Home » Word-of-Mouth Recruitment: How to Leverage Volunteers to Promote Your Program

Word-of-Mouth Recruitment: How to Leverage Volunteers to Promote Your Program

You’ve implemented a volunteer recruitment strategy. Now it’s time to level up to ensure the long-term success of your volunteer program.

Successful volunteer recruitment incorporates diverse outreach tactics. And your volunteers are some of the most enthusiastic champions of your cause. You can leverage your volunteers’ loyalty by encouraging them to help you recruit new supporters.

It’s called word-of-mouth recruitment, and when executed thoughtfully, the strategy really works.

Here are some of the best strategies for activating your volunteer base to recruit new supporters and grow your impact.

Article Contents:


What is Word-of-Mouth Recruitment?

Word of mouth is a marketing and recruitment strategy that many businesses and nonprofits employ. Word-of-mouth marketing encourages supporters, customers, or volunteers to spread information about its services or products.

Throughout this article, we’ll refer to word-of-mouth as both a marketing and a recruitment strategy. That’s because, in many ways, word-of-mouth recruitment relies on your existing volunteers to promote or market your volunteer program to their networks.

Most volunteer programs will find that word-of-mouth recruitment is already happening. Some of your existing supporters are probably telling their friends, family, and coworkers about the volunteer work they’re doing. You can capitalize on this idea by creating a formal framework that incentivizes word-of-mouth recruitment.

Note: Your organization will also benefit by employing word-of-mouth as a donor engagement tool.

Why Is Word-of-Mouth Recruitment Important to Your Volunteer Program?

There’s a reason word-of-mouth is perhaps the most powerful form of marketing—not to mention the most enduring marketing technique. Because it’s effective and inexpensive.

When you’re looking for a new restaurant recommendation, to whom do you turn? Sure, many of us will ask Google, but more often we rely on our trusted relationships, like friends, family, and coworkers. Generally, people are more willing to trust the opinions of people they know over traditional advertising.

We can apply this same concept to volunteer recruitment. You don’t always need to rely on fancy marketing to engage the best volunteers. You just need to nurture the volunteers and stakeholders you currently have. After all, there’s a good chance your existing volunteers will hang with like-minded individuals who also want to impact their communities.

Word-of-mouth will also build your organization’s reputation. When you connect with your supporters and provide a meaningful experience, they’re more willing to stick around and recommend your programs to others.

What Drives Volunteers to Talk About Your Organization?

People generally share their thoughts about a product or experience when they have a very positive or very negative interaction with your organization. Your volunteers need to have an emotional response to supporting your organization in order to share their experiences with others.

Loyalty is another driver of successful word-of-mouth recruitment. When your volunteers consistently have a positive experience, they’re more likely to volunteer with you again, and then recommend your organization to others.

What Are Some of the Challenges of Word-of-Mouth Recruitment?

Word-of-mouth recruitment often occurs organically, making it more challenging to track than other marketing and recruitment strategies. You can, however, take steps to implement a strategy that makes it easier to understand which recruitment avenues work best for your organization.

You may have asked your supporters to spread the word already but were met with little follow-through or unimpressive results. If you’re not creating a thoughtful strategy to activate powerful referrals, you’re word-of-mouth traffic will likely stagnate.

That said, when leveraged correctly, word-of-mouth volunteer recruitment can be a powerful, cost-effective tool in your volunteer management toolbelt.

How to Build a Word-of-Mouth Recruitment Strategy

You can’t control word-of-mouth recruitment, but you can develop a strategy to help inspire it. Here are a few steps to supporting a word-of-mouth volunteer recruitment framework:

Facilitate Connection

If you want volunteers to talk about their experiences, you’ll need to facilitate an emotional connection with your program. Connect with supporters by communicating your program values, then take the time to learn about what they value. Engage with them in person, through your social media accounts, and your other communication channels (like your email newsletter).

Another way to aid volunteer connection—and, in turn, encourage word-of-mouth recruitment—is to understand the factors that motivate them. When these motivations are acknowledged and supported, you’ll create an environment that continuously excites and engages volunteers.  

Most volunteers are motivated by these evidence-based factors:

  1. Values. Volunteers want to serve others in a meaningful way and express their altruistic values.
  2. Social. Volunteers want to be a part of a community and develop social relationships.
  3. Career. Volunteers want to engage in networking opportunities, develop skills, or add experience to their resumes.
  4. Understanding. Volunteers want to gain knowledge or insight on a particular cause.
  5. Personal Development. Volunteers want to develop or enhance a skill set or grow personally.

You can use this information to create opportunities and experiences that appeal to each type of volunteer. Let’s say you notice many of your volunteers are socially motivated. Look for opportunities to create moments of connection with other volunteers. Create volunteer roles that encourage collaboration and communication.

Survey your volunteers to learn about what’s important to them, and encourage them to help shape your program. They’ll feel invested in the cause, while you’ll foster the kind of deeper engagement that gets volunteers talking about you.

Present a Better Volunteering Experience

In order for word-of-mouth to happen authentically and effectively, you need to focus on building your reputation among your current volunteers and other stakeholders. You can do this by consistently exceeding your volunteers’ expectations.

Direct your attention to volunteer retention and create memorable volunteering experiences every time.

