Guest Blogger – Virginia Salem (Ginny) started as the administrator for Northern Essex Elder Transport, Inc, (NEET) in 2017. She previously worked at the Salisbury Council on Aging advocating for better public transportation and served on the Transportation Task Force of the Advisory Board of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley.
Northern Essex Elder Transport, Inc. (NEET) is a nonprofit volunteer driving program serving older adults in Essex County, MA. NEET works with 14 Councils on Aging (COA) to provide needed transportation to seniors in 14 communities in the Merrimack Valley. Volunteer drivers provide curb-to-curb, non-wheelchair accessible transportation for seniors to local and out-of-town medical appointments.
The key to NEET’s volunteer driver recruitment strategy has been to realize two important things:
- No one wakes up saying, “Today, I want to become a volunteer driver!” They need to learn about the opportunity.
- Your organization must always seek new volunteers and think about opportunities to meet potential volunteers. Volunteer drivers are needed to meet the existing and increasing needs of older adults.
The best place to start recruiting is to talk to your current volunteers. How did they learn of your organization? Why do they volunteer? What else do they do: volunteer at other organizations, play golf, sing in the choir, and/or line dance at the senior center? Obtaining volunteers’ endorsements helps recruit new volunteers. Volunteers send their thoughts describing their volunteer experience. Recordings of volunteer testimonial videos can be uploaded to Facebook and your website.
NEET has learned that most volunteers do not like to self-promote their volunteerism, but they do want to help. Providing them with the tools to start a casual conversation about volunteer driving is a good investment, including the items listed below. NEET has found that these items provide a way to start a conversation and double as nice volunteer-appreciation gifts:
- Baseball hats with organization logo. Many volunteers like the baseball hats because they provide some assurance to the client that they are “official.”
- Promotional T-shirts with organization name and “Volunteer to Drive”. Volunteers should be encouraged to wear the shirt to the gym or other places where other retired active individuals may hang out.
- Inexpensive buttons – Ask me about NEET! Volunteers can wear the button or put it on a tote bag, for example.
- Reusable grocery bags with organization logo that volunteers can use wherever they shop. Grocery bags may also offer a sponsorship opportunity on the bag to defray their costs.
Spreading the Word
NEET uses various channels in our recruitment effort, including:
- Senior Center newsletter
- Cable Station – free public service announcements
- Local Cable Show – may be open to having someone discuss local programs and organizations
- Local newspaper
- Chamber of Commerce
- Networking with other non-profits organizations
- Church bulletins
- Participation at local events such as local hospital health fair, community fair, yard sales, art stroll, senior centers, special events (for example, staff or volunteer could dress as a car at Halloween).
No matter what method you use to reach out to potential volunteers, it is always important to be prepared to describe your program and the minimum requirements for volunteers, including the who, what, when, how, and why of the opportunity. However, it is also necessary not to overwhelm people with too much information: strike a balance to ensure that you are providing just enough information to spark interest and encourage people to want to learn more.
NEET’s messages include simple statements, such as:
“You decide when and where to driver”
“Average trip is 27 miles and 2 hours long”
“Two trips per month is a minimum commitment”
Northern Essex Elder Transport has distributed many different flyers and newsletters. The messages have the same information as those listed above, but engage with fresh words, images, and appearances. When using flyers with pull-off tabs, make sure to pull one of the tabs off before it is posted – it may sound crazy, but it works!
Resources may also be allocated to attendance at various community events. Events such as a local health fair or community fairs offer a wonderful opportunity to inform your community about the program and to recruit volunteers. They can also be fun when creating appealing table themes. Having simple “give away” items can be helpful too. Many low costs items can be created such as:
“Dig in a Volunteer” – toy shovel with a few individually wrapped hard candies.
“Is Volunteer Driving your cup of tea?” – a small bag with message and a teabag.
“Give the Gift of a Lift” – small boxes with candy.
Of course, the key to success in investing in community events is to ensure that anyone who might be interested in volunteering is given contact information to follow up with the program. When in public, NEET staff members always wear name tags which help others identify who you are and what you do. It is also important to remember that the person you are speaking with may not be able to volunteer but may know someone who would be interested. Such personal connections broaden the reach of your program. Being able to say that a friend said you might be interested in learning about our volunteer driver program can increase the receptivity of prospective volunteers.
Now that you have invested in promoting your organization through one or more methods, it’s vital that you call any new volunteer inquiries back within 24 hours. No exceptions.
Communication is key, it is important to reach out to the new volunteer after their first ride to discuss any additional questions they might have. You can also send a short thank you note to new volunteers when they complete their first ride.
Acknowledgment and appreciation of your volunteers’ efforts should be an ongoing activity in your program. You can acknowledge volunteers in your newsletter, include a note of appreciation with volunteers’ mileage reimbursements, or write a special note to thank a volunteer who has “gone the extra mile.”. Use a variety of approaches that best fit your organization to acknowledge and appreciate your volunteers.
Here are a few specific ideas:
- Send a birthday card. One way to keep up with this task is to write out birthday cards for two months at a time, putting the date to be mailed where the stamp would go.
- Thanksgiving cards present another opportunity to say thank you. Keeping a record throughout the year of special efforts of individual volunteers makes writing personal notes on the Thanksgiving card easy – “I will never forget when you accepted that ride to Boston at 7 am the Friday before Memorial Day.”
- Contact local politicians. Most local and/or state representatives can provide a certificate of recognition or appreciation. There is no cost to your program and your organization creates or reinforces a relationship with the local and state representatives.
- Establish relationships with other nonprofit organizations and share ideas. Chances are they have individuals who want to volunteer but their mission is not right for the volunteer and vice versa.
Remember that there is no “right” recruitment or retention message. This work is constant and ongoing and needs to be incorporated in everything you do. Since you have to do it every day, make it fun!
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