What other readers do to get volunteers

I asked you how you get volunteers. It’s probably one of the most pressing questions for small towns: finding the people who do the things that keep the town going, when they won’t be getting paid. You came through. You gave me all sorts of ideas, and we’re going to go over those for the next couple of weeks.

First up, the good and the bad in finding volunteers, straight from your fellow readers.

Volunteers, we can’t find them.

For years many rural Emergency Medical Services have depended on volunteers for staffing. That is changing all across the country as few people are willing to make the commitment to training and the hours needed. This is forcing rural communities to deal with staffing shortages or going to a paid service.

At a time when budgets everywhere are tight the last thing a community wants to do is increase their budgets to go from a volunteer service to paid. Paying employees often doesn’t solve the problem because it is difficult to find people willing to work a dangerous job for pay that is often just above minimum wage.

Cort Anderson

Hi Becky,
My wife and I have been  community volunteers for almost 40 years, in fact my wife was named Citizen of the Year in 2010 by the Georgetown Lions Club. We are finding that the same dedicated group of community volunteers are doing most of the “heavy lifting” and while there are many good ideas many of the younger people in the community have not been exposed to working with other volunteers and don’t have the skills or confidence to take ideas and bring them to a conclusion.
I would be interested in future issues of Small Biz Survival if you could feature some of the ideas you may get back from people about this problem.

Doug Penrice


I LOVE your emails and while I’m not starting a business in town (yet) I am striving to make our community more business friendly.

Right now I am working with a group of ladies to turn a 104 year old church into a community library.  While we do not have the support of the elected officials, we do have the support of the community and that is what counts.

In August we (this same group of ladies) will be hosting our first Big Bennington Brainstorm event where we are inviting the whole community and surrounding areas to come and brainstorm ideas they have for business and how to make their community a better place to live.

We hope to get a great turn out and if so, next year we will take it county wide and call it BOB, Big Ottawa Brainstorm :-D

Hope this helps.

Keep those emails coming!

Bennington, KS (pop 653)

If you ask a millennial to volunteer, and you make them stand around for 30 minutes waiting for something to do, they will not come back.

Linda Barnett, Oklahoma Main Street
I heard Linda say this at the Small Towns Conference.

I had a lady come into my office In January and say she wanted to do something to honor the 90 year and overs in our town  I agreed it was a great idea.  I asked her to chair the committee and she said yes.  I got an email in March from her telling me she would be back from AZ (or FL?) soon and they were working on it.  In May she stopped in to tell me they had set a date, they were having a brunch and they had it under control.  She had partnered with RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer People), the local nursing homes and the newspaper.  Brunch is the 24th!

My best story yet — I got asked if it was a good idea, I agreed it was, and they ran with it!  You just never know who’s going to show up with a great idea and implement it – until you start encouraging people to be the change they want to see.


Deb Brown
Webster City, Iowa

To get volunteers, I read that today’s volunteers are too busy to come to meetings so I call and ask. Give them the details of the task and get their cell phone and update them and remind them of their commitments. It has worked well and I go to every meeting I can make and ask for them to do a small part of the event. We are working together as a community and getting new volunteers all the time!

How do we get more volunteers in Arthur, IL?  As happens in every community we never have enough volunteers and are always looking for more.  When “looking for volunteers” we simply try to keep it very low key and simple.  Very few people want to “be in charge” of an event or activity.  We have found there are many local people who are willing to do something “smaller” rather than “larger” in an event.  We talk with people all the time and find their “buttons” and passions.  We then strive to match those attributes with the needs of an event/activity.  Sometimes the “smaller” things have developed into larger ones and we have a strong, long-term volunteer.  That approach and “thank you” seems to be the best “medicine” for what ails our events and activities.