Here are some of the best ways to improve the volunteer experience:

  • Streamline Your Processes. Nothing puts off supporters quite like disorganization. Leave a lasting impression by constructing a streamlined volunteer journey. From registration to day-of check-in, you need a system that supports volunteers every step of the way. Consider implementing a volunteer management tool to automate these processes, saving you time and supporting better volunteer management.
  • Show Up. Simply showing up can make a huge difference in forging meaningful connections. Work alongside your volunteers, listen to their stories, and internalize their feedback. Don’t forget to reach out to your remote and virtual volunteers with a personal note of gratitude.
  • Train Volunteers. Remember, volunteers are ambassadors of your cause. Develop a volunteer training program that empowers supporters to do their jobs well, and talk about your program with confidence. Volunteers want to know they're making a real impact. Training will give them the tools to succeed now and for years to come.
  • Match Their Skills and Interests. Volunteers are more engaged when they feel they’re genuinely making an impact and contributing their skills. Volunteer management software can help organizations match volunteers with the right opportunities automatically based on their skills, special qualifications, and passions. Using your volunteer matching tools, you can leverage volunteer data to pair people with the right opportunities.
  • Reward and Recognize. For-profit companies incentivize word-of-mouth by rewarding customers with exclusive discounts. While this kind of reward may not be appropriate for a community organization, you can certainly celebrate volunteers. Acknowledge them consistently, and then provide additional recognition for those who help to bring in new recruits.

Craft Your Messaging

When you employ word-of-mouth recruitment, your volunteers act as ambassadors of your organization. So, volunteers should know how to talk about your organization. Therefore, you need to give them the tools—and language—to confidently and accurately share information about your cause.

Start by evaluating the recruitment messaging you already have. Consider these questions:

  • Does the message honor the volunteer?
  • Do I know someone who would say no to this message?
  • What skill level(s) am I hoping to attract?
  • Have I correctly tailored the message to my audience?
  • Does the copy effectively communicate the needs of my clients?

Use these guidelines to refresh your current messaging. Then, make it easy for your supporters to recruit their peers by providing them with approved recruitment materials, as well as ideas for using these materials within their networks:


Leverage Social Media

Social media has increased connectivity, making it easier than ever to spread the word about products, services, and causes. Today’s savvy organizations leverage social media to maximize their recruitment efforts.

But how do you get people talking about you on social media?

Forbes recommends focusing on the 3 Es—Engage, Equip, and Empower:

  • Engage. Engage your social media followers by joining the conversation. Let them get to know you, and take some time to respond to them through your social media channels. Find ways to fuel conversation with buzz-worthy, engaging content like tips, feel-good quotes, and facts. Create hashtags to foster community and find like-minded supporters.
  • Equip. Give your supporters a reason to talk. First and foremost, you need to equip your current supporters with a great service or product. In the case of volunteer programs, give them a memorable experience they’ll want to tell people about. In addition to great experiences, provide calls to action, stories, facts, and other insight to retweet, reshare, and post on their channels.
  • Empower. Empower your supporters with different ways to talk and share. Let them know that sharing your organization and volunteer opportunities is important to you, and invite them to be a part of growing your program. Help them find ways to share your opportunities within their network.

In addition to the three Es, you’ll want to make it easy to share your opportunities and other content. Include social sharing buttons on your web pages, emails, and other online platforms.

More Word-of-Mouth Recruitment Ideas

If you want to boost your recruitment strategy, you’ll need to get creative. Here are a few more ideas for inspiring word-of-mouth recruitment:

"Invite a Friend"

Socialization is one of the leading motivating factors that drive people to volunteer. Encourage word of mouth with an “invite a friend” campaign.

Make volunteering fun and memorable by highlighting group-friendly opportunities and events on your volunteer site. (Don’t forget to track those extra hours using your volunteer management software).

Ask friends to leave their names and contact details so you can follow up after the event with a thank you message and suggestions for other opportunities they’ll love. Follow-up is really important here; your goal is to turn these prospects into engaged, long-term recruits.

Partner with Companies and Influential Groups

Community partnerships are a valuable addition to any organization’s toolbox. Double down on these partnerships by encouraging word-of-mouth recruitment among volunteer groups. Inspire those “water cooler moments” by offering tailored, exclusive opportunities.

Make the event even more special by taking photos and tracking collective impact. Finally, work with these partners to share their experiences among employees and peers, and on their website and social channels. Don’t forget to provide the branding and content needed for easy sharing.

Create Photo Ops

A photo is worth a thousand words! Enlist the help of a professional photographer (calling on talented volunteers!) to make a volunteering event extra special. This is a nice idea if you have lots of families and teams involved. The photos will give your volunteers something to remember about the day, and also share with their friends and family (read: marketing your program).

Host a Friendly Competition

Invite fun and boost referral traffic by “gamifying” peer recruitment. Host a friendly video competition and invite your volunteers to create a video about their experience working with your organization. Let them know that you’ll use the best videos in your marketing efforts and that they can share their work with others. Encourage volunteers to share them on social media channels, and create a hashtag using a catchy campaign title.

Or, host a poetry contest. The theme? Volunteering! Post the winning poems on your website and social media channels.

These creative ideas, stories, and testimonials will give you plenty of inexpensive marketing materials to spread the word about your amazing program!

Offer some participation incentive by letting competition winners choose your next t-shirt design, or offer a discount on branded merchandise.

Word-of-mouth is just one component of a volunteer recruitment strategy. Today’s volunteer recruitment efforts should also include a varied digital approach.

Additional Resources

Cultivating Happy Volunteers: 4 Keys to Success

Volunteer Retention: 9 Ways to Keep Your Volunteers

Volunteer Recruitment Ideas: 20 Awesome Ways to Get the Volunteers You Need

Author: Addison Waters