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How Online Shopping and App Culture Has Affected Volunteer Expectations

Your volunteers arrive with certain expectations of how their volunteering experience will go. Everything from volunteer sign-up to how they’re engaged on or off site leaves an impression. As a volunteer manager, it is your job to understand, meet, and manage those expectations as closely as possible in order to understand the motivations of the volunteer.

Understanding volunteer behavior is a key part of cultivating a successful relationship. If done poorly, your volunteers will feel frustrated, unsuccessful, and as though they are wasting their time. But, if done well, you can create a rewarding experience for both your volunteers and your organization.


But how can volunteer managers come to truly understand volunteer expectations and behavior?

Interestingly, we can take our cues from the for-profit world. By investigating the link between online consumer behavior and volunteer expectations, community
 organizations can increase retention of volunteers and strengthen their organizations overall.

Article Contents:
What is Consumer Behavior?
How Consumer Behavior is Linked to Volunteer Behavior
Where and How are Volunteer Expectations Formed?
Why Does it Matter?
Additional Resources

What is Consumer Behavior?

First, let’s jump into a quick background on consumer behavior.

Those who study consumer behavior learn to anticipate the reasons that consumers choose to purchase products or services.

  • Initial Stage: the goal is to get the consumer interested in the product or service In the initial stage of the purchasing cycle
  • Acquisition: interest is converted into action through a purchase.
  • Follow-up Experience: the consumer expects a certain experience when consuming the good or service. While poor experiences throughout the purchasing cycle results in product (or organization) abandonment and loss of future purchases, positive experiences can cultivate long-term customer loyalty.

Consumer loyalty, much like volunteer loyalty, is based on the idea of perceived value. Purchasing decisions for products and services are made when the perceived value aligns with the customer’s expectations. By understanding the role and expectations of the consumer in this lifecycle, we can begin to apply this logic to the nonprofit world.

How Consumer Behavior is Linked to Volunteer Behavior

Volunteer behavior is intrinsically linked with consumer behavior, particularly with an eye towards online shopping. In both models, the goal is to develop long-term loyalty (or retention) from the consumer (or volunteer).

The decision to volunteer has almost identical motivations as the consumer’s decision to purchase a good or service. In the volunteer’s case, they are signing up for an experience that has many intangible benefits to their wellbeing.

Volunteers often browse through several websites before settling on an organization or opportunity. Thus, volunteer managers must shift their perspective to include volunteers as “purchasers” of volunteer
opportunities, drawn to the same principles as other online shoppers. 

It may seem odd to think of volunteers as shoppers, but human behavior has many repeated patterns, and inner expectations affect our outer choices.

Where and How are Volunteer Expectations Formed?

At this point, you might be wondering how volunteers have aligned themselves with consumers in terms of their motivations and what they expect from nonprofits.

Social Media

Volunteer behavior and expectations are closely linked to the customer relationship life cycle. Creating customer interest in a product or service is the same thing as advertising of volunteer opportunities or your organization’s mission.

Because volunteer expectations are affected from the very first touchpoint with your organization, your job is to deliver information with the
best-practices in social sharing.

  • Use Facebook to create an online community that is welcoming to newcomers and creates a sense of belonging for long-term supporters. Create event pages and share invitations to your followers.
  • Enlist the help of a volunteer to create engaging visual content to share on Instagram.
  • Post your achievements and annual reports on LinkedIn to appeal to donors and community leaders.
  • Share press releases on organizational activities on Twitter. This is a great avenue to engage local journalists for events, and to share important organizational achievements.

Just like businesses, volunteer programs should invest in social media because of its wide reach, trackable impact, and affordability. No matter how small or large your organization, you can create interest in opportunities and advertise your mission with smart social media strategies for your volunteer program.

Online Shopping

It’s a mistake to think that volunteerism has been untouched by the digital age. Since the pandemic, volunteers have engaged online in greater numbers than ever before. With many organizations operating under a “virtual first” model, volunteers are first assessing the online presence of an organization before committing to volunteer. Smooth digital communication is key for forming positive associations in the mind of the volunteer.

Today, more than 80% of Americans shop online. Due to this proliferation of online shopping, volunteers now expect the same use experience while browsing for volunteer opportunities. When you consider that 67% of volunteers signed up for opportunities online, volunteer leaders should equate encouraging a consumer to make a purchase with enticing a volunteer to sign up for an opportunity.

Nowadays, volunteers will associate your web presence with your authority. If you don’t meet the
volunteer’s expectations of your website, you risk losing a sign up or donation.

  • Your volunteer website should display well on typical smartphone screens.
  • Make sure your calls-to-action are visible, and make any edits to improve usability.
  • Consumers expect websites to load and operate very quickly while online shopping, so your volunteer site will quickly lose visitors and signups if it lags while it’s being used.
  • As far as design, a little goes a long way. Keep your colors simple and allow plenty of spacing between text blocks.

App Culture and Mobile Devices

As digital natives, the majority of volunteers are now expecting organizations to interact with them digitally through apps and texting technology.

And volunteers, like consumers, expect a high level of service quality when they are interacting with your organization via apps or their mobile device. A poor or disorganized experience leads to dissatisfaction, whereas a high level of satisfaction from the volunteer experience will result in volunteer retention.

Many community organizations find success by incorporating the key concepts of gamification into their apps. Gamification can instill a sense of accomplishment and encourage engagement. Leaderboards, awards, and contests cultivate an exciting experience of collaboration and competition.

Interestingly, consumers who use apps are 21% more likely to make a purchase in the month following the download. By this logic, volunteers are more likely to sign up for volunteer opportunities or donate if your organization delivers on their expectations.

Why does it matter?

Why is it important to understand how consumer behavior has influenced volunteer expectations?Because you can use these insights to appeal to your volunteers.

By recognizing that volunteers are consumers of volunteer opportunities, volunteer
professionals must shift their attention to increasing volunteer satisfaction, and thus, volunteer retention, recruitment, and donorship.

To make the largest impact, make sure that you’re following the best practices for engaging with the public on social media, listing your volunteer opportunities on your website, and communicating digitally.

Additional Resources

Volunteer Retention: 9 Ways to Keep Your Volunteers

Nonprofit Social Media Strategy: How to Implement a Plan and Measure Success

How to Gamify Volunteerism and Increase Engagement

4 Tips for a More User-Friendly Volunteer Site

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