Volunteers are the hard currency of nonprofit work. They are the grassroots organizers, the field operatives, the advocates in the community, the donors and board leaders. And yet they often get the least amount of training and support when it comes to communicating what you do and who you are. At the DC Cares Philanthropy Summit I attended this week, Nicky Goren, Acting CEO for the Corporation for National and Community Service commented (and I paraphrase) that a large donor will be paired with an executive, but a volunteer will be managed by an intern. We both have nothing against interns, I’m sure, but I agree that we do often under-support volunteers.
Volunteers Need to Know Your “Elevator Pitch”
One of the most important tools you can give a volunteer is a firm understanding of your mission priorities. This can often be called talking points or an “elevator pitch.” (For details, see my post on brand consistency). You also want to convey the key aspects of your brand values. Hopefully someone who volunteers for you already has some sense of these or they wouldn’t have given of their time, but it’s worth conveying the kind of tone and face you want for the organization.
Miscommunication Undermines Mission
The way information is communicated about your organization, as well as the content of that information, contributes to how your nonprofit brand is perceived. Years of good work in the community can be eclipsed very quickly by a few misspoken words, or a freelance opinion from a volunteer who doesn’t know the full picture. Not speaking on an issue can also damage the organization’s reputation. A situation at The Horace Mann School, and independent school in New York, is a case in point. The school dismissed an English teacher after he wrote a satirical novel set in a school much like that of his (former) employer. Some faculty and parents objected strongly to the dismissal. The teacher sued the school. The New York Times published a story on the situation, and called the board, the alumni association and the head of school’s office for quotes. All refused. The story included the following stinging notation: “Horace Mann officials, including Head of School Thomas M. Kelly, declined to comment for this article. Many parents of current students, members of the alumni council and current teachers did not return phone calls requesting interviews about the dispute stirred by Mr. Trees. The school’s motto is ‘Great is the truth and it prevails.’ ”
I use this story to illustrate the fact that “no comment” can have just as negative an impact on your brand as misinformation. Volunteers and board members should be briefed periodically by the executive or Board Chair on key initiatives, goals and successes, but also failures or challenges. When volunteers and board members are familiar with your story and how you communicate it, they do a better job of supporting your organization. And by being in regular contact with communications staff, they know who to go to if they have questions when something more critical arises.
Brief Volunteers on Key Messages
Regular communication with board members, donors and volunteers, in good times and difficult ones, is essential to helping them support your brand in the community. Be sure to give new volunteers a short orientation to be sure they understand your core values, your core mission areas, and your strategic goals for the year. When board members, volunteers and donors are on the same page, they can help move the mission forward by communicating with stakeholders and engaging new donors and volunteers. When these same individuals are in the dark, or not well prepared to describe your work, your impact will suffer. (I once overheard a parent involved with an organization pitch it by saying they were having trouble filling spots for their program–probably not the message they wanted in the community!)
In these economic times, volunteers are more essential than ever in helping nonprofits deliver on their mission. Make sure you have a branding and communications plan that supports them in their work.
If you have a great way of briefing new volunteers, please share it!