An easy ask: Including advocacy in volunteer orientations

Boys Telling Secrets
Just ask–and pass it on!

As part of my consulting work, helping nonprofit social service organizations integrate advocacy into their operations, I am working with some agencies in 2013 that have HUGE volunteer operations.

As in ‘the equivalent of an 86-person full-time workforce, year-round’ volunteer operations.

It’s an awesome thing.

Kids are having their birthday parties packing food for pantries and shelters. Older adults are spending their time reading in classrooms to children in poverty. Families have a tradition of hosting birthday parties for children in foster care.

These organizations have figured out that, while working with volunteers is never easy, it brings huge dividends, not just in terms of any actual labor completed, but also in creating ambassadors, of sorts, for the organizations and their causes. When people come and have a meaningful and invigorating experience at the organization, they are much more likely to donate their money, encourage others to help, and champion the organization.

Which is exactly why we’re totally missing a golden opportunity when we don’t invite our volunteers to advocate alongside us.

I had the benefit of having volunteered in some of these organizations before starting the advocacy technical assistance process, so I knew that, at least in my case, I was never provided with information about the organizations’ advocacy priorities, the targets who needed to hear from us, or how writing a letter or making a phone call could be just as valuable–if not more so–than sorting through school supplies to fill a backpack.

My early assessment and planning work with the organizations confirmed this. For the most part, nonprofit social services don’t do a great job of asking one of their most dedicated constituencies–their regular volunteers–to join them in advocacy.

So that is one of the first pieces I’m working on with these organizations. We’re doing things like:

  • Including a write-up of the advocacy agenda in all volunteer orientations
  • Integrating root cause discussions, even briefly, in volunteer training and debriefing sessions (this can be as simple as, “Why do you think people are hungry in the United States? What kinds of policies would need to change to make it better?” as a starting point)
  • Weaving advocacy asks into the “How You Can Help” sections on organizations’ websites, where they offer volunteer opportunities
  • Providing letter-writing materials to groups of volunteers, as a continuation of their service
  • Signing volunteers up for agency newsletters, and including advocacy information and calls to action
  • Crafting job descriptions for more extensive advocacy roles (everything from 3 hours/month to 20 hours/week–students need internships!)

This isn’t just about roping another group of stakeholders into advocacy (although, of course, I’ve got nothing against that). It’s also about showing volunteers that we value them, completely, which is the same reason why we need to be inviting our donors to advocate, too. It’s about helping people to make sense of the need with which they are confronted, and providing them with the tools they will need to keep from feeling accusatory or hopeless or myopic.

It’s about creating a stronger, more accurate, more whole volunteer experience…while changing the conversation around the issues, too, by including these voices policymakers wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear from.

What experiences do others have in crafting advocacy ‘asks’ for volunteers? What works, and what doesn’t? Does anyone have any stories to share?

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