow and her colleagues set up multiple stations for the different skill levels, covering everything from bagging foods for home delivery to sorting new donations from local businesses.

“We welcome them and give them a 3-minute introductory elevator speech,” Pankow says.  “Then we explain which tasks are best for which age groups. Once the work gets started, the staff go around and check on everyone” throughout the evening.

Follow Up

Be sure to end on time, and cut activities off to leave a few minutes for tidying the workspace. “Don’t let them go without cleaning up!” Pankow says. “Ask them to sweep and mop and move tables. Don’t apologize for that; it helps people feel they’re involved and responsible for the program.”

Since the continued success of volunteer nights depends largely on word of mouth, be sure to follow up and thank everyone who comes. “Take the time to quantify what they did,” says Pankow. “People want to know numbers. So tell them, ‘Tonight you helped feed __ people.’” If you take photos during the event (and get release forms), post them on Facebook or your program’s website, then send an email thank-you note to everyone who came.

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