4 Ways to Use the Social Proof in Volunteer Recruitment

by Tobi Johnson, MA, CVA

When it comes to volunteer recruitment for your nonprofit, understanding human nature and psychology is key. Why? Because our brains determine everything we do. By better understanding what triggers humans to act, nonprofit staff can become better influencers and, ultimately, better marketers.
One of the most powerful and enduring psychological phenomenon is that of social proof. Over the millennia, our species has survived because of our ability to mold our behavior to that of our clan, or risk banishment and extinction. So, we have learned subconsciously that social conformity is linked to our very survival.

Volunteer RecruitmentThe power of the tribe is undeniable, even today. Peer pressure does not just affect teenagers. All of us are hard-wired to pay attention to what others say and do.

Consider Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment. In 1969, he asked groups of actors to stop in a busy New York City street and stare up at a building window. As the number of actors increased, so did the number of passers-by who copied their behavior. This simple experiment demonstrated how the actions of even strangers could influence our own.

Social proof can also be harnessed for social good. It can help nudge community members interested in supporting causes like yours take the next step toward volunteering. Using social proof can help improve the effectiveness of your volunteer recruitment by subconsciously reassuring prospective supporters that volunteering is the “right thing to do.”

Today’s customers (and nonprofit supporters) can get a significant amount of info about your organization before they ever make a donation or reach out to volunteer. Consider the power of social proof in consumer behavior:

  • 92% of Americans now consult online product reviews before making a purchase (up from 88% in 2014).
  • 63% of consumers are more likely to purchase from a site if it has user reviews.

4 Ways to Use Social Proof for Volunteer Recruitment

By showcasing how other community members are supporting your organization through volunteerism, you send subtle messages to others about your “tribe’s” behavior. Here are four ways to highlight the social norm of volunteering for your cause.

  1. Volunteer Testimonials – Create a “why we give our time & talent” or “what it’s like to volunteer” message wall in your lobby or on your website with words and pictures form actual volunteers.
  1. Progress Bars (with People) – Display a classic thermometer or countdown, based on your volunteer recruitment goals and update it regularly to show progress and community support.
  1. Volunteer & Client Success Stories – Share the personal trials and tribulations of volunteers and those they support (wither they be direct service clients or paid staff members). These are even more persuasive when teams tell an emotional story of triumph together on video.
  1. Reference Volunteers’ “Pro-Social” Behavior – Reinforce the norms you are striving for by sharing messages that reflect your specific expectations (while being truthful, of course). For example, “95% of people who request a volunteer application complete it and turn it in within one week” or “the average volunteer donated 6 hours last month, helping us reach our goal of serving 45 youth” or “87% of volunteers log their volunteer hours on time each month.”

In addition, social cues are even more powerful when they are demonstrated through photos. A picture is truly worth a thousand words, and photos will increase the perceived truthfulness of your testimonials. So whenever possible, include actual photos of your volunteer fans.

Beware of Negative Social Proof in Volunteer Recruitment

Similarly, negative social proof, or promoting what people aren’t doing, can be equally powerful but will work against you. So, avoid desperate pleas for help, highlighting the fact that not enough people are volunteering. This only casts doubt, subconscious and otherwise, that your cause is worthy of support. So, always highlight positive behavior in your appeals.

If you use volunteers, you no doubt invest a lot of time and effort in volunteer recruitment activities. Be sure to make them eve more effective by working with human nature not against it. Highlighting social proof is the #1 best way to tap into our inner instincts and nudge people toward your opportunities to make a difference.

Want to Learn More About Volunteer Recruitment?

Check out our upcoming 90-minute live webinar How to Find & Recruit Your Volunteer Dream Team – a Step-By-Step Guide on January 19th (3pm EST) or January 24th (1pm EST). We will share a simple process for recruiting your dream volunteers in ten steps and bonus materials that help translate learning to action.

About The Author

Tobi Johnson is President of Tobi Johnson & Associates, a consulting firm whose mission is to help nonprofit organizations strengthen their volunteer engagement strategy. In 2015, Tobi launched VolunteerPro, an online learning and networking community for leaders of volunteers. Tobi is also the author of Chapter 1 of the anthology Volunteer Engagement 2.0: Ideas and Insights for Transforming Volunteer Programs in a Changing World.

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