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Selling the Volunteer Program: It All Begins With You

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about selling came from the man who installed a new roof on my house. The weather was good, business was good and he was a happy man. “But,” he said, “in another month, my guys will be sitting around with no work.”

Why, I asked?

He explained that in his small business, he had to do it all: make the sales calls, order the supplies, supervise the workers. When there was no business, he called potential customers and “sold.” When projects were completed, he started selling again, but there was lag time with no work and no revenue.

“What I need to do,” he explained, is “to sell all the time.”

So do you.

Managers of volunteer programs need to acquire a steady supply of volunteers for your clients and your programs.

Every thing we do should support our reason for coming to work in the morning: selling our agency and our mission to potential volunteers — finding out what they want (socialization? to do good? acquire skills?) and convincing them that they should “buy” — that we are the volunteer program most worthy of their time and energies.

Re-think the opportunities your daily routine presents and imbue them with the potential to sell new volunteers. Determine how to allocate the hours in your day to selling. How much time should you devote each day/week to:

  • Follow up on phone calls from prospective volunteers. This is the easy part. Return those calls within twenty-four hours because these are people who know your agency and were motivated to call. Keep a log of all calls made and received. This will compile a wealth of information about community interest in your program. Look for fertile selling spots as you examine demographics of this data: where are the calls coming from (and why?)
  • Cold calling. Find a volunteer to do this for you — it’s time consuming beyond your means. I inherited one of the best salesmen in the world — Harvey Schwartz — as a volunteer at the House. He works from lists of church groups and organizations, tells them about our mission and leaves my name. If they call back, it’s my job to close the sale. Harvey opens the door for me. He is invaluable.
  • Maintaining and cultivating contacts with existing volunteers/volunteer groups. I call this “continuous selling” because selling is a process that should never stop. Over the years I learned it takes many forms, from sending the ever-important thank you note, a monthly newsletter, quarterly dinners/in-service sessions, phone calls, emails to all volunteers and donors.Cultivate any and every potential connection to your agency. Time consuming, but there is no substitute for person-to-person communication. It breaks down a lot of barriers and creates a lasting relationship.
  • Schedule time to be creative and challenge yourself to “think outside the box.” It’s not a luxury. Pick a block of time, close your office door and put up a sign: “Do Not Disturb: Genius at Work.” Look for new ways to motivate a potential volunteer to “buy” from you. Dig deep to get to know your subject — do your research. Read books about creativity and selling — Roy Williams, for example, and his wonderful “Secret Formula” books.
  • Go out into the community to talk to groups or bring them to you. Presentations are a great way for a salesman to reach a larger number of people and increase the odds of success. Grab their attention: start out with a story about people that your agency has served. Capture the right side of the brain with emotion and quickly feed the left side with facts.
  • Create effective written materials to support your person-to-person selling. Make them a quick read with useful information. After the sale and after the new volunteer has begun service, send feedback. Feed their egos — use gimmicks such as photos of the new volunteer at work and thank you certificates that can be displayed in their workplace or home. Creating a “Volunteer of the Month” in my program was successful beyond my expectations, as each honored volunteer receives a certificate, hears their name as part of my voice mail during that month, and sees themselves on the Honor Roll posted in my office.
  • Plan. By the month — work your calendar and budget your time based on your program’s needs. Be aware of and plan for stumbling blocks that occur because of your seasonal schedule. Don’t let a busy December be an excuse for being understaffed in January.
  • And don’t forget the “thirty second pitch.” What is your sales message? Why should someone volunteer for your agency? Modify the length and content of your pitch for each potential volunteer — the same message won’t work on everyone. Don’t oversell. You can make a follow-up call to gauge interest.

On the days when phone calls aren’t being returned and I get discouraged, Harvey always smiles his salesman smile and reminds me of the cardinal rule of selling: “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.”

About the Contributor: Susan Moscareillo

Susan Moscareillo is Director of Volunteer Services and Community Relations for the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House. Prior to beginning her work at BRMH, she was Director of Volunteer Services for the Maryland Society for Sight and Director of Public Relations and Fund Raising for Camp Fire Girls Council of the Chesapeake. Since 2002, she has been a member of the Contributors Panel for Volunteer Management Review at the Charity Channel on-line.

Before entering the nonprofit world, her work experience included television creative services writing and newspaper feature writing.

Susan has a degree in Mass Communications from Towson University, and a Certificate in Volunteer Management from Washington State University and a Certificate of Excellence in Nonprofit Leadership and Management from the University of Wisconsin.

Susan is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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