What to Say, What to Send: Communicating with Volunteers about Reopening and More
Recently, conversations among volunteer engagement leaders has shifted. No longer is dialogue focused solely on how to respond to the pandemic and its related restrictions, rather it has shifted to thoughts and plans for reopening. What can and should we share? What if we don't have answers?
Last month, I wrote about proactive communications with volunteers during the pandemic and the importance of emphasizing transparency, versatility, humanity, and strategy. While all of that still applies, in recent weeks, the focus of conversations among nonprofit and volunteer engagement leaders has shifted. No longer is dialogue focused solely on how to respond to the pandemic and its related restrictions, rather it has shifted to thoughts and plans for reopening.
Reopening means different things to different organizations, but, for all, reopening carries even more uncertainties than did closures or temporary discontinuation of selected services. Questions I’ve heard from clients and colleagues include:
- “If we move all our postponed spring fundraising events to the fall, how can we fit everything into the calendar and into our workload – and can we ask volunteers to support all those events?”
- “What if some volunteers want to return and are able to do so, but others are unable to commit due to health concerns or lack of information about their own work or local school plans for the fall?”
- “How can I keep our museum’s volunteers safe when many of the rooms in our historic house are so small you can’t really stand 6 feet away from visitors?”
The list goes on. The reality is that you likely will not have all the answers immediately, and, if you do, I can guarantee new questions will arise as the weeks and months unfold. However, that should not stop you from communicating with volunteers – because the one thing I can guarantee is that volunteers are asking those same questions! As your organization makes decisions about what “reopening” means to you (how buildings might reopen if you had onsite locations that had closed, which services to reinstate, which to sustain, which to modify, and more), keeping volunteers up to date on these decisions is important to sustaining their relationship with your organization – and with your mission.
As you develop your messages, we recommend you consider these four pieces of advice from West End Strategy Team, who recently presented a webinar on crisis communications for leaders of dozens of summer camps faced with making decisions about holding, cancelling, or adapting this summer’s planned camps. Here is how we recommend applying their advice to volunteer engagement:
Know your audience.
Identifying your audiences will help you craft the right messages with the right information for each audience – not to mention, the audiences will inform your communication methods (e.g., emails, videos, social media posts, etc.)
- Who is your audience? More accurately, who are your audiences? Your audiences likely include volunteers (active and those on hiatus), companies/businesses/community organizations that send volunteer groups, volunteer centers that refer volunteers to your organization, staff, program participants, funders, and others.
- What decisions and information does each audience need to know about the organization, its operations, and whether or how volunteers will be engaged?
Anticipating the likely questions will ensure you are prepared for the follow up, perhaps through having developed an FAQ sheet, follow up emails, or a resources page on your website where you can direct people.
- What questions do expect your audiences to ask upon receiving updates on your programs and services?
- Can I volunteer? How? How can I do so safely?
- What are my options if I want to continue to support the organization but from a distance?
- If I take time off, how can I stay connected? How will this affect my tenure and my recognition levels?
- Can I still take trainings even if I am on hiatus?
Acknowledge the unknown.
It is okay to acknowledge that there is much still to be figured out and that you do not have all the answers. In this unique situation, if you wait to have all the answers, you will have waited too long to communicate with volunteers and may have lost their trust and their support.
Communicate your values.
Shape your message according to the values that drive your volunteer engagement strategy. Stay true to those values that have served you to date.
Ultimately, communicating with volunteers during the coming weeks and months is an important part of nurturing your relationship with them and their relationship with your mission. Leverage communications to nurture their trust in your organization, in your leadership’s decision-making process, and in their role in your future. As Ari Geller, Chief Operating Officer of West End Strategy Team, shared the sentiment he learned from his mentor, Helio Fred Garcia, “Trust is built by making good on lots of little promises.” With each communication, you have the opportunity to make good on promises you have made to the volunteer community – namely, that they are valued and that their time and skills are vital to your mission-critical work.
Make good on those promises by sharing your decision-making processes and providing them with honest and timely updates so they can make informed choices about how they can continue to support your mission in the coming days, weeks, and years.