tips for building up volunteers in a volunteer-averse environment?
December 6, 2014 9:26 AM   Subscribe

A few years ago I started a tool bank, lending tools to charities in the English West Midlands. It has received a lot of support from grantmakers, but there are so few borrows it has been demoralising. I have always sought out volunteers to assist in day to day work and marketing, but never found anyone through any established volunteer centre for the almost two years they have advertised the job descriptions. I am now working on merging the tool bank into a resource library of culinary equipment and tools in Sandwell, the borough next to where I live in Dudley. Despite it being run in conjunction with the council, so a municipal effort available to anyone with a public library card, I worry about not ever being able to find volunteers. What are some volunteer recruitment solutions I could try that have worked for you in a place where initially, it was difficult to create a base? I am engaging with a volunteer management professional, but I also want to have ideas if the library group chooses to not fund her interim role.
posted by parmanparman to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Could you open up the tool lending to anyone (not just charities) and then set it up as a co-op? Work a one day shift for your yearly membership or something like that? Depending on how much training is required, this might not work (no point training someone just to get a day's work out of them).

Essentially what you want is to turn your tool lending place into a tool-using community. Set up instructional workshops or something to get people interacting. People who have a sense of belonging and ownership will be more likely to contribute.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:35 AM on December 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Volunteers want something from the volunteer work they do; that can be anything from skills that make them more employable, to social contact, to a stepping stone back to work for people who haven't been in that environment for a while and so on. Look at how other volunteering opportunities present themselves - they will often highlight things that volunteers gain from volunteering, like the training that they provide, or the team that you'll be part of, or that you get to work with interesting people. You don't mention anything that volunteers would get back for working for you. So the question that I would start with asking yourself is - what am I offering my volunteers?

My second question would be - is this a genuinely volunteer-averse environment? Is this problem widespread - are your local charity shops, your local CAB and so on failing to fill volunteer posts? If the answer is no - look at what people who are successfully filling volunteer posts doing. If the answer is yes - think about why. The latter is more difficult to deal with, but if you work out why people are averse to volunteering, then you may be able to find the answer.

Third - are you unintentionally putting up barriers to volunteers? For example, if you don't offer volunteer expenses and it's a £3 bus fare to and from where you are based, you may well have cut off a tranche of potential volunteers. Or if you're offering opportunities that are best suited to people coming back into the work environment after a long period of ill-health and you're in an inaccessible building.
posted by Vortisaur at 9:46 AM on December 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am also a volunteer management professional but I am not your volunteer management professional. There's tons of resources and thinking around this, so hopefully your volunteer management professional will help you tap into that. If not, I can point you in the direction of some to get you started off.

The one thing that I found that is really the key to recruiting people and the main way that you do find volunteers who will come, and who will stay, is word-of-mouth. Somebody asking somebody else to get involved. That doesn't mean you have to rely on your existing volunteers and networks to find new volunteers (although you should be doing that, don't be shy about asking people to help), but if you let that thinking permeate through the way that you approach recruiting new people, I've found it is the best way to be successful. So for instance, tailor your adverts to speak directly to the person you are trying to recruit. For instance, starting it with "Do you have good organisation skills? Can you help us organise our tool bank?" Instantly you giving people a good idea of the kind of person you are looking for and whether they would be a good fit.

You should also take some time to picture the kind of person who would do the role. What is their current situation? How do they spend their time? What are they interested in? and then tailor your marketing towards that person. This might mean that you realise that the tradition routes to finding volunteers, through the volunteer centres isn't going to help. You might have to start thinking a little bit laterally, where does your ideal volunteer hang out?

And of course the one thing will generate volunteers is having more people know about your service and using your service, so you have to think about this in the context of the bigger development of your project. Being party of the library service might help as it gives the project a sense of legitimacy you might not have if you're operating independently.
posted by Helga-woo at 10:03 AM on December 6, 2014

Maybe you could market it differently. Our library bought a 3-d printer. And a neighbor town bought a 3-d printer and they got a space and they market it as a "maker space" where young people can go to get ideas about how to invent things or make things from websites like

So... maker spaces are the hip thing with the young people here.
posted by cda at 10:24 AM on December 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes. The goal is a maker incubator / DIY lab here and I do believe there is a diverse audience for this. The tool bank was in a ventilated, lit storage unit because tools are easy to steal and sell.

