How to Recruit and Retain Members
All groups have struggled with recruiting and retaining members. The ability to recruit new members and retain existing ones is an essential skill for your group. The larger the group, the more resources and capacity you have to create strong programming and reach a wider audience. Recruitment and retention should never be separate from everything else your group does; there should a be a recruiting element in every program or meeting you organize.
Developing a TOTAL recruitment and retention plan
Bringing new members into your group involves developing a well thought-out plan that goes beyond just getting people to come to a meeting or event. It includes integrating them into the group and keeping them involved. Your plan should be TOTAL. It should include:
- One-on-One Contact
Decide who you want and need to recruit. Identify who is likely to join your group and who is missing that you would like to attract. Try to be as specific as possible. Does your group include young and old members? Do you involve people of different religious backgrounds and income levels? Are you being intentional about creating an inclusive group? Once you have defined your target audience, set specific goals in terms of how many new people you want to involve, and brainstorm strategies that might reach those groups of people and make your group more inviting to them.
Some examples of Target Audiences
- Young people: Table at concerts with a younger audience, outreach to graduate chapters of sororities and fraternities, add a more social aspect to meetings.
- Recent immigrants: Reach out to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and translate materials and portions of meetings.
Use the recruitment strategies to identify inpiduals who may want to join your group and personally invite each one. Strive to take names and contact information (phone numbers and addresses) for every person who expresses interest.
Some ways to identify inpiduals and get their contact information
- Attach a tear-off coupon to flyers for people to pre-register for events.
- Have a sign-in sheet at each of your group's activities.
- Attend other organizations' meetings with a sign-up sheet for those who want more information about your club.
- Solicit leaders of other organizations to get their members signed up to attend an event.
Once people have expressed some interest in getting involved or learning about your group, the most important step is to contact them right away so you can give them more information, find out more about their interests, and personally invite them to participate. Phone, email or Facebook conversations will be key. Some things to remember when calling contacts:
Listen: Instead of just talking, take time to ask them about their interests and really listen to them. This will give you a better sense of who they are and will allow you to tell them about the aspects of your group that will most interest them.
Personalize: It's important to make a real, personal connection. The more newcomers feel you are truly interested in them, and the more they get to know you, the more comfortable they will feel being a part of your group. Share some of your own experiences. Instead of saying the exact same thing to everyone, gear your conversation to the inpidual. Try to convey why their participation is important, what they can contribute that might be special or unique, and what they will gain.
Ask: Don't wait for them to take the initiative and volunteer. Instead, ask them to participate in a very specific way. Often we feel as if we are being too pushy when we ask people to join or participate, but many times they are waiting for us to invite them. Don't assume they are too busy or won't be interested. Be enthusiastic. This will happen naturally if you are recruiting them to an exciting event or activity.
Record: Keep track of what people say when you talk to them so you can follow up with them later.
Why People Join
Participating in an organization or club takes time, money, and energy. Many of us are busy and over-committed, and while it seems people are less inclined to join organizations, people will and do get involved in things that are important and enriching to them. You can recruit more effectively by finding out people's interests and tapping into them. The following are some common motivations for people to become active and suggestions on how to appeal to each of those interests:
Social - Some people become involved to meet people with similar values and interests, make new friends, get out of the house, find a community away from home or simply have fun. To make your groups more appealing to outsiders, plan varied activities, operate in an informal atmosphere, and provide opportunities for members to get to know each other.
Educational - Other people join organizations for the learning opportunities. Stress that involvement in your group is a tremendous learning opportunity. If your group is more social, but new people attend a meeting because they have a strong interest in culture, language, and history, create a space that allows them to engage in their specific interests. Organize an informational meeting for the group that focuses on your new members’ specific interests. You may find that there are other interested members within your group – these members can lead your group in planning a new panel series or a film-screening and discussion.
Professional - Many people want to develop new skills or leadership qualities or have valuable experiences that will help them test out possible career tracks. Make it clear that involvement can provide them with invaluable experience.
Get Them to Come
Usually, it takes some extra effort to get new people to take the time to attend something new or different. Turnout is the process of getting people to show up by making them really want to come, eliminating barriers, and creating conditions that make it easy for them to attend. Reminder calls or emails are a very important aspect of turnout. Emails should be sent a week before an event and again the day or night before or on the actual day. These calls provide another opportunity to connect with newcomers, let them know they are really needed, and welcome and find out any reservations they may have. Turnout can also include distributing flyers, posting signs, sending notices, offering rides, and welcoming community members.
Action and Follow-Up
Involve and Incorporate Newcomers into the Group Right Away.
Identify tasks for new people and specifically ask them to get involved at their first meeting or event.
It is important to consider what you want people's first impression of the group to be and what kind of event or meeting you should invite new people to attend. Will it be interesting and exciting? Will they see how they can get involved? Many groups try to build their recruitment efforts around regular meetings, which may not be the most effective method of drawing people in.
If business meetings are your group's only activity, this may contribute to dwindling membership. No matter the reason for wanting to join an organization, people are more likely to do so if they perceive the group as action-oriented, effective, and fun. Therefore, always have an activity planned in which people can actively participate. Make sure that general meetings always have an action component such as planning an event.
Ask everyone who comes to an event to sign up when they enter, and make sure they feel welcome. To tie them into the group, it is important to give them an opportunity to sign up for further participation.
Follow up with everyone within a week of the event. Include those who have pre-registered but did not attend and those who came to the event but did not sign up for further involvement. Use these conversations to begin to nurture new relationships.
Thank them for their participation or interest and ask what they liked, where they see themselves getting involved, etc. Make the effort to let them know that you value their perspective and are interested in their involvement. You can even ask them to play a small yet important role at their second meeting or event such as help make signs, bring drinks, or getting people signed in.
