FlakyFilter: How To Get No-Show Volunteers To Show Up?
March 17, 2014 2:34 PM   Subscribe

I recently started organizing volunteer orientations for a local charity. These orientations take place at long-time volunteers' homes over dinner and require quite a bit of prep work by the hosts. They are optional orientations - i.e., for newcomers who have expressed interest in a more active role with the nonprofit. So far, about 30% of the new people who RSVP 'yes' are complete no-shows. How can I reduce this amount, AND how can I not feel pissed off at people who cancel with no or little notice? Snowflakery inside...

- Again, these orientations are TOTALLY OPTIONAL. So the people who have RSVPed have elected to say "yes" proactively.
- Most of the cancel-ees are in their 20's and 30's, with no kids. Volunteers 40+ usually come, or cancel a long time in advance. [I obviously understand when parents with kids cancel last-minute and don't consider that part of this issue.]
- Folks are signing up by email and/or in person. There doesn't seem to be much difference in the rate of cancellations by either method.
- I'm reminding people a couple days prior by email or text. I don't like calling to remind b/c I feel it's too invasive.
- If the people who cancel do let me know, it's usually for a very casual reason (i.e. "I lost track of time") and there is no apology for inconveniencing the hosts, who have prepared a presentation about the charity, cooked food, opened their homes, etc.
- Some people don't even say they aren't showing up.

Full disclosure: I went through a VERY flaky, inconsiderate time in my 20's (this is probably karma coming back to bite me in the butt). It had a lot to do with social anxiety and an inability to say 'no' to people's faces. I have been there and I know that things come up.

Any ideas on how to encourage a higher rate of participation, AND how to not get discouraged/frustrated when people cancel?
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Can you have lower-key orientations and save the more personal parties for volunteers who have worked X hours? How does the 30% flake-out rate compare to the rate of no-shows for volunteer shifts? If it's higher, how can you make the orientations more like the volunteer shifts?

30% seems to be a typical flake rate for volunteer stuff I've done, I sadly don't know if you're going to have success changing this. Just overbook orientations by ~20%?
posted by momus_window at 2:41 PM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes I've had luck contacting people individually and either asking them to confirm (even after they've already RSVP'd) or better yet giving them a job. "Hi Bob, so glad you can make it to the session! Listen, I need just a little help with ....."

If they have to bring the ice, or copies of flyers, or whatever, ppl have a sense of ownership and importance (they NEED me!) and are more likely to show.
posted by bunderful at 2:44 PM on March 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Are you a volunteer as well or is this a paid position? If you are a volunteer do not sweat this, they aren't paying you enough. I was given this advice here on AskMe when I was complaining about my flaky volunteers. 30% no show is not bad when it comes to volunteers.

Can you state somewhere in the sign-up process that if a cancellation is necessary, 48 hours notice kindly appreciated out of respect for our hosts who are opening their homes, to get an accurate head count for food, etc.
posted by Fairchild at 2:46 PM on March 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

You're reminding people by text or e-mail, but do they respond at all? I assuming they aren't, and you're not asking them to.

So one idea is simply to ask for confirmation. Two, you could also up the stakes a little by (politely) telling them if they do not confirm, you will assume they won't be coming. That means there enough food for them, no seat for them, or whatever. Third, you're reluctant to call, because you feel it's too invasive, but maybe that's what you need to do, at least for those types who your past experience has told you they're likely to flake out.
posted by Leontine at 2:47 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I second the don't-invest-lots-of-time-in-newbies idea.

Also, "Expressing an interest in a more active role" is pretty vague (though maybe that's just you trying to be succinct here). If I'm going to show up for something fairly long and involved, where I have to meet people and interact socially (instead of, say sitting through a presentation), I want a pretty good idea of exactly what my "more active role" is going to be when I'm done.

Like, "Attend this orientation and then you will be put on the schedule to help at X event on X day" or "Come to this orientation and by the end of the evening you will choose which of three different campaigns you want to help with, what your role will be, and who you'll be working with." Tie it to an actual thing they would be doing once oriented.

Otherwise, it sounds a little bit like a dinner party with people I don't know, a prospect which would have terrified me in my 20s (and even now would not be something I'd look forward to).
posted by helpthebear at 2:51 PM on March 17, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: You need to make phone confirmations within 24-48 hours of the event. Phone calls. Phone call that ideally are with a live person, though a voice mail is acceptable.

I say this as someone who worked on the Obama campaign and saw lots of valid data about how confirmation calls (phone, not text or email) reduces flake rates.

You'll still have no shows, but you'll have less.
posted by brookeb at 2:54 PM on March 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

And ideally the host should make those confirm calls.
posted by brookeb at 2:55 PM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can you just budget this into your expectations? Plan events for 10 people, and expect 7 to show up?
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:15 PM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

The organization I volunteer for basically makes it impossible to volunteer unless you show up at orientation/training sessions (there are more than one), and that's *after* a phone interview with a longtime volunteer or staffer. If you can do that, do that.

