Volunteer Communications for Non-Profit Management

I was asked to do a short training session with the staff of the Boy Scouts of America – Last Frontier Council on best communication practices for volunteer interactions. This information works for any non-profit who depends on volunteers (or any communications plan actually).

Step One: Be considerate of volunteers time away from work, family, etc….

Be contentious of their time:
  • Do not send too many emails, text, etc…. consolidate all instructions, information even “good news” and public relations articles in a single communication. Put essential information first, break up text blocks and use links to “the rest of the story”.
  • Do not sent too few emails. Give plenty of direction for new or different task. Less is needed for routine or follow-up task. Measure by situation.
  • Utilize committee structure (when available). If you can just communicate with a segment (committee, subcommittee or chairperson) without hitting your entire volunteer list, do it. This will cu down on clutter and confusion.
Be consistent:
  • Type of delivery – Use the format (email, phone call, text) your volunteers prefer every time. Changing between types of communication is confusing and harder to manage (for them and you).
  • Follow up in that format if you deviate. If you have to make a phone call when you normally email, send a summary email after. This allows for your volunteers to have the information, organized with all your other communications. Nothing worse than looking for information from an email that was actually a text or phone call.
  • Timing. Utilize a regular schedule, just like you would for face-to-face meetings. Same day of the week/month, time of day, etc. This allows your volunteers to plan and expect communications or be prepared to skip/save and look at when convenient. 
  • Utilize your technology. Today, smart phones and email software can do combinations of emails, texts, message board post and even voice mail notifications. Take advantage of this and send a singular message that gets to your volunteers in the format they prefer.
  • Be aware of attachments vs. linked/shared documents. Email filters, text messages, etc. often hang up on attachments. Instead, send a link to a webpage, cloud hosted drive, Dropbox, etc. to share documents. Even better, utilize a shared document online that can be collaboratively added-to and edited by volunteers from anywhere they have web access. 
Be clear and concise:
  • Get right to the point. Nothing unnecessary such as salutations, jokes or other ice-breakers are needed.
  • Most important information first. If you consolidate instruction with additional information, make sure to order by importance from top to bottom. You will occasionally lose readers half way through long post.
  • Good headlines that are easy to identify. This will help with opens, spam filters and organizing messages for later retrieval. 
Step Two: Think of your communication as a mini-meeting.
 
Meetings have structure, an agenda, etc…
  • Tell them what you will tell them. Set the agenda, get (and keep) their attention. 
  • Tell them. Provided the essential information, make assignments, set expectation.
  • Tell them what you told them. Summarize and clarify. Allow for questions and clarification before beginning task.
Who, What, When, Where, Why and How
  • All great communication is story telling. Use the tried and true 5Ws+1H to get all the essential information to your volunteers.
  • Do not skip the Why. In a business setting this is less essential, but or non-profit volunteers the Why is key. Tell them how this is important to the overall mission.
  • Link to “the whole story”. Sometime there is so much more to the story it can’t be sent in a single email, text, etc. Use links to send volunteers to the additional information on the website or a cloud based document to read on their timetable/need.
Define success
  • Assign specific action items to be accomplished. If there is not something to be done, why are you communicating with them?
  • Designate who is responsible (as specific as possible) or ask for commitments. Communicate directly with those individuals or subgroups during the task. 
  • Create a timeline, even if it’s very general or could change.
  • Anticipated outcomes. What and how will you measure when an action items is complete? You must do this before you start to know when you’re done.
Allow for discussion, but control it (see note one)
  • Do NOT create email chains. If there is a lot of back and forth, ask those involved to start a new discussion and free up others not involved.
  • Move “offline” as needed. If there is too much confusion or inability to execute the task, change the dynamic by getting off email or text and have a phone call or other different form of communicating. Set parameters, create expectations and move forward – don’t let discussion of “what if” and “what do you think” take over.
  • Refer back to committee chairs, subcommittee leaders. to keep everyone out of the discussion, email/text chain, etc. 
Hopefully, these helpful tips might help your communications planning. If you need to know more, contact us.