The Importance of Volunteers – Your Best Customers

April 17, 2015 AudienceView Marketing

This week in North America, non-profits are celebrating National Volunteer Week with those who give up their time to contribute to their organizations.

Like many people, I am a regular volunteer for causes I care about and have had the pleasure of going to a couple parties this week in celebration of National Volunteer Week.

I like volunteering.

It’s a fun way to get out and meet new people and usually the benefits of volunteering go beyond whatever compensation you get from doing so.

When I speak of compensation, I don’t mean money, but the ancillary benefits you get by doing a shift. I volunteer every week for a community dinner program and they feed their volunteers. I give my time as an usher to a non-profit theater and they give us free tickets.

Most non-profits will give something on top of the opportunity to volunteer in exchange for your time, whether as a measure to attract volunteers or because they really want to show their appreciation, but volunteers around the world can certainly agree that being appreciated is the best compensation you can receive, especially because they usually have a huge affinity to the organization itself and love to feel like they are an important part of the team.

Non-profits in the arts and sports are highly dependent on volunteers. Whether there’s a need for someone to man the merchandise table at a theater, a team of people to sell 50/50 tickets at a sports game or someone to come in and do some filing for the accounting department at an arts organization, non-profits in our industry would not be able to function without volunteers.

Many organizations realize this and treat their volunteers well, but it definitely is a unique relationship and likely not optimized for either party. Volunteers are part of a non-profit’s workforce and it is tricky to manage their growth and development or, even more difficult, their termination, since they are not paid.

Anyone who has had to fire a key volunteer knows how hard it can be to let someone go. Not only is it tough because you know they’ll be hard to replace, but it’s stressful because volunteers are your most passionate audience and you know you may drastically change their opinion of something they hold so dear to their heart.

In fact, an often forgotten idea when it comes to volunteers is that they are customers. In fact, they’re your best customers.

These people love your organization so much that they are willing to work for free! No wonder they deserve an entire week of celebration.

It makes a lot of organizations uncomfortable to think of their volunteers as customers, even though they can be your most lucrative.

Many non-profits will ignore marketing to their volunteers, other than for continuing their commitment of time to the organization.

Organizations may feel guilty and think that they ask enough from their volunteers and wouldn’t dream of asking them to spend money with their organization, so they exclude them from marketing activities. However, volunteers are likely to be your most profitable donors, your biggest spenders as customers and your champions for peer-to-peer marketing.

Thank you Volunteers Because these people love you enough to give up time to your
organization, they clearly want to be connected to you in any way possible. Volunteers may want appreciation for their time, but they also want you to validate their love for your brand. Asking for a donation – small or large – is likely to yield huge results because these individuals want to see your organization succeed. They see all the benefits donors get and they want to be part of this club – but are you inviting them to do so?

The same principle can be applied to your sales. Although someone gets a free ticket to see your event, if you drilled down to find out their motives for volunteering, very few would say they do so for a complimentary seat. They do so to give back and feel connected.

Marketing to volunteers for anything from merchandise to special event tickets to exclusive volunteer opportunities can bring you incremental revenue. While it may sound strange to market a season subscription to your volunteers who come to every performance and work as ushers, you’d be surprised at how many would likely buy a subscription to enjoy your events as a customer instead of a volunteer (but still continue their commitment as a volunteer because they love you). They want to enjoy the show and may like a night off from working at an event to just sit back, relax and enjoy the experience.

Volunteers take great pride in their connection to the organization and marketing anything to them that allows them to celebrate their involvement is likely to be a hit. Whether it’s an exclusive behind-the-scenes party for volunteers that has a nominal admission fee or merchandise that you can only buy as a volunteer (say a coffee mug or key chain), volunteers are likely to buy enough of these items that they’d sell out (I know I would).

Finally, volunteers can offer valuable feedback and free marketing for your organization. Volunteers want to talk about giving back and the organizations they give back to. They are your best source for peer-to-peer promotions. They can be a great source of free market research when it comes to testing a new strategy out for your organization. They are your brand champions and your consumer tribe and they want to help your organization as much as they can. They will be candid with you when providing feedback.

But for all these items, volunteers need to be asked to take action. Because of your pre-existing relationship with these individuals, they may feel awkward making a purchase or donation on their own without being invited to do so. It’s hard to do the first time, but the key to a successful relationship with your volunteers is asking them to increase their involvement. They don’t want to overstep their role as a volunteer, but they definitely want to expand on their relationship with you.

Your volunteers are your best customers. Obviously you need to be strategic in your marketing pursuits when reaching out to volunteers, but don’t forget that they want to be involved with your organization and support it in any way they can. They might like getting that free ticket, but they will give you a lot more if you just ask them to.


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