Otherwise, yes, call them on the phone. It might feel invasive but that's also the point!
posted by rtha at 3:19 PM on March 17, 2014

How to not get discouraged/frustrated when people cancel? Stop doing this over dinner. Seriously. If you must have food, serve some cookies and have tea.
posted by purple_bird at 3:20 PM on March 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Either make these events:
1. low-key, without the elaborate hosting/set up or
2. mandatory for anyone who wants to volunteer.

Adopting either approach will even out the imbalance of personal investment between established volunteers and new ones.

That said, 30% attrition isn't that bad (depending on how large the pool is).

Also, does this organization have paid staff? It seems like the presentation prep is something the staff should be doing, or at least providing substantial support to their volunteers as a best practice.
posted by Schielisque at 3:21 PM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In your reminder e-mail or text, say that they need to confirm that they are still attending by (calling, replying to this e-mail or text). "This is so our generous hosts, Mr. and Mrs. X, can determine how much food to buy/prepare." Find some way to make it clear that the hosts are being inconvenienced by hosting. I'm not quite sure how to do that. I'm not the type to flake out without cancelling for a valid reason (even when I was in my 20s), but I know I would feel a little more guilty not showing if I knew someone was being put out by my non-attendance.

Either that, or have the host(s) call these people for confirmation, and leave a message if they don't answer. Be prepared for rudeness on the other end of the phone if they do answer, and try not to take it personally.

It's worth noting that these people are volunteers, and new ones at that. They're not obligated to give any of their time to your organization. Yes, they're being rude and inconsiderate by signing up, then putting out your hosts by no-showing. A lot of people have trouble saying no, though, particularly in person.
posted by tckma at 3:21 PM on March 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 70% retention is a great outcome! Be proud of what you have accomplished and ask people to confirm twice by sending out one more email on the day they must respond to.
posted by parmanparman at 3:22 PM on March 17, 2014

expressed interest in a more active role with the nonprofit.

You could make attending an orientation dinner mandatory for people who want to take such "more active roles," instead of being merely an option. (Or, if you have some selection power for leadership roles in your organization, just don't pick people for those positions who flake out like that -- do you really want a flaky person in a leadership role, even for a volunteer organization?)

As an example, when I was in college, I was on a club that brought popular musicians to play concerts on campus. There was a hard-and-fast rule that you had to have attended X number of consecutive meetings before sign-up day to even be allowed to sign up for volunteer positions at a given show. This was to prevent people who weren't as committed to the club from getting to do the fun stuff (putting on a show) without doing some of the boring stuff (attending meetings). Perhaps you could work something like that in.
posted by tckma at 3:29 PM on March 17, 2014

Best answer: These are free? And they're optional. Unfortunately, consciously or unconsciously, people tend to treat such things as less of a priority, and get all flakey. You could try playing up the hosted in another volunteer's home element to guilt trip them into it, but I doubt even that will decrease the drop out rate. I manage volunteers for a living, and the only things that have worked for me are reminder phone calls on the day, or budgeting for more, expecting a certain percentage won't turn up. I know of some people who charge a notional fee, to counter the idea that because it's 'free' it isn't valuable. On the more frustrating days we've toyed with warning them that we will charge the no shows for the cost of their attendance, but we've never actually gone that far.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:53 PM on March 17, 2014

I think a combination of the above suggestions is great. Make it an informal meeting over coffee and cake so it's less intimidating for volunteers than a sit down dinner, make attendance mandatory if volunteers wish to do the next step of whatever and confirm attendance by phone two days in advance. But you'll always get no shows from volunteers, and in a way this is a good thing as they basically self select whether or not they'll be the kind of person you can rely on anyway. Good to know in advance!
posted by Jubey at 4:09 PM on March 17, 2014

Best answer: So far, about 30% of the new people who RSVP 'yes' are complete no-shows. How can I reduce this amount...

As someone who has done a fair amount of organizing, that is a really really good retention rate.

You need to call every person the day before and express how excited you are that you'll be seeing them on Saturday. Phone call. If they don't pick up, try them again a few hours later, then leave a voicemail.

- I'm reminding people a couple days prior by email or text. I don't like calling to remind b/c I feel it's too invasive.

A couple days prior is likely too far out. You absolutely need to call, getting them on the phone in person is the only method that really works.

They committed to you, and therefore consented to reminder calls. It is not invasive. Make the confirm calls.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 4:21 PM on March 17, 2014

Best answer: Community organizers have this down to a science. ("If someone confirms X number of times, Y percent will be no-shows.") Calling the day before to ask if they are still planning to attend will increase your attendance rate. But you also need to plan on a certain percentage just not being able to attend.
posted by slidell at 4:45 PM on March 17, 2014

Best answer: I work with the flake rate issue a lot in my work. As other people have said: 70% is pretty great. I can't even get 100% attendance when I schedule a party with my friends.

The only way you're going to get better than this is some type of coercion or consequences. Whether the loss of goodwill resulting from that coercion is worth it is up to you.
posted by the jam at 4:46 PM on March 17, 2014

Response by poster: Y'all are awesome. Thank you to every single person who responded. This is so much more productive than feeling frustrated.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 9:52 PM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

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