Using Social Media to attract volunteers

Posted Thursday, January 31st, 2013. Filed Under Corporate - Tips/Tools Blog

I want to share this article written by Susan Fish

Poke, pin and tag: Using social media to engage volunteers

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Written by:Susan Fish
January 22, 2013

If volunteers mobilized through social media can make a difference in who gets elected as president of the United States, surely any non profit organization looking to be effective has to look at all the ways social media can be used to engage volunteers.

Some charities and nonprofit organizations in Canada are now at least somewhat active in social media. Most of these have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed, as well as a website. (Check out this infographic to see how the top charities in Canada use social media).

However, as social media specialist John Matthews says, “Social media communication seems to be a lower priority for nonprofits which are typically late adopters of new trends.” Keenan Wellar, co-leader of Ottawa-based LiveWorkPlay adds, “Most organizations take their existing communications strategy and keep doing same thing but tweet a link to it. This isn’t a bad thing but it’s a limited use of the potential of social media and people often tune it out.”

It is unfortunate that few organizations fully use the potential of social media because, as Janice Babineau, community manager with the Canadian Red Cross says, “It’s the new way that people communicate, socialize, network and interact.” Babineau adds that social media can “bridge the gap between someone being interested and someone actually getting involved.”

Interestingly, too, the argument that only the youngest volunteers and potential volunteers are those connected to social media turns out to be false. A 2010 Pew study found that the fastest-growing demographic group using social media is that of people over 55. LiveWorkPlay’s social media users are almost equally spread between the ages of 25 and 55; the organization, which helps the community welcome people with intellectual disabilities, has had “unusual success in tapping into the 25-35 year old demographic, who are native to social media.”

But more than attracting social media-savvy volunteers, Wellar says, “We don’t push them away by showing that we don’t do these things. Younger people who are investigating volunteer opportunities look to see whether an organization has a social media presence – if not, they move on because they perceive that the organization has an ‘old school culture’ and also because they can’t find the information they seek.”

So, how to attract – or avoid pushing away – volunteers through social media? CharityVillage asked digital natives working in the nonprofit world to share their best tips:

1. Think of social media like a first date, says Azure Collier, a United Way social media volunteer. Just as you (ideally) would not monopolize a date by reciting your resume and accomplishments, so social media is a two-way conversation. As on a date, you want to get the other person talking, find out about his or her interests, and aim at dialogue. You can point volunteers and potential volunteers to your news releases and website, but that can’t be all you do. Social media posts of interest to your volunteers don’t always have to be directly related to work and should be interactive.

Wellar adds that nonprofits typically focus social media efforts on big events, but “We’ve tried to introduce people to the little mission-oriented activities we do every day. Instead of big shiny things, we cultivate interest and awareness about what we actually do.”

2. Make social media an integrated part of your organization’s culture. Like any new habit, this takes time but Babineau says, “You have to get over that first hurdle.” At weekly staff meetings, Wellar reminds staff and volunteers to take photos or video of events and to share them on the various social media channels: “It’s part of our culture – when we have an event we automatically post something on Facebook and Twitter in advance; at the event we live-tweet and share photos. Afterwards, we post an album of photos and tweet about it and if appropriate share video to YouTube. But that took a couple of years. Not everyone intuitively takes photos all the time and it took some persuasion. Now it has become as natural as breathing.”

However, Babineau adds that it isn’t just a question of sorting out the technology, but also thinking about goals. “Where you start depends on your goals, who you are trying to reach, what your purpose is.”

Privacy is another issue. Some social media channels are by-invitation only and have the same degree of privacy as email while others are wide open and encourage sharing. Both can be appropriate for different needs. Organizations can also set out clear guidelines about what can and can’t be shared in a certain medium. When volunteers first join LiveWorkPlay, they are asked to sign a simple permission sheet that explains what social media is, how it helps the organization accomplish their mission and gives permission for the volunteer’s image or information to be used. Volunteers know that they can withdraw permission at any time.

3. Encourage conversation. Successful social media is viral – and unlike the flu, the side effects are beneficial. Encourage volunteers to post stories, images and video on their own social media channels. Babineau says, “If you are looking for volunteers, an effective way to recruit is to ask volunteers to spread the word on their networks of social media friends. If someone says this is a good organization to volunteer for, their friends will trust them.”

Social media is also a great means to ask questions, to poll volunteers, to get feedback about experiences and to crowdsource new ideas. LiveWorkPlay’s volunteer coordinator sends out weekly group emails asking volunteers for stories and photos. As appropriate, these become content for their social media channels. Finally, for large organizations like the Red Cross with volunteers across Canada and around the world, “social media allows people to interact with others who are doing similar work, to exchange ideas. They may have met in a training session, but have a lot in common – social media allows people to build community at a distance.”

Make it easy for volunteers to share – create a hashtag for every event and use it for tweets related to the project. Create a badge showing all tweets about the event. Make your Facebook settings public and tag people in photos and updates.

4. Connect with influencers. Even before Malcolm Gladwell articulated the concept of connectors, savvy organizations have taken good advantage of people who are influential and respected. The Canadian Red Cross identified a group of social media users – some of whom were higher profile, while others were ‘regular people’ – who regularly retweeted messages or responded to blog and Facebook posts. The organization formalized this support: these digital volunteers agreed to share messages about the Red Cross. The organization also took this offline – inviting digital volunteers to attend events, to see specialized field training, etc. Babineau says, “It really broadens our reach because these people have their own networks who are interested in them. Social media has opened up a new way of volunteering for us. You don’t have to be physically on the ground to make a difference.”

5. Organize volunteers. Social media can be used to create effective ways of organizing volunteers. Matthews suggests organizations use Google in particular for a wide variety of ways to connect and organize volunteers: create a Google Circle to organize volunteers, use Google Docs to create an online volunteer hub featuring calendars, volunteer manuals, and other required information. A Facebook group is another way of connecting and organizing volunteers.

6. Recognize volunteers. Recognizing your volunteers through social media can accomplish a variety of goals. Your volunteer is publicly acknowledged in a way that shows that their work is meaningful and valued. It also shows potential volunteers what they might be able to do within your organization. It can even introduce your organization to people who might not have heard of it. Matthews suggests profiling volunteers on your website with photos, stories and video – and also linking that profile or story to your social media. Babineau says “This is separate from recognition or reward but it makes the volunteer feel good and connected to the organization.”

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