I looked at my role descriptions and realized the way they are written does not tell one about the benefits. I also realize how much bad advice I have gotten. No one ever said these were bad job descriptions.

The tool library may become a community enterprise at some point. I think social enterprise is the municipality's goal before too long, but getting the business model right requires a lot of factors that are not for me alone to decide. I am not confident there is a business model without the benefits of being a charity which is useful to companies attesting to being social enterprises in the United Kingdom.

Charity shops do struggle to get volunteers and some have closed as a result of this, locally. Big charities are the exception only because they have established volunteer networks to turn to.

Some of the largest local charities that use volunteers are members. The tool bank supplied Prince's Trust, for example. Word of mouth only goes so far if you are not able to join the conversation to seek assistance. A lot of charities who used us expressed surprise I had not been able to find volunteers but requests for members to volunteer were met with silence. I am not bitter and ready to support the library. It is for individuals and groups, since you asked.
posted by parmanparman at 11:07 AM on December 6, 2014

Hit up local volunteering groups that might be able to make use of the tools. Groundwork Black Country springs to mind, but there's also CTV and the Wildlife Trusts. CTV and the Wildlife Trusts work mostly in wild areas like Peascroft wood and Moorcroft wood, while Groundwork work with people in local communities to improve their green spaces, like parks and such.

The RSPB have a centre at Sandwell Valley, maybe ask them if you could put a leaflet up or network there.
posted by Solomon at 11:44 AM on December 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I did an internship once -- volunteer work that helped fulfill a class requirement. Is there a college you could contact with a program where internships (ie volunteer work for your program) would make sense?

FWIW: I was in a small town in a kind of distant county from the college in question and it was an online class. So the list of established programs where one could readily volunteer to fulfill this component of the class would have been a long drive for me. The professor was happy to let me find a local program where I could volunteer. I have no idea if that local program ended up on the list of places you could intern for that class.

I guess I am trying to say that there may be a class or program in place already and you would just need to find out what it is and get added to the list. Alternately, you could go look at what classes there are, think a little creatively about whether or not you have something to offer them, and talk to a professor and say "hey, I have this thing and I was thinking...blah blah blah."
posted by Michele in California at 1:37 PM on December 6, 2014

I have a friend who is a historical preservationist by trade and an environmentalist at heart. She started a very cool project here in Chicago called Community Glue Workshop. They host Fix Ups - if you have a broken toaster or something, you bring your item to the event, and there are volunteer tinkerers there who will try to fix it for you so you don't have to throw it out and get a new one. There's no charge for the service.

If you were to find a space in your area where you could have an event like this once in a while, you've be ahead of the game because you'd already have a good bank of tools with which to start. Find a space to host it, partner with some local organizations to find your tinkerers or just put out a call for people who want to fix stuff but don't have tools of their own. People hang out and talk, things get fixed sometimes, it's a great vibe.
posted by deliciae at 9:56 PM on December 6, 2014

Yes, events are a good way to find volunteers and spread the word about your project. Anything where your tools would be helpful will work, think "Repair Café", "Build (wooden?) gifts/decorations for Christmas", "Tune up your bike for spring", and so on. Those can be one-off type events and they should attract people from all ages/backgrounds. Later on, once you have volunteers you could offer repair cafe type events regularly.

Advertise your events online and around town, at the library and coffee shops for example. Write another ad where you seek volunteers for the specific event (easier to find than permanent volunteers). Once you get to know the short-term volunteer(s) you could ask if they'd want to help out with the toolbank more often.

Hope this helps & good luck!
posted by travelwithcats at 3:06 AM on December 21, 2014

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