Retaining Members: Why Volunteers Stay
Employing the recruitment principles and methods detailed above, you should have no problem attracting new members. Your challenge, then, will be to keep them involved. To do so, consider why people stay involved in groups, and plan activities in a way that keeps them coming back!
Volunteers have different needs and motives. If their needs are met, they are more likely to stay.
Key Reasons Why Volunteers Stay Engaged:
- They feel appreciated.
- They can see that their presence makes a difference.
- There is a chance for advancement.
- There is opportunity for personal growth.
- They receive public and private recognition.
- They feel capable of handling the tasks offered.
- There is a sense of belonging and teamwork.
- They are involved in the process.
Why Volunteers Leave
The following ten "pitfalls" lead to membership loss:
Burn-Out: People often leave organizations because they are asked to do too much too quickly. To avoid burn- out, try to offer members a series of slowly increasing responsibilities.
Cool Out: The opposite of asking people to do too much to fast is not asking them to do anything at all. "No one invited me." "No one told me they needed me." Don't be hesitant about asking people to do things for the group. People want to be useful. Don't lose track of people.
Keep Out: Veterans inevitably will gravitate towards one another at meetings. But it is important that newcomers also feel included. Allow some time at the beginning of each meeting for group discussions that include new and old members. Encourage openness and promise confidentiality. This is a great way to get to know the other members of the group intimately and tear down the "keep out sign" that cliques always post. Incorporate a social component into your meetings and organize a regular social activity in order to build group cohesion and morale.
Pull Out: Newcomers may become old-timers, but they don't want to feel that they must. People are more likely to participate when the extent of the participation is in their control. No one likes to feel trapped, so let members control their level of commitment. When members set explicit limits, respect them.
Can't Win: Nothing scares members away faster than a sense of futility, or a clouded perception of what the goals are. Clearly state your objectives for the short term and long term, and set reasonable limits. Only plan within the group's capabilities.
Can't Lose: While trying to establish reasonable goals, bear in mind that striving for an easy goal strikes most people as just as pointless as working for a useless long shot. So when setting goals, make sure there is some challenge involved. That way you can justify a huge celebration afterwards.
No Growth: Volunteer work should be interesting and should offer variety and a chance for personal growth. There is boring work to be done of course, but distribute it evenly, and mix in as much fun as you can. Encourage members to take on more challenging tasks and projects as they learn more about your group.
No Appreciation: Volunteers don't just enjoy being appreciated; they need and deserve it. Without it, they tend to lose faith in the value of what they're doing. There are three primary elements of showing your appreciation. First, show them that you are grateful for the work they have done. Second, don't take it for granted that they will continue doing work for the group. Third, show general respect for their opinions and their work by returning phone calls, answering notes, passing along information, etc.
No Fun: Your group should be creative and enjoyable for members. If people have no connection with each other and feel like attending meetings is a chore, you’re not likely to recruit many members.
No Substance: Balancing between the social and the substance is tricky. You won’t attract people interested in culture and the arts if your club is solely known for “Kabob night” and Norouz parties. Make sure to take into account the various interests of your members – if someone is interested in literature, have them organize a reading workshop or a panel, if they’re interested in games, have them organize a backgammon competition or game day.
Provide Opportunities for Growth and Change
Being deliberate about leadership and development will keep your new and old members active and growing over a long period of time. Think about ways each member can develop over time within the group. Think about the various roles members can play within your group. Then decide what skills are needed for each role and how you can help members develop those skills over time.
Bringing new people into your group and allowing them to develop as leaders can change the way the group operates and is sometimes a difficult process. Tensions can arise as new people challenge the way the group functions. It is important to first assess whether your group is willing to make changes necessary to incorporate new people. How often do you want leadership roles to change to keep your group healthy? Consider the impact of cultural and other differences.
Keeping in mind the reasons people leave and the reasons people stay, there are several safeguards that you can establish in your group's operations in order to retain members. These methods will help you spot problems before it is too late.
Have an Ongoing Orientation Program
A major obstacle to successful retention is that new people often feel they are arriving in the middle of things. This makes it easy for newcomers to feel excluded. Avoid telling inside jokes and using jargon without explaining them to newcomers. Always have a veteran responsible for welcoming newcomers and educating them on the group’s basics. Make sure newcomers understand your group and make them feel welcome.
Involve new members in activities or projects that make them feel useful. Never hesitate to give a newcomer a job of importance such as staffing a table or helping to plan for an event. Be sure to describe to the new members what is expected of them, and how they can develop and grow by joining your group. Provide the guidance they need to complete new tasks and projects.
Give and Receive Constructive Criticism
In order to make the most of your resources and actions, group leaders must be able to give and receive constructive criticism. Your criticism should always be of the task, not the inpidual. Don't be personal. Always deliver criticism in private and praise in public. Recognize your group's performance at the end of an event.
Match Jobs with Skills
Give new members the opportunity to indicate relevant experience, as well as interests. By carefully matching people with jobs they are interested in and able to do, you increase the members' motivation and the chances of success for a project.
Evaluate Your Group
Periodically it might be useful to present an opportunity for your members to express why they belong to your group. Ask people to evaluate their experiences and expectations, and then work on ideas for things you might do to make the group more satisfying to most members.
Group Exercise #1
To help your group prepare for one-on-ones with new people, have members answer these questions:
- What interested you initially in this group?
- Why did you join?
- Why have you remained engaged in the group?
- What do you get out of being a part of this group?
Group Exercise #2
Have members answer the following questions to evaluate and improve your group's ability to retain members.
- Which of these pitfalls has your group fallen into?
- What specific measures can your group take to avoid them in the future?