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Volunteer Power!
From Short Term Helper to Active Volunteer
Creating a Good Vibrations Volunteer Experience
By Thomas W. McKee

Three metaphors help me to understand the process of volunteer retention.
  • Puppy dog
  • Third Place
  • Good Vibrations
Each metaphor symbolizes a coaching technique for the director of volunteers. When volunteer leaders know how to maximize these three techniques, they are in a much better position to increase the life-cycle of their volunteers.

The Puppy Dog

When our two sons were just three and four years old, we took them to a professional photographer to have their portraits taken. Susie, my wife, dressed them in matching outfits, and we have joked that we had no idea how those matching outfits would shape our decorating decisions for the next 35 years. The photographer took hundreds of pictures and then told us to come back in a week to see the proofs (you can tell that this story takes place long before the days of digital photography). When we arrived at the studio, he presented us with two 18" X 20" portraits matted and framed to match the kids' outfits and told us to take them home and hang them in our house for a week. That was almost 35 years ago, and they are still hanging in our dining room (and the color of those outfits comes into play every time we move or redecorate).

In sales we call this technique the "puppy dog" sale. Let them take that cute little puppy dog home, and when the kids play with it for a week, it's a sale.

The "puppy dog" is the first step in creating long-term volunteers. Just like our photographer gave us a taste of how two large, framed pictures of our boys would catch the attention of everyone who walked into our home, the first volunteer experience ought to be a positive "give them a taste" happening. When we are running an event that is staffed with volunteers, we look at that event as an opportunity to give a taste. Although volunteering is helping others, the basic motivation is somewhat self serving-it makes us feel good to be helping. And when we feel that we are making a difference because of what we can do, that opens up a whole new level of motivation for the volunteer. They should leave feeling good, but wanting more.

But how do I make sure that the "puppy dog" experience is positive and not a disaster? How do I transform that taste into a desire to want more?

Enter technique two.

The Third Place

A "Third Place" has become a hot trend around the idea of public/offline communities as opposed to on-line social networks. Popularized by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the concept is typically outlined like this:

  1. The First Place = Home
  2. The Second Place = Workplace
  3. The Third Place = An anchor of public life where diverse groups of people come together to form an ad-hoc community. Examples include cafes, libraries, or the traditional public square (the Zócalo in Mexico City, for instance).
Starbucks modeled their coffeehouses after the traditional European coffee shop as a third place between home and the office. Starbucks did not invent coffee, but it reinvented the experience of drinking coffee by providing relaxation. Initially customers perceived the third place nature of Starbucks as a place for individuals to relax between a hectic work schedule and frenzied home life and to connect with people who sought these same goals. Today Starbucks has lost some of its luster, but Panera Bread has taken it to a new level that is growing so fast that it is opening a new bakery every five days. Because there is no time limit, Panera has become a community gathering space as much as a lunch spot. CEO Ron Shaich, says, "In many ways we are renting space to people and the food is the price of admission." (Rising Dough: Why Panera Bread is on a Roll)

Years before Starbucks and Panera, a Bar in Boston's website reminds of us of the T.V. program of the 80's theme song:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

The T.V. program, "Cheers", Home of the "Bull and Finch Pub", where exterior shots for the TV show "Cheers" were filmed, was not just a bar-it was a "third place."

What Starbucks, Panera Bread, and Cheers proved was that a for-profit corporation can leverage a social vacuum and become relevant by selling not just products and services, but a sense of community. Starbucks invested heavily in training and benefits for their employees (making a values statement that they care most about the people who create the experience for customers).

Although the non profits that I have worked with this year from libraries to hospitals are very different, they all have one thing in common-a third place. The volunteer culture is a place where diverse people come together with a common purpose and form a community.

But the question is, "How does the volunteer director create this kind of ‘third place' community within the organization?" Or perhaps I should ask, "How do the techniques work together-the puppy dog and third place?"

The third technique is the essential to put all of this together.

Good Vibrations

When Brian Wilson explained the background of the title of the Beach Boys 1966 hit, "Good Vibrations," he said that when he was a child, his mother told him that dogs could pick up "vibrations" from people, so that the dog would bark at "bad vibrations." Wilson turned this into the general idea of vibrations (with Mike Love putting "good" in front of vibrations), and developed the idea of people being able to do the same with emotions (Good Vibrations, Wikipedia).

The new volunteer ought to pick up good vibrations when they take part in an event. And in order to give out those good vibrations we should aim for Experience over Task.

Chris Jarvis, of REALIZING YOUR WORTH claims:

Instead of using volunteers as a means to an end, use the tasks volunteers perform as the means to an end. It is the experience volunteers have and not the tasks they perform that is the point. Focus on the experience, and you'll discover the commitment and productivity of your volunteers grow (Chris Jarvis, Realizing Your Worth).

