Get Back to the Basics: 4 Good Volunteer Recruitment & Retention Ideas

When it comes to volunteer recruitment and retention, you’re probably asking yourself, “what else do I have to do?” Before you throw in the towel on your struggling program, consider the following four ideas that are designed to get your volunteers back to the basics.

Volunteers are an integral part of the fire and EMS service. Individuals coming together to serve the mission of protecting and educating the community is what volunteer service is all about.

As I meet and speak with different organizations, the question is, “What’s the new way of recruiting volunteers?” or “I didn’t realize how recruiting volunteers could be so challenging?” I enjoy creating innovative concepts, ideas, and strategies, but honestly, most, if not all, will not work if you overlook some of the basic rules and ideals of recruiting.

Here are some things to think about that may help departments get back to the basics of recruiting and retaining their volunteers.

We Need You! Pretty Please.

Call-to-actions are great ways to let people know you are looking for volunteers to join your department. However, potential volunteers might be apprehensive about the level of commitment required to join your department. After all, they have a lot going on in their lives already. Departments don’t realize that one way to scare them away prematurely from volunteering is to let them know how desperate your organization is for their time and resources.

Think about those “Going out of business” ads you see while driving around town. My colleague, and recruiter Jedi, Tiger Schmittendorf, often says, “What we’re essentially saying here is: “We’re going down. Jump on board!” To drive the point home, I stretch out my arms and tilt my head back, alas Leonardo DiCaprio in the Titanic while humming “My Heart Will Go On.”

Most volunteer organizations assume people in the community understand the department’s needs and how they can help. The reality is that the average person or family involved in the community is not as in the loop as we might think. A way around that is to over-communicate using different platforms such as social media, websites, and community emails. Frequently let them know all of the opportunities of being a volunteer firefighter, EMT, and first responder. Be sure your call-to-actions and recruitment messages are focused on the want for volunteers and how they can get involved, making it clear how they can make an impact by volunteering and contributing to the community.

Hello? Bueller? Bueller?

One of the fastest ways to create an environment where people can be turned off from joining your organization is to never respond to their inquiries on these platforms. The wrong approach is to think people who want to get involved will come to the station in person or call us if we don’t answer their email. Having this mindset, you can be sure potential volunteers will feel their service is not needed or unwanted as they let their contact attempts stack up in your inbox.

There are countless tools developed to help us organize and connect volunteers. The key is to take advantage of these tools and actively follow up on “leads” that come into them. As a recruiter, You must view every person who contacts you as a valuable asset who wants to join your team; when someone takes the time to fill out a form and show interest in something these days, they must be serious about it! So, the website, the table set up in the cafeteria, or the email signup form should spell out what will happen next to include who to follow up with later in the process.

No Burn Out

If someone has committed to volunteering, we shouldn’t worry about how much time they’re volunteering, should we? It’s okay to expect them to staff more than their required shifts, additional station duties, out-of-station training, subcommittee meetings, and membership meetings. Right? Wrong!

Often, departments can create a bad experience for new volunteers who work with current members experiencing burnout or overloaded with volunteer tasks outside their operational duties. Be sure you routinely check in with current members to see how they manage their additional responsibilities and tasks before reaching their breaking point. Create an environment where all your volunteers are valued and feel very important.

Station Fatigue

I frequently hear how fun firehouses used to be and how volunteers would gather at the station to hang out even if they weren’t staffing. Since the pandemic, it has become harder to make the station a fun place to be all the time. As pandemic rules continue to lift, think about having a monthly or quarterly “volunteer night” where you provide dinner, fun activities, or team-building activities your members can enjoy. Do something that has nothing to do with the fire service or training. I’m sure you will gain additional bonus points if you have it in another venue other than the fire station.

Whatever you do, if you remember to show sincere appreciation to your volunteers, you will be in an excellent position to keep the volunteers you have and recruit new members.


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