Volunteers as Customers: New Take on Age Old Ideas for Volunteer Management

Customer service isn’t a new concept in the for-profit industry.  It’s commonplace for businesses with paying customers to have a robust customer service management process in place, and they should, considering their customers keep their doors open.  Through the use of customer service management software, consumer research and marketing data, for-profit companies can better attract customers, understand their needs, appeal to their desires and provide wonderful service when needed.  It’s pretty black and white determining who the customer is at a for-profit company, but what about identifying the customer of a nonprofit organization?  Is the customer the population the organization serves, or is the customer those who give their time (volunteers) and money (donors)?  The argument can be made that they’re both a customer, both being a different type of customer.  Regardless, whether you’re being served by the nonprofits mission, or providing your time and money as a supporter, you’re receiving something in return which is a resulting experience.

Exploring volunteer management through the lens of the volunteer as the customer isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that gets a lot of push back.  It’s a concept that is often unrecognized, polarizing, even ignored in some circles.  As it relates to volunteer management, try taking a “volunteers as customer” approach.  Making this distinction by giving the title of “client” to the population the organization serves through its mission, and “customer” to the volunteer who serves.    This being said, nonprofit organizations or volunteer administrators who take a “volunteers as customer” approach to volunteer management, spend more time differentiating between their “clients” and “customers” as they’re different people.  But It’s when you come to the realization that they’re different, you begin to understand that the customers aren’t always the people you serve, and you begin to view volunteer management through a new lens that allows you to have greater appreciation for their service.

Applying the concept:  From a revenue generating model, to the nonprofit model.

At a company or business whose goal is increased revenue, the customer purchases a product or service, and the money they spend is received by that company or business as a monetary profit.  Because of the way a revenue generating business is structured, they’re designed to generate a profit that benefits the stakeholder or shareholders, often times in the form of dividends.

Now, let’s apply the same concept to a nonprofit, but in this case when we refer to the customer, we’ll substitute that word for the title volunteer.  At a nonprofit organization, the volunteer gives their time in exchange for advancing the mission or cause of the organization they support.  The organization as a nonprofit is in the business of providing a good or service, and as a result, the community or population the nonprofit serves receives that good or service.

Volunteers give something to the organization just like a paying customer, and what they give, is also just as precious as the donation of money.  Whether pro bono publico or an episodic one time service project, that volunteer will essentially give something they’ll never get back, and it needs to be handled with the same delicacy as a financial contribution.  Because of this, there are severe consequences if the volunteer as a customer has a bad experience, and, if the experience is great, it’ll pay huge dividends later.

Implications of bad customer service.

Thinking about customers being those that exchange money for services, it is important to keep in mind:

  • An estimated 9 out of 10 customers will talk about that bad experience, with over 50% of them talking about that same bad experience all the time.  So, on average, each will tell 21 people.
  • 6 out of 10 customers who have the intention to complete a purchase won’t follow through on a purchase solely because of poor customer service.

The positive impact of great customer service.

I believe volunteer recruitment goes beyond conducting outreach, and largely relying on word-of-mouth, by volunteers who continue to advocate for getting involved with the organization.  When volunteers receive great customer service that results in a good experience, the below statistics can have a tremendous impact on recruitment.

  • Nearly 50% of all people are likely to try a new product or company because of a recommendation by a friend or family member based on a positive review.
  • The influence of a positive customer review by friend or family member has a higher degree of impact than any sale or promotion.

Let’s imagine those customers were volunteers who came to the non-profit organization to give of their time.  Viewing volunteers as customers, using these statistics, it’s eye opening.  It makes you think about the volunteer’s experience and the implications if that experience is less than desirable.  In addition, when it comes to future donations, volunteers are 10 times more likely to give a donation to a non-profit than someone who doesn’t volunteer.

If you’re thinking that these statistics only ring true to paying customers at a for-profit business, think again.  A recent 2013 study by Journal of Extension, concludes that decision making when it comes to volunteering has, similar behaviors and motivations to those who are making the decision to make a purchases.  Most of these behaviors centering around the two primary categories of brand loyalty and satisfaction.  Similarly, a Fidelity survey indicates that nearly 50% of people agree that the volunteers of today have a different motivation than other generations.  Most of these motivations stem from their experience volunteering, versus what they actually accomplish as a volunteer.  Having a great experience as a volunteer plays a vital role.  It leads to a volunteer either being retained, or moving onto the next organization.  Worst case scenario, tell more than twenty people about their bad experience.  It’s important to recognize that volunteers are essentially “customers” of volunteer opportunities.  The volunteer opportunities are what the volunteer is seeking and ultimately shopping for.  When you take the stance of the volunteer being the customer, the above statistics are revealing.

Applying essential elements of customer service to apply.

Here are some of the essential elements of customer service and some measures that can be put in place to address each.

