Finding Volunteers: The Most Formidable Obstacle on Course

Katherine Rosback is president of a consulting firm that specializes in group facilitation and decision-making techniques. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and an M.A. in Organizational Communication and continues her study on how cognitive biases and social influences impact group and individual decision-making. She began her amateur eventing career in 1992 and has volunteered and helped recruit volunteers for both the Indiana Eventing Association and the Indiana Dressage Society over the past two decades.

The famous “Girls in Pearls” volunteer crew at Richland Park. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Finding volunteers — the challenge of most every not-for-profit organization and most definitely the challenge at our equine competitions. My professional work focuses on communication and framing of organizational messages, and I have a bit of experience in shaping the message for volunteer organizations. I also have volunteered myself, so it is with great personal and academic interest when I read the various posts intending to secure volunteers for equine events.

My most favorite post is “This sport cannot exist without volunteers!” This common post is interesting for several reasons. Most notably is that it elicits, for the no-longer-participating or not-of-this-sport, a response of “then why should I care?” With that message, you are telling me what is important to the organization, but volunteer organizations thrive by connecting with what is important to the volunteers.

A bit of history can help. Back in 1978, after Ralph Hill and others lit up our excitement after the World Championships and the new cross country course at the Kentucky Horse Park, there was no shortage of volunteers. Why? This was new. This didn’t exist and many wanted to be a part of this sport that was blossoming in the U.S.

People organized and created venues or donated private property and untold hours to make this sport a reality. One needs only to look to the incredible volunteer efforts of those who turned an ex-WWII training and POW camp in Indianapolis into a venue for the 1987 Pan American Equestrian Games. These volunteers wanted to be a part of something, to create something that did not exist.

As we look back on the 30th anniversary of that event, it should not be taken for granted the unbelievable hurdles that those dedicated volunteers overcame to create a venue that, according to individual gold medalist Mike Huber, took the “flat land of Indiana” and made it into a premier show facility.

But the efforts did not stop there. Private land owners dedicated their property and funds to create local venues that could host the sport. Being from Area VIII, I know well that eventers enjoy such venues as Flying Cross Farms, Richland Park and, until of late, Hunter’s Run — all private properties created or donated by those who loved the sport.

Unfortunately, is the story of Hunter’s Run an example of what is to come? The Millennial and Gen X eventers, to their fortune and/or misfortune, find themselves in a situation that is quite different from those who eventing merely two decades before.

The people who envisioned and sacrificed and donated and volunteered are acknowledging it is time to move on or perhaps they are aging and their children no longer wish to keep those family lands. Those older folks who were ready to insert fingers into the slobbery mouths of horses in a downpour, because such an act represented a vision accomplished, are likely no longer in your pool of potential volunteers. Does this mean that all is lost?

No, but it’s time to change your message. A volunteer organizer once challenged me with the following words: “If you are living in a desert, then tell me you have a volunteer problem. When you live in a city of over 1 million people, what you have is a motivational problem.”

Translation? To exclaim that “our sport doesn’t exist without the help of volunteers!” likely fails to motivate those not directly involved in eventing, and certainly not those who have given of their time for the past two decades. While your cry certainly conveys the real needs of your organization, it fails to connect with the values of those not directly involved with the sport.

But what about the those on the periphery of eventing? In this current time, how will you draw people to volunteer of their time in a world that has much more limited time and eventing venues are plentiful and established? Here are a few ideas.

“Can you help?”

The number one reason people don’t volunteer is because “no one asked.” Online sign-up forms are convenient, and for today’s world of texting and social media, it avoids that ever-so-painful “no” response.

However, the reason why people volunteer is that they were asked to volunteer. Asking is a very powerful tool. It results in all sorts of cool neurological responses that create solid and sustainable societies, and suffice to say, it works.

Now, events like Rolex don’t need to do something like this, as they can play upon a motivational bias called the “affiliation bias.” Essentially, people like to be associated with the big event so finding a dressage ring steward or jump judge for Rolex or Badminton is not as difficult. (“Yes. I ran Michael Jung’s dressage test to the scorer at Rolex. How cool is that?”) But we are all not Rolex, so ask.

“What is in it for me?

Can you answer this question? If not, why should your volunteer-to-be? Tracey Mealing, a volunteer coordinator for the healthcare charity Sue Ryder Care, said, “Volunteering itself is changing. Charities need to identify the reasons why people volunteer and recognize that it needs to be more mutually beneficial. At the moment we’re not being flexible or engaging enough, or identifying suitably interesting roles for volunteers.”

Message for eventing? Don’t list that “we need scorers.” What the heck does a scorer do? Rather, ask for someone who is really good with numbers and has an obsession with details. Talk in the language of your volunteers, not the position that you wish to fill.

“Bring your friends!”

People are much more likely to participate in a group if they know someone who participates already. This is called the “affiliation bias” in the decision sciences. It is an incredibly important bias and influences decisions that you make every day.

Everyone can likely recall an ad or commercial that states 80% of all households, grandparents, mothers, equine enthusiasts, input-your-group-here use a product. That’s the affiliation bias! You can use this to your advantage by asking existing members to issue personal invitations to people they know.

“Do you see yourself as one who might volunteer?”

Most organizations wait way too long before they begin to recruit volunteers, thus ignoring the power of a psychological leveraging tool called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance shares that people like to be consistent with what they have previously said or done.

So, if three months prior to your event (like at the annual banquet) you ask, “How many of you believe that volunteering at our events is critical to the sustainability of our sport?” chances are that more of those folks who were in the crowd will sign up.

Likewise, don’t let volunteer surveys sit around for weeks before you respond, even to people who expressed interest in an event that is months away. People are much more likely to follow through later if you make a connection now. Also, this is an opening to ask for more involvement: “I know you said you’d help with the fall awards, but could you also spare two hours to help check in horses at our spring show?”

“So how about a family outing?”

Another cool idea is the idea of “family volunteering,” another new growth market. As busy people search for ways to do more in less time, combining time with one’s family and community work translates into “family volunteering.” The alert volunteer-based organization will see the value in creating volunteer positions that can be done by family teams.

“Thank you for your help today.”

Your last communication with your volunteers is the first thing that they will remember when you ask for them to help next year. It’s called reciprocity. They have given you the gift of their time: what do they get in return?

Reciprocity is hardwired into our social schema and it’s important to remember that it is not the size of the acknowledgment but the fact that you acknowledged their effort. You are asking these people for the gift of their time. They deserve the courtesy of the five minutes it takes to give a “thank you.” (Think of how much time you spend to find volunteers during your next event?)

I know of one volunteer coordinator who carries around Subway and Starbucks gift cards at the end of day, handing them out to those who have volunteered. “It cost me personally $100 or so, but saves me triple that amount in terms of my time when I go to ask for their help next year.”

Our old volunteer newsletter would highlight pictures of the volunteers, in addition to the competitors, and make sure all volunteers got a complimentary copy. The point is, they have given you a gift: courtesy suggests you recognize that effort.

Sign-up wizards and Facebook blasts might offer the promise of a way to ease the work of recruiting volunteers, but, as we eventers have learned, skirting the issue and going the easy route usually results in rails down or a fence refused.

Knowing your horse is reflected in ribbons won; knowing your volunteers is reflected in an event well-run.

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