Get Volunteers to Act without Being Overbearing | Track It Forward

Get Volunteers to Act without Being Overbearing

Last updated by James McBryan on 03/15/2021

Imagine sitting in front of a computer and sending out an email blast, and then following up once, twice, three times, and mixing in texting as well. At the end of a long week slog, you’ve sent out hundreds of messages and received that many as well. If you can relate to this problem, I have a better solution.


Dealing with that is what I call cat wrangling (just imagine trying to get 30 cats into a box!). It’s frustrating to you and can easily seem overbearing to those you are trying to organize, especially if they are volunteers. I had a similar experience like this recently at a volunteer club I’m part of, but we were able to turn over a hundred messages into a 30 minute action where no one was frustrated anymore.

One year ago I helped to start a volunteer swing dancing club called The Breakaway. Our key event is a weekly Tuesday night dance where we have classes and a dance in the evening. Overtime though, volunteers stopped signing up for shifts to run the evening club and also stopped responding to emails, and as a result what was supposed to be an easy job turned into that 11th hour cat wrangling show. However, the biggest problem didn’t stop at that last minute hustle. What was worse was the slippery slope we had as volunteer coordinators to balance between being overbearing to get the job done and not treating the whole thing as a “job.”

People volunteer for different reasons, and I guarantee you it’s not to be micro-managed or be overly obsessive over email. We surveyed our dance club volunteers and learned that they are there primarily for passion and community. And secondly or thirdly, if at all, they were there for professional development. At a professional job, it’s rather easy to get someone do a task or respond to an email, because if they don’t, there are natural consequences. However, in volunteering, those same rules do not apply. Often, to the individual volunteer, connecting with people and having a fun experience experience are simply way more important than the results of planned work, and every action by volunteer coordinators should lead with that.  


This realization may sound completely obvious, but it’s easy to overlook that managing volunteers requires a different type of communication skill set. For the dance club, we integrated these 3 communication optimizations, which helped us as volunteer coordinators not slide into that overbearing state and streamlined the entire process of getting volunteers to act: 



1. Reduce expectations around mass emails


Emails are an important work tool, but not if they aren’t read. Too many means they will end up not working over time. Next you’ll go to text messages, which also won’t work. Which leads to the natural inclination to send countless follow-up messages. Just typing this sounds a bit over the top. And as you know, this is a problem not just in volunteering, but also in the workplace.


Don’t blame volunteers for not responding! In fact, default to assuming that each individual is a passionate person who just does not have the bandwidth to respond to every email or respond in a timely manner. My personal general rule of thumb that even extends beyond volunteers is that I know that 33% of people will respond within 48 hours, and the next 33% will respond over a second follow-up, and the last 33% I have no clue if or when they’ll ever respond. If you choose to send out a mass email, just set your expectations right, and don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s not them, it’s just the way volunteering commitments are sometimes.


2. Send direct messages instead of email blasts


While I try my hardest to be on top of everything, when I personally receive what I know is a mass email, I find it easy to put off for later. Basically because the sender is waiting for everyone’s response, I know that others will probably respond, so I feel OK with not responding immediately. However as a result, I might end up forgetting or doing the action after the due date. Classic diffusion of responsibility!


On the other hand, when I receive a direct personal message, I just feel like that one person is waiting for my response, and I act right away. When I try to mobilize volunteers, I typically send out a mass email and follow up with a direct message or text, but only if that follow up is necessary. Following up also can seem a bit micro-managy, so you might want to avoid that and instead do the next step.


3. Opt for in person communication


In the professional world, meetings are scheduled all the time, sometimes too much, but there is a big benefit of those meetings: commitments can be instantaneous. But in the volunteering world, meetings are actually quite rare, and it’s oh-so-tempting to write them off as unnecessary. Why not see what happens if you announce a meeting and to have that action be done at the meeting? You may discover that many volunteers prefer that over emails trickling in every day. And, if you can meet up, take advantage of that to get things done.  


Literally, just yesterday, the dance club had a meeting and told everyone that before they leave they need to sign up for 4 shifts each for the next 6 weeks. And our entire logistical issues were done in 30 minutes.   

The greatest benefits of solving this in our organization:

  • No one feels like they are being overbearing. This makes it a better experience both for the coordinator and the volunteers.

  • The work is actually reduced because communication is reduced. For us, 50 emails were reduced to one 30-minute session. Also, no more emotional time is spent thinking about who will get things done. 
  • Everyone feels more equitable and part of the group. Everyone now is an active participant and doing what they can, rather than feeling like only the most responsive individuals are carrying the group.

How to Apply this To Your Organization

If you have a similar problem with getting volunteers to act:

  1. Find an activity that requires back and forth over email. For example selecting meeting dates, getting volunteers to RSVP, or even just organizing potluck items for a party.

  2. Identify a date where most everyone is there in person.  Could be another planned meeting date or a scheduled volunteer project time.

  3. At the next in-person meeting, circulate a sign-up sheet. Announce it at the beginning of the meeting, tell everyone what they need to do, and pass it around so that people respond before they leave the site.


Let us know how it goes in the comments or, if this doesn’t fit your mold, explain why not. We’d be glad to help you out and maybe write another article about that!