The image of espionage is of clandestine meetings in trench coats, using high-tech gadgetry. But gathering information through surveillance and indirect means does not have to be illegal, unethical, or even done in the dark. Volunteer resources managers can be quiet explorers, observing carefully what other organizations do or, at least, what they present to the public about what they do. Volunteers can be information-gatherers for your organization and some online spying can teach you about recruiting more volunteers.CHECKING OUT THE COMMUNITY
Volunteers, though agents of your organization, are always private citizens who can openly attend any public meeting or visit any institution. Are you asking and training volunteers to do this on your behalf? Think of the potential.
Local Government Meetings
Volunteers could regularly attend local government meetings particularly when issues affecting your organization’s work or environment are being discussed. You could brief them about what you want to know and ask for an oral or written report afterwards. On occasion, you might prime a volunteer to speak publicly at the meeting on behalf of something you want to advocate. This can be done transparently, with the person saying, “I am a volunteer with Agency Z and want to express an opinion that matters to me and to them.” In many cases, this is actually more effective in impressing legislators than a having a paid “spokesperson” deliver the message.
Referral Site Visits
Make a list of all the organizations to which your staff regularly refer your clients for special or follow-up services. Train a team of volunteers to check each of these sites out on a regular cycle. Create an observation check list to guide the site visit and gather consistent information, then maintain both an online and physical file of these reports so that all your staff can review them.
The volunteers can simply act as interested members of the public and ask questions as if gathering information for themselves. If you prefer a more open approach, have volunteers schedule appointments in your name. The only benefit of an anonymous visit is that volunteers can then experience how any ordinary individual is treated by the organization, just as your clients would be.
Send volunteers to shopping mall exhibits, neighborhood fairs, celebrations of any sort – any event that can offer insight into some aspect of the communities you serve. They might check out information booths put up by other nonprofit agencies, learn about civic groups that might become partners in your work, and make a range of other contacts for you. Ideally, they can also distribute printed material describing your organization’s work to whole new audiences.
If a nonprofit or business places information onto the Web, it is meant to be read and used. So dig into what ideas others (located anywhere) have made available – ideas you might replicate, adapt, or offer alternatives to – about types of services they offer, the people they serve, their calendar of events, etc. And also about how they involve volunteers.
Volunteer Roles and Recruitment
Go to the online registries of volunteer opportunities ( such as VolunteerMatch or Do-It UK ) on which you post yourself. Pretend you’re a prospective volunteer and search for a possible placement. Search by the type of setting you are in and see what comes up. Then search by your site’s zip/postal code and do the same thing. Next, search by the different skills needed for the assignments you want to fill.
All of this will reveal some interesting information if you carefully read each “ad” and see what you think of it. For example:
What’s your local competition? (Like it or not, in this case that’s what the other organizations are.)
Conversely, what organizations do you know want volunteers but are not listed here? Is this to your advantage or not?
What are other organizations like yours asking volunteers to do? Might such tasks be valuable in your agency, too?
How flexible are the other assignments in terms of schedule, where the work has to be done, etc.?
How attractive does each position sound? How much detail does each listing provide?
Now study the opportunity descriptions you have posted or are preparing to post. How do they compare? Will you compete successfully?
Don’t stop there. Expand your geographic search. If you’ve ever been at a loss about what you might ask volunteers to do, you’ll get your creative juices flowing by sampling what other organizations are up to. And it will be easier to get the agreement of both paid staff and other volunteers if you can demonstrate that this idea is already being tried elsewhere.
You don’t have to be James Bond to have a license to learn! And what an interesting set of assignments you will offer to the right volunteers.
This Quick Tip comes from Susan J. Ellis, President of Energize, Inc.