When a volunteer connects, it’s the best feeling, right? We, volunteer managers love the whole ethereal, elusive, empathetic realm, don’t we? (I can hear meditation music’s lilting strains right now, ahhhhhhhhhhh)

Wait. I’ve always tried to explain these intangible moments to others. I’ve told stories, dimmed the lights, set the mood, lit candles (yeah, that didn’t go over well, you know, fire code and all) and painted pictures. My audience felt warm and fuzzy. But you know what was missing? No, not wine, I tried that too. Hard data was missing.

Data is like looking at a night sky. It’s vast and complicated. It’s hard to see patterns and even harder to track. But think about every tech giant out there and how they wrangle data to their benefit. (which is why I keep getting those ads for “look 10 years younger.”) Mining data is hugely important because it shows correlation.

We, leaders of volunteers exist in a data-starved realm. We typically record volunteer hours, and volunteer numbers. We tell stories. We offer examples. Thankfully most us us are moving into recording volunteer impact. But, there is so much more we can utilize to our benefit.

Data speaks

Loudly. Successfully. At a change-making volume. Every minute, data scientists are mining our data to find patterns and formulate paths to harness that data for benefit. (I know, cause I just clicked on “miracle cream guaranteed to erase years.” Woah, only $115?)

We, leaders of volunteers need to use both the logical and emotional sides of our brain and harness data to successfully advocate for the changes that will further our goals. Let’s look at advocacy language. What argument do you think holds more weight?

Advocacy language

“The volunteers I talk to want more flexible ways to volunteers. They will stay longer if we offer them more flexibility.” (mood music and lit candles probably won’t help get the point across)

“Over 95% of our volunteers stated that flexibility is the number one challenge they face as volunteers and 92% fear that lack of flexibility will force them to resign.”

Stats and percents are not mathematically difficult to capture. Figuring out what stats to capture is what makes this difficult and finding the patterns to explore is what makes this challenging. (but since when do volunteer managers shrink away from challenges?)

Begin by checking your gut. (not for digestive reasons-there’s products for that-trust me, I get the ads for those). What nagging issue does your gut instinct rumble about? That volunteers want flexibility? That volunteers don’t feel properly integrated? That volunteers want more meaningful roles?

Formulate questions on the subject. Be careful not to “lead” volunteers into saying what you want them to say, but rather, explore their opinions.

Examples of leading questions:

  • Should we get rid of our cumbersome, time-consuming background checks?
  • Should valuable volunteer time be spent on reporting hours?
  • What do you like best about your hard-working volunteer manager? (um, I like this question, but yeah, it’s leading)
  • How unhappy are you with our volunteer appreciation luncheon?

I’ve been surprised many times by volunteer opinions after I’ve asked open questions and they helped me readjust my thinking to more accurately reflect volunteer needs.

But avoid just looking for the negative. Both negative and positive results are helpful statistics when you see patterns. For example:

  • 80% of new volunteers stated that orientation helped them integrate. (I can champion orientation based on this)
  • 97% of new volunteers felt having a volunteer mentor made their integration smoother. (I can push for more volunteer mentoring and show correlation between successful volunteering and time spent up-front developing volunteers)
  • 42% of volunteers want online orientation only. (This is a split-needs more exploring)

Surveys aren’t the only source of data: Participation patterns

Analyzing recruitment strategies, messaging, successes of additional training all can be done by seeing the patterns in participation. For example:

  • only 13% of new volunteers this month saw that ad in the local newspaper
  • 81% of new volunteers this month scanned the volunteer information on our website (so advocating for more input into the website is warranted here)
  • 37% of volunteers attended an in-person meeting this year
  • 61% of volunteers attended a virtual meeting (so combining virtual with in-person may be the way to go)

We ask our volunteers’ opinions all the time, because we want to make sure they are engaged. And honestly, our volunteers give us their opinions all the time through their participation. It’s time we analyzed opinions and participation and used the patterns to support our advocating for real change.

Successfully advocating for your volunteer initiative means ditching broad sentiments like “we have to treat volunteers better.” Instead, hone in on specifics that are backed by hard data you’ve gathered and analyzed. Look for patterns in opinions and participation.

Connect the dots: For example, 20% of volunteers say the volunteer luncheon makes them want to volunteer more, but 80% of volunteers say additional training makes them want to volunteer more. Spending $750 on the luncheon and only $100 on training makes no sense.

We have a logical and emotional side and both are essential to a vibrant volunteer program.

So, once you convince them with stats, then hook them with the mood music and candles.