How to get more volunteers in your small town

Volunteers and nonprofits: I’m not sure a small town could even exist without them. A couple of you recently brought up the role of volunteering and nonprofits, and that got me thinking about the common problem, “we can’t find any volunteers!”

See, small businesses play a role in supporting nonprofit organizations, and nonprofits are important to small towns. We’ve all seen those small town business owners who are reluctant to volunteer themselves and are even reluctant to support their employees in volunteering. 

Really though, that small business owner, and every small business owner, has a ton of things in common with those nonprofits. We’re all working on the same management, people, financial, and regulatory issues. We face the same problems. Nonprofits generate economic impact very much like businesses do.

Our local economy won’t prosper by accident; we have to cooperate to make it happen. There are no challenges that we can solve without working together. 

So, we need each other. But how do we get together?

How do we get more volunteer participation? 

After thinking about this question since about 1990, I have a few thoughts. You have to start with changing you, because you can’t change them. There is no magic way to make them volunteer more. The big secret is there is no them; there’s only us. And we’re all in this together.

The implication: You have to spend much more time thinking and working from outside your own perspective.

Your project is not the center of their world. 

You care a lot about your project or your non-profit. Well, guess what? Your successful small business owners do not care. They care about their business. From their point of view, that is how they got to be successful in the first place. 

I remember talking to a chamber of commerce leader. She was working on an event that she had come up with. It looked to me like it would be a wonderful thing for the community and for the businesses if they could do it together. She told me that she had walked into downtown businesses, handed them the event flyer and immediately asked how they wanted to participate. That seems reasonable, right? I mean, it’s going to help those businesses, so they should be all over it, right? Well, it hadn’t worked out like that. That was why she was telling me about it!

I suggested that the business owners might react better to someone who came in, learned about the people and their businesses. Only then would it be time to talk about events. More importantly, it would be time to listen to the kind of events that would work for them, and work together to create something even better for both the nonprofit and the business. 

Your current volunteer opportunities don’t fit. 

Throw away all your traditional volunteer roles, and make something new. Today, younger volunteers want short-term, not all-year. They want action-oriented, not meeting-oriented. They want to connect and communicate entirely online, not by paper and phone calls. I’m not really that young, and that’s what I want, too! 

You have to let go of control. 

I hear this over and over from younger people in small towns. They want to help somehow, but they run into existing volunteers who won’t let them help. The people currently in charge say they want help, but they won’t let go and trust the new young volunteers.

I know the young people might fail. They will make mistakes. They might even quit half-way through. But that is OK. They have to do that in order to learn. And if we’re honest, we learned by making mistakes, too. 

Talk less about you and more about them. 

Every communication that leaves your lips, your keyboard, your printer or your pen, should be about them. Answer their questions. Be a social media mirror. Share your community’s own photos and stories. Let them speak in their own words, their own voice, when possible. (Read more about “Be a social media mirror” here.)

What do you think? Am I way off base here? Hit reply and share your ways of getting nonprofits and small businesses working together. I’ll share your comments back with the community, unless of course you ask me not to. 

You can invite others into this discussion by tweeting:
Need more volunteers in your small town? Talk less about you and more about them.

Thank you,


PS – I was doing some work on this email list, and I noticed you’ve been a subscriber for quite a while! I wanted to say thanks. I appreciate your time.