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5 Keys to Successful Volunteer Driver Programs

Photo credit:  NADTC 2017 Photo Contest 2nd Place Winner, Whistlestop Carepool, San Rafael, California

5 Keys to Successful Volunteer Driver Programs

Guest blogger: Valerie Lefler, MPA, President & CEO of Integrated Global Dimensions LLC in Lincoln, Nebraska

With the rise of transportation options on the horizon and all the excitement around new shared mobility options, there is one mode that still stands today that has been around for centuries, dating back to 1300 BC to the days of the ancient Greeks: volunteer transportation. While its form has evolved and the comforts afforded to passengers have drastically improved, the benefits, flexibility, and cost effectiveness still cannot be rivaled.

Volunteer transportation performs well as a standalone transportation option, or as a complimentary program. It’s affordable, builds relationships with drivers and passengers, and can easily be expanded or reduced based upon demand or population density without heavy capital investment. However, it should be noted that these programs do not run themselves, require constant maintenance, and just like any other program, must be planned out and managed effectively to operate safely and successfully.

There are 5 key aspects to launching or maintaining any successful volunteer driver program:

1. Insurance
You need to ensure that your drivers have insurance, your organization has insurance, and your board of directors has insurance. Also make sure your passenger and driver agreement addresses the liability and insurance. It’s not if something goes wrong, it’s when, and you need to plan for it from all angles. While accidents will likely be rare, you should have these conversations up front to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Understand your policy, be able to explain it in plain language, and be prepared to say, “It depends. There are a lot of variables.”

Have a good relationship with your insurance agent and consult them to answer the hard questions. Luckily, volunteer driver insurance is commonly very affordable due to the low risk and some programs are less than $10/driver per month. Check with your agent and attorney to ensure you’re following the guidelines for your state, as it varies based upon a variety of legal frameworks. There are so many variances and insurance updates yearly in some cases. It’s best to consult a professional.

2. Drivers
If you don’t have drivers, you don’t have a program. Next to insurance, drivers are the most critical part of the entire equation. One of the biggest challenges I hear is having an adequate supply of drivers. All too often there is a perception that if we create the program – surely drivers will sign up – like in the “Field of Dreams.” However, it takes high powered recruitment, consistent rewards, and recognition to really see those drivers apply and take the wheel day after day, rain, or shine.

When it comes to recruitment, common mistakes I see for volunteer driver programs include a basic “Driver Wanted” sign that posts the mileage rate, days of service, etc. but doesn’t list mission, passion, or incentive. Recruitment listings are typically found among all the other state or county or city jobs lost in the 10,000 postings ranging from lawn mower to chemical engineer.

If you want good drivers and if you want a lot of drivers, you have to hustle 24/7. Facebook marketing, craigslist, Zip Recruiter, radio, print, movie theater, church, friends, or relatives – leave no stone unturned and ask early and often. You are also guaranteed to reach a plateau when it seems like no matter how much recruitment you do, you get crickets and feel like giving up. But that is to be expected, and you just keep the word out there in top of mind, and you will find what the community responds to and it may vary by time of the year.

You also must appeal to the psychology of the drivers. Why would you leave your comfy recliner, golf course, or morning soap opera to help a complete stranger? It’s not just about the mileage reimbursement or a stipend, it’s about giving back, making a difference, and knowing they did something meaningful with their time.

There are also ways to continue to reward and engage drivers with tokens of appreciation, words of affirmation, and thank you cards from management staff and passengers. Appreciation and recognition are key to retention, driver referrals, and can be very inexpensive. You can also make ways to collect feedback from passengers, partners, or staff members into the operations strategy such that consistently drivers are receiving affirmation and appreciation for their time and energy.

“No matter how small or large the community, the mobility needs of today will vary from what the needs will be in 3 to 5 years.”

3. Collaboration
This includes outreach to agencies with similar missions as well as similar needs. For the program to grow and be visible in the community one of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by forming a Mobility Leadership Circle or Mobility Management Council. Basically, getting together leaders in the community with a common need and complimentary missions on a regular basis to discuss what the mobility needs are today as well as in the future and how you can work together to solve them.

No matter how small or large the community, the mobility needs of today will vary from what the needs will be in 3 to 5 years. The Circle or Council can prioritize the needs in the community and work together to apply for grants or raise funds and celebrate accomplishments. One of the best uses of volunteer transportation is to “fill in the gaps” and when you can help someone or a family that has been struggling for decades meet that need – that is a massive win. Setting up a mobility mailing list is also a seemingly small step but often a huge benefit. Sharing those needs, wins, or crisis moments gives a sense of community and platform to communicate together.

4. Data Collection
Ensuring you are collecting and gathering data around not only reporting rides but also quality metrics and operational metrics will enable you to look at the program from multiple dimensions. What is increasing, decreasing, or maintaining? What factors or variables dictate a shift? When you first get started it might seem meager and downright depressing, but give it time. Focus on how the data is collected, what can be done to make that data collection easier/simpler for when you are providing more trips, and eventually the data will tell the story and you will be able to use those numbers to really manage the program vs. react and fire fight. Example metrics include:

  • Trips Provided
  • Trip Length
  • Miles Traveled
  • Passenger Satisfaction
  • Driver Satisfaction
  • Cost of Outreach to Secure One Driver
  • Types of Trip Purposes
  • Passenger Demographics
  • Driver Demographics
  • Operational Cost to Provide A Ride
  • Operational Cost to Schedule A Ride

And beyond…

The metrics above can be measured in terms of the average, median, or mode to gain a different lens on how the program is performing. It also could be useful to look at the range in each data set. Regardless, turning all that data into information to manage the program is the ultimate goal.

5. Impact

Now that you have the data, share what is relevant and meaningful on a regular ongoing basis. Share with your team of drivers, share with your staff, with management, with the media, just please, please, please don’t hide it on an excel file on your desktop or your email archive.  You have worked too hard to just bury it.  If you want a successful program,  you must share the impact that was delivered to the community.  You can create a classic “by the numbers” and highlight 5 to 10 metrics consistently such that you’re not always scrambling for what or how to send an update. Create an Excel file with all the reporters and radio talk show hosts who contact you and when you have big updates or milestone accomplishments, send out a press release to the group. The media is free advertisement for more drivers.

“Stories are data with a soul and are the best way by far to communicate effectively and see the message get passed on throughout the community.”

You also need to make sure to capture the stories of your passengers, drivers, and program managers. Stories are data with a soul and are the best way by far to communicate effectively and see the message get passed on throughout the community. Since the beginning of time, we have learned to communicate via story and it’s much easier to remember and share about a person or a family than a set of sterile faceless data sets. Stats serve their purpose from a policy standpoint, but they do not inspire action. You don’t need a sonnet, but try to capture details as much as possible – so when you re-tell the story – you can provide particulars and transport the reader to that day or to that moment when their life changed. The Harvard Business Review published a great article on “How to Tell a Great Story” that gives a good overview on this delicate but critical skill.

In summary, to launch and maintain a successful driver program you need to have a good plan for insurance, drivers, collaboration, data collection, and impact. If you can tackle those five things, you’re off to a strong start with a promising future ahead toward improving the quality of life for those in your community.

For more information check out NADTC’s volunteer program resources,  CTAA Volunteer Drivers Resources Page or the National Center for Mobility Management Volunteer Resources Page. These sites are filled with examples, articles, and tons of information for managers.

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