As we’ve explored here before, attracting volunteers to your organization can be a challenge. It seems like new organizations emerge every day, and so many of them have solid, responsible infrastructures that support worthy causes. There are a lot of volunteers out there, and chances are, if your organization is sound, some of them will find you. But how do you cultivate a volunteer base? What is the best way to draw volunteers to your organization, like bee pollinators, ready to spread your message and nurture your cause?
The answer, like so many things, is complicated. Clearly traditional outreach still works. Giving presentations at colleges, sending out fliers, advertising in print publications, and partnering with other organizations to sponsor events are all effective techniques for volunteer recruitment. But they are also costly, to your organization and to the environment. Paper mailings, for example, are notoriously un-eco-friendly, even if you use recycled papers and inks. They don’t exactly send a message of environmental awareness and sustainability. The obvious next step is to go online, but not all online techniques are created equal. Some are gimmicky, which isn’t necessarily bad, but gimmicks aren’t enough: for staying power online, you need something that will attract visitors consistently. I think the most effective tools are the ones that encourage participation and community. Forums do both.
Forums present their own challenges, but once they’re up and running, they grow passively and cost pennies. The trick is to get them going, and that can be difficult. An unpopulated forum communicates new-ness and quiet. It doesn’t instill confidence in new volunteers and doesn’t do much to inspire new people to participate. So first, before going public with a new forum, find some beta testers. These are people who spend time on your forum in its first few weeks. They are there to test the forum for problems but in the process they post topics and talk with each other. Consider approaching alumni volunteers to beta test a new forum. These people know your organization: they know you do good work and they’ll likely be happy to give back.
Once you have some solid content—posts with 14 or 15 replies are great—you can open the forum to the general public by posting a link on your organization’s home page. Publicize the forum in your newsletter or send out a link to new volunteers. Check out the Watering Hole, the Thorn Tree Travel Forum, or the NOLA Times Picayune forum for ideas. As the community grows it will become a hub for information. You can use it to communicate policy changes, to advertise new opportunities, and to highlight distinguished employees or volunteers. It will bring organic traffic to your site and will help volunteers stay connected with each other, long after their adventures have ended. If building a community of dedicated volunteers is what you’re after, forums are the perfect tool.