Just last week, while talking with staff from a human services agency about a new volunteer leadership position the team is trying to fill, I reminded the team to ask for email addresses on the application. When I reviewed the draft application, I thought it was a minor oversight that the form asked for phone number but not email. To say that their answer surprised me would be an understatement. While the team was happy to take my suggestion, they explained that the organization does not use email to communicate with volunteers, especially in its more rural location. “Many of our volunteers don’t have email; and even those that do, prefer to be contacted personally,” the director explained.

Of course, I stressed the importance of considering not only the organization’s current volunteers but also its potential volunteers (many of whom might prefer – or at least welcome – email communications), especially given the interest in growing the volunteer program. And we discussed the benefits of being able to share important information about volunteer impact and opportunities, as well as saving staff time, of course. Nevertheless, what intrigued me was not what this organization isn’t doing, but rather what it is doing… and how much they know about their volunteers due to their frequent communications with volunteers.

Because of the personal relationship with the small, but committed corps of volunteers (about 50 in the rural location), staff could tell me a great deal about each volunteer. How long each person has volunteered, what motivates each one, a little about their family, and more.

I thought of that conversation when I read this morning’s Network for Good Blog about using existing data to get closer to financial donors and prospects. In this post, blogger Nancy Schwartz shares some useful tips about “building deep and lasting connections with targeted donors and prospects” and notes that the road to those connections starts with the data organizations already have about their existing supporters. I first thought about how I often I have talked about the power of cultivating from within – nurturing deeper engagements with current volunteers or those individuals who are lurking in your midst as one time volunteers or program participants who haven’t yet formally volunteered. The questions Schwartz poses, when adapted for volunteer engagement, are powerful and useful. Here are a few of her questions adapted to engagement, with some additions of our own.

  • What do your monthly volunteers look like?
    • Who are your regular volunteers – both longtime and new volunteers? What motivates them? What is their connection to your mission?
    • What skills are they using in their current roles? What additional skills might they be willing to share with the organization?
  • Who has made a significant contribution of time or skill in the past year? (e.g., taken on a leadership role, led an initiative, shared a professional skill, or personally recruited other volunteers or donors)
    • Reach out to those individuals personally and ask what inspired them to deepen their engagement. Whatever sparked them to step up might inspire others to do the same.

There are many ways to leverage the data you already have about volunteers in order to deepen their own engagement as well as to reach additional volunteers. For most organizations, mining data means running reports from volunteer databases or other constituent management systems. These systems are invaluable and every organization can benefit from them – especially if they are viewed not just as a tracking tool but also as a pool of information that can guide future strategy.

However, as we’ve seen from the client I mentioned above, we cannot forget that we, as nonprofit professionals and leaders, also have a lot of data from our personal experience and interactions with volunteers. The more we can reach out personally to connect with volunteers, get to know them, meet them where they are, and learn about their own histories and motivations, the more information we have to guide future decisions as well.

While many of our clients worry a great deal about how to find just the right candidate for a leadership role and rest all their hopes on posting the position on a volunteer search engine to reach people they’ve never met before, finding the right candidate for this new leadership position was not a worry at all for the organization I mentioned above. When I asked where they were going to post the position, the volunteer coordinator said, without hesitation, “Oh, I already know of 3 or 4 volunteers who would be perfect this position. One is new to the organization and already shows interest in stepping up; the others have been around for a while, know our organization, and really are ready for a new challenge.” That’s what I call using the data they already have to deepen engagement and build capacity.