Baird Straughan, 7 Feb 2022

We started WaterGrass to help organizations manage growing volunteer programs with limited staff, and the Milwaukee Riverkeeper has achieved that in spades.  Along the way, they illustrate some basic principles of large-scale volunteer programs, and illuminate a new challenge for us.

In our webinar How One Organizer Led 218 Events with 2780 Participants in a COVID Year*, Allie Mendez described the Milwaukee River’s Adopt-A-River program, how it has grown and how MRK automated it through the WaterGrass database.

Some features that made this program a success are:

  • The software automated every step.  As the programmer, I thought that some of MRK’s requests were over the top.  Surely any volunteer organizer with just a little database knowledge could handle some of the procedures manually.  But the results is that Allie doesn’t have to think about the database at the same time she’s managing people.  The bigger the program, the more important ease of use becomes.
  • The program intentionally filters for people who are likely to succeed.  It selects for volunteer leaders who are comfortable with automation.  As Allie said, “We primarily communicate with email, so we know that if people can’t keep up with [the emails in our signup process], then they probably aren’t a good fit for the program.”
  • Allie also introduced a change to the registration process to allow prospective site leaders to take time before they committed to the program.  “Before the pandemic we had in-person orientation,” Allie said, “and people would sign the Adopter Contract forms the day of and we would get them into our system right away.  But turning it virtual has actually helped us retain our volunteers better because we give them a chance to think about it [before they commit].  This is essentially round two of our weeding out.  With training being virtual now, people need to make sure that they fill out those forms and return them on their own time.  This cuts down on our work by making sure that people are really interested and committed.”
  • Because the process is uniform, Milwaukee Riverkeepeer can measure results, make adjustments and learn. Otherwise, for example, they wouldn’t be sure that their volunteer retention had really improved.

The challenge is that automated processes sacrifice personal contact with the participants.  This can have a real impact  on the program, because it’s harder for the organizer to get to know those up-and-coming leaders who will be the next generation of cleanup site captains.  Without food and camaraderie, it’s hard to create a bond.  And while this process is very efficient, there are a lot of people that it misses because they aren’t comfortable online.  Those are challenges for the next iteration.

How would YOU approach this challenge? (Please add your comments below.)

In theory, CRMS systems like Salesforce (upon which WaterGrass is built) help build relationships because you can automatically tailor your marketing to each person. Generally, that means sending a pre-written series of messages via different channels (email, text, Twitter, etc.) automatically, with certain logic branches depending upon the recipient’s response.

But that’s not quite building a relationship. Eventually the recipient realizes they’re getting automated responses that lead to a pre-defined conclusion, rather than a personal give-and-take.

Here are my ideas. I can envision using a couple automatic message “paths” to test whether volunteers want to become the kind of leaders you need. If they answer “Yes,” then they’re probably expecting a response from a human. I’d suggest a phone call within a day or two to discuss whether they’re a good fit for the program.

That takes time, which means you need to employ Allie’s principle of filtering potential leaders down to a manageable number. Your pre-written messages need to appeal narrowly (or broadly) enough to attract the right number of candidates. And it means focussing only on volunteer programs you’ve decided to invest in, because otherwise you won’t have time to develop the potential leaders who respond.

What are your ideas about blending automation and personal outreach to volunteers?

* Allie updated the numbers for the title.