In sincere appreciation,

Bob Doan, Community Development Coordinator
Arthur Area Economic Development Corporation

I know this feeling all too well! One thing I have discovered is that there are a lot of people willing to volunteer if you just ask. Many people don’t know where help is needed, and if you find a project that people are passionate about, just put the word out and then ask people individually. Ask the unusual faces, the ones who may be looking for a cause but do not know where to turn. Anyway, wish I could write more, but I have too many projects and causes to lead!

I love your emails, and read them when I can. Thanks for sharing various perspectives!

Heather Griffith
Director of Economic Development
City of Fort Scott

As far as volunteers go and what we do different:
1. We try to lead by example and involve our friends, family, children, etc. in as much as possible. Everyone has a following and reach of their own, so once it’s started, others seem to jump on board.

2. We try to respect “how things used to be” by involving that generation in planning of new things. Even though we are changing things up, asking for their input and advice is really helpful (great ideas from wise people!), but also makes them more open to the changes that need to happen….call it bridging the generational gap :)

3. Our organization tries to focus on and involve the children- our future community leaders.

4. We try to “just jump in and do things” when there is a need. We’re less caught up in whose job it should be to do ______, and more focused on actually getting things done. I’ve also found that the way you word things makes a huge difference. For instance, the food pantry needs help unloading the Harvesters truck once a month, over a lunch hour. Instead of advertising it as a “volunteer opportunity”, I put is out as “Food Pantry needs our help”. Admitting you need it and asking for help typically promotes a better response :)

5. Last but not least, I’ve learned to not take negative comments about our town, events, etc. as personally. We even have a few of those on our board that are so caught up in how things used to be (the glory days), that they tend to gripe about everything we try to do, but very rarely are actively involved.  When this happens, I simply remind them that is offensive to the folks that were there, working, and trying to make our community better for them to come back after and try to tear it down or armchair quarterback something they were not even involved in….works every time ;) No griping unless you were actively involved and were there firsthand. Volunteers fizzle quickly without some much needed positive reinforcement!

Thanks for being a positive influence,
Shelagh Wright



I think part of the problem with finding volunteers is that the organization hasn’t changed with the times. People want to volunteer for organizations that have causes that touch their heart, that are actively doing good things in their community or that carry a certain cachet. Look at your organization and see why would someone want to volunteer for you? Don’t tell people what you need done, tell them how you make a difference. Then your organization becomes a movement that people can get behind, not just another volunteer opportunity.

It’s so much easier to say than do though. We’ve been actively working on telling our story. Cultivate a good relationship with the local paper. Set up social media pages. Video is a great tool, as you show, for telling your story.

I also find that people are more likely to volunteer for a specific task with an outlined time period than say, serve on a committee. We’ve also cut almost all our committees. The only ones left are for short term tasks, ad hoc. And a personal ask is always nice. When you get to know the people in your community, you know what their talents are. Then ask them to share their talents. But never assume that’s where they want to contribute. Maybe the local accountant doesn’t want to help with your budget, he’d really love to get out there and pull weeds. Ask where they see themselves contributing.

Thank them, publicly thank them, thank them in ways that honor them, thank them over and over again. We love our volunteers and we tell them that all the time. We want them to come back and volunteer again so we make sure that their experience was a positive one. We ask for feedback, and then follow through with it.

Sorry to write a book on this. I’m pretty passionate about volunteering. I work at the Chamber but I volunteer all over the place. I started the first neighborhood watch in our community, which led to 6 others starting. I helped start the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) which moved the playground equipment after the Elementary School moved, and raised funds to pay for fieldtrips after budget cuts. I find that people will get behind a project that they are passionate about but first you have to tell your story, share your passion.

Elaina Turpin
Slayton Sublimity Chamber of Commerce


So, did you get an idea or two out of that? Something useful? I think I did!

Next week, we have a different approach. You don’t need (or can’t get) more volunteers, so work on your priorities. I can’t wait to share it!

Keep making your small town better,

PS – Can you believe it was a year ago that I told you about the Tour of Empty Buildings? Deb Brown gave an update of what has changed since then.