This is a list of 9 customer service musts that have a unique impact on what a customer thinks or feels about a brand.  I will hit on each of these from the perspective of volunteer management.

  • Well-Designed Website:  A well-designed website aids in getting information about volunteer opportunities, calendar of events, how they can register or apply, or contact a lead staff member to get more detailed information.  As a result, potential volunteers can easily navigate the website, find needed information and apply to be a volunteer.  The fewer steps it takes to apply or register, the better.
  • Ease of Access:  The easier opportunities are to volunteer for (accessibility of location, and scheduled date), the likelier it is that a volunteer will commit.  Try scheduling opportunities on dates and times that volunteers have off from work, and host the opportunity at a location that’s easy to transit to.  You’re likely to have a higher turnout because it’ll be convenient and less of a burden for the volunteer.
  • Responsiveness:  Timely replies to email inquiries and returning missed calls in a timely fashion are key.  It’s important to strike while the iron is hot and their enthusiasm is high.  This will help with the urgency in which volunteers react to your call to action.
  • Equipped and Trained Staff:  The worst thing to fall victim to is wasting the volunteers’ time by not being properly equipped.  Hurrying up only to wait is unacceptable and is one of the biggest points of negative feedback given by volunteers to nonprofits.  Simply not being organized.  Get ahead of this curve by training your staff and preparing in advance.  Properly equipped and trained staff will be empowered to direct volunteers, and provide the necessary guidance to accomplish the tasks assigned.  This will help cast a positive light on the organization and how it’s regarded by volunteers, communicating to them that your events are well planned and efficiently run.
  • Patience Managing Your Volunteers:  While this is a must, this just means that over time, and likely through trial and error, the volunteer administrator or nonprofit organization staff will have to get good at knowing when to cut losses and decide when volunteers are a bad fit.  While I do believe that more can always be done to divert the energy of volunteers into productive outlets, as managers of volunteers, you can fire volunteers.  Being patient will allow enough time for you to determine the return on investment from a volunteer.  It will also help you better assess if certain volunteers are qualified for the job, if more training needs to be conducted, or if it’s time to part ways.  But the bottom line is only time will tell, you cannot rush to judgement here.
  • Openness to Criticism:  nonprofit managers ought to look at each piece of criticism as a chance to change or fix something that is broken.  Do not take these as personal attacks.  Creating a survey that volunteers can respond to, and allowing for feedback in after action reports is crucial to making improvements.  Through these mechanisms you’ll be able to correct deficiencies, but it starts with being open to feedback.
  • Positive Spontaneity and Appreciation:  A verbal “thank you” goes a long way, so I urge folks to not stop there, and be creative about it.  “Thank you” can include letters, cards or annual awards, but can also come through social media such as tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts on the website or even an article in an organization’s publication.  While volunteers won’t often ask to be thanked, kind gestures make all the difference.  It can leave them feeling over joyous about their experience only reinforcing their commitment to your organization.
  • Trustworthiness:  Trust goes both ways.  You’ll need to trust that the customer’s feedback is true, whether it’s about the way they perceived something, an argument with a paid staff member, or receiving poor service.  In the end, the trust you put forth in volunteers will be reflected in the way these situations are handled.  If there’s no trust, it will show, and reflect back in how volunteers treat their commitments to the organization.  
  • Managing Expectations:  I always tell people that the hardest part of managing a network of volunteers is managing personalities and expectations.  The expectation is formed from everything communicated to that volunteer, from the hours you tell that volunteer they’re committing to, to making sure the volunteers time is utilized effectively.  It is important to make sure the service project doesn’t deviate from what was originally communicated.  By properly managing expectation, you double down on trustworthiness, showing consistency which fosters an environment that’s comfortable and “known” to volunteers.

It’s no secret that many successful for-profit companies have entire teams, processes, policies and software packages.  Understanding the stigma that resides around the dreaded “overhead” or administrative costs at nonprofits, you may also claim you can’t possibly afford the same robust customer service packages and personnel needed.  While that’s true in many circles, I’ve learned there are many free and low cost alternatives that can be utilized.

Another thing I’ve learned over the years is that common sense isn’t always common knowledge.  In an industry where volunteers are utilized so often, with approximately 62.8 million Americans volunteering in 2015 alone according to Corporation for National & Community Service data, volunteer management as a profession, and the value placed on volunteerism is still awesomely underrated.  As a result, simple customer service practices are overlooked.  When viewing the volunteer as the customer, I’ve began to understand that human capital is so valuable to the sustainability of a nonprofit.  It offers countless benefits in the long term.  If similar customer service practices found in the for-profit industry are adopted in volunteer management, the return on investment can be seen in increased public engagement and awareness, new opportunities to cultivate support, and ultimately more donations for years to come.  It starts with valuing people first and seeing volunteers as customers who deserve to be a high priority.

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