We can get people to show up for an event if the invitation is marketed well. But if we want to offer that volunteer a "puppy dog" taste and a "third place" feel, then we must focus on the experience of the volunteer. When you recruit volunteers for an event, what is your focus? Is it the task or is it the volunteer? The difference is huge. Too many times volunteer managers are tempted to focus on a task such as painting or serving food. They focus so much on getting the task done, and that is important, that they fail to provide an experience in which volunteers can personalize their volunteer work. When we focus on the task such as painting or feeding or cleaning, we miss the opportunity to "give a taste" and develop a "third place."

O.K., this is all theory and interesting to think about. But how does it all work? How can I create a volunteer "good vibrations" that is "puppy dog" and "third place" so that they leave the event feeling good, but not satisfied?

Let me tell you a true story from The New Breed demonstrating how it works:

How does this all work? How do we use the three tools?

When our son Jonathan (co-author of The New Breed) worked for a campus outreach organization, he ran weekly events and activities on school campuses. He always needed volunteers who would spend five hours a week mentoring students. He quickly learned that immediately asking people to give up five hours a week made for a very brief conversation.

Eventually, he caught on and figured out how to take "baby steps." He started by asking people to help in small ways. He might ask them to work security at an event, to serve pizza, or to pour root beer into 250 plastic cups for root beer floats. The task involved a simple job where they felt needed, but where they also had enough time to get a good look at what was happening on that campus.

That's how he recruited Melissa. Melissa came out to help him with an event because he needed an extra chaperone for just one evening. He didn't even know her that well; a mutual friend introduced them. But in their first conversation, he learned that she used to help out with the youth group at her church. So when he needed help for this particular event, Jonathan called her up and confessed, "I'm kind of in a jam. More kids than I expected are attending this event. I really could use a helping hand just this once. Any chance I could twist your arm to come hang out with us next Wednesday? I know you know the routine."

She obliged. Volunteers like Melissa almost always did. After all, Jonathan didn't ask them for a huge commitment. He used this method to recruit nearly all his volunteers. By just asking them to help in a small way, he was asking them out on what Jonathan and I call a "first date"-a "give them a taste."

He always made time to talk to these volunteers and ask them for feedback. That's what he did with Melissa. Halfway through the night he walked over to her during the middle of an activity just to check in on her.

"Having fun?" Jonathan asked.

He always made sure that he asked this question during a particularly fun part of the evening. Melissa laughed and said she was "having a blast."

He told her how much he appreciated her coming to help out. She was surrounded by giggling kids at the moment, so he added, "The kids love you!"

The important thing is, he didn't "try to close the sale." It was tempting to ask her, "So, would you like to do this every week? Just sign here on line 10!" But he didn't. He took baby steps.

Throughout the evening, he sent a few kids over to talk with Melissa and thank her for helping out. By the end of the night, while he was packing up supplies, she sought him out and said, "I had a great time with these kids. They were great. Some of them talked with me and even thanked me for helping out."

"Really?" Jonathan said, with his best poker face. "That's great." He asked her some questions and answered a few of hers. He even told her a little of the history of a few kids still hanging around. She seemed captivated by their stories.

He never asked for help. He just told her stories. And guess what, Melissa became a regular. She had a taste and loved it. She saw that she could make a difference in mentoring kids. (Tom and Jonathan McKee, The New Breed, p.26)

What Jonathan did was use the three tools.

  • He gave Melissa a taste (the puppy dog).
  • He provided an off-line social network for a young single woman (a significant third place).
  • He used the volunteer experience as a means to an end, not the task as a means to an end (good vibrations).

Thomas W. McKee

Tom McKee Tom McKee is president and owner of www.volunteerpower.com a leadership development firm specializing in volunteerism. He has over 40 years of experience in volunteer leadership. Tom began his speaking career to one of the most difficult audiences-high school assemblies. Since those days he has addressed over 1 million people spanning three continents-Africa, Europe and the U.S. Over the past 40 years he has trained over 100,000 leaders how to manage the chaos of change in an organization.

The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer Tom and his son Jonathan are authors of the book, The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer (Group Publishing). The New Breed details the new cultural shift in volunteer management and also includes valuable, applicable resources for leaders, including job descriptions, icebreakers, team-builders and community-building activities, equipping leaders to move forward with confidence and empower valuable volunteers.

About The New Breed:
The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer by Jonathan McKee and Thomas W. McKee. Group Publishing. Paperback, 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0764435645. The book can be ordered at www.volunteerpower.com.