Outreach strategies for successful senior volunteer recruitment

Recruiting seniors for volunteer service can be achieved with targeted outreach through businesses, media outlets, and service agencies in the community; these types of organizations are valuable resources for connecting with potential volunteers age 60+. This practice offers specific suggestions on how to successfully market your program to seniors. These tried-and-true strategies came from Katy Allen-Caballero of Senior Programs at Lewis Street, Rochester, NY, (now part of the Community Place of Greater Rochester).
Many programs want to recruit volunteers age 60+, but it's not always clear which strategies and tools will work best.
Senior Programs at Lewis Street is a combined Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions program in upstate New York. Their service area is primarily an urban and suburban environment (though this practice has been effective in rural communities as well); they are funded for 80 Foster Grandparents and 45 Senior Companions.
Research your service area
  • Review data from the most recent U.S. Census and identify geographic groupings of people age 60 and over.
  • On a map of your service area, use pushpins to mark target areas. Include senior living communities, senior centers, and other places seniors might convene.
  • Use the "bull's eye" method for each area: Start with a 1/4- or 1/2-mile radius. Draw a circle, marking the radius around each pushpin. Within that area identify grocery stores, barber shops, beauty salons, doctor offices, drug stores, churches, restaurants, food pantries, etc. Meet the proprietors of these establishments and encourage them to refer people to your agency.
  • Make a list of all the agencies that may provide senior services in your district.
  • Make a list of all houses of worship.
  • Identify and list current volunteers with strong church ties; they may serve as good recruiters of other volunteers within their church communities.
  • Identify racial/ethnic groups that you currently underserve, and then identify agencies that serve these groups. Repeat the "bull's eye" method for each of these groups.
  • After identifying all of these places, go to them. Do not rely on letters. Make flyers and posters, take letters, and go meet people! Get to know store owners — shake hands, talk with folks, and sell the opportunity to volunteer with your RSVP, Foster Grandparent, or Senior Companion program.
Establish relationships (and build on existing ones)
  • Since you can't be everywhere and meet everyone who may be a potential volunteer, you need to establish relationships with those people who work with the public.
  • Get to know business owners, clergy, food bank coordinators, social workers, apartment managers, doctors, senior center directors, Area Agency on Aging staff, veterans' organizations, Department of Social Services staff, and anyone else who might help or have an interest.
  • Make friends with the managers of senior housing communities. It helps them to have their tenants in the programs, and Senior Companions can offer services to frail elderly in their buildings.
  • Target human service professionals serving those 60 and over. Referrals will often come from caseworkers.
  • Use Foster Grandparent volunteer sites as advertisers. Ask them to include letters/flyers in their mailing list.
  • Connect with local schools and request that every teacher send a letter home with their students during the first weeks of school, introducing the Foster Grandparent program and making a call for volunteers.
  • The best recruiters are your current volunteers. Offer an incentive for referrals (e.g., gift certificate). Mention recruitment with every in-service training, event, and newsletter. Make "business cards" for your volunteers to pass out; these can easily be done on your own computer. It states their name and gives contact information for the program.
Make information readily available and easily accessible
  • Hang signs, flyers, and posters everywhere in your targeted area: grocery stores, doctor offices, churches, barber shops and beauty salons, restaurants, and any place that will let you.
Work with the media
  • Good publicity is key to a successful recruitment campaign. One good, well-placed newspaper story or 60-second TV or radio piece can do more than 1000 flyers.
  • Follow local newspapers, television news, and talk shows. Identify key reporters that cover human interest stories, and then call and introduce yourself. ("I saw your recent story about... thought you might be interested in...")
  • Utilize press releases. Remember to have story ideas prepared. Think VISUAL. Newspapers, and especially television shows, want good pictures. It helps to have photo releases signed by volunteers when they enroll in the program; this way you can be prepared even on short notice.
  • Respond to a newspaper or TV piece with a thank-you note.
  • Invite dignitaries to your special events. (e.g., mayor, county supervisor, etc.).
  • Ask local TV news personalities to emcee your event; they will often bring a camera crew.
Create quality press releases
  • Keep an updated list of press release contacts: TV, newspaper, and radio contact names, addresses, fax, and phone numbers.
  • Press releases should be limited to one page: one side of an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper, preferably double-spaced. If absolutely necessary use 1.5 line spacing, but do not single-space the release.
  • In the upper LEFT corner, type: "For immediate release" or "For release: mm/dd/yy" (include date).
  • In the upper RIGHT corner, type your contact information (name, phone number, and e-mail address).
  • Spend time working on a powerful, attention-grabbing headline — this will determine if the reporter reads the release or not. The first few sentences are called the "summary" and should be exactly that: a brief summary of the event, project, and news item.
  • The press release should be short and to the point: Give just enough information to pique interest for an interview; don't write a whole story.
  • Following the summary, the press release should explain the "who, what, where, and when" of the project.
  • Send press releases with plenty of lead-time: a couple of weeks or more.
  • Don't be afraid to make a follow-up phone call.
  • At the bottom of the release put "########" or some other notation to indicate the ending.
Market your program effectively
  • Create a marketing plan; form an advisory council committee to help develop it. Ask a public relations/communications professional to be on the committee. (See a sample marketing plan worksheet.)
  • Base the plan on your recruitment message. Ask yourself the following:
    • What does my program do best?
    • What is unique about my program?
    • What are my objectives?
    • Who is my target audience?
    • What is the best medium to reach this audience?
    • What am I doing now to reach them?
    • How well is it working?
    • How can I afford to market my program?
  • Remember that different generations exist within the 60 and over population. Each group may have varied needs and desires — target your strategies accordingly!
  • Choose your advertising mediums wisely: you want the biggest bang for your buck.
  • Network in your community by attending events hosted by other agencies.
  • Use every opportunity to talk about your program.
  • Put your slogan, logo, and name on everything that goes out of your office.
  • Always ask, "How did you hear about us?" Track that information and adjust your plan accordingly.
  • Pitch your program as an opportunity for the potential volunteers. It is not what they can do for you — it is what you can do for them: help change their lives by giving them the opportunity to serve.
  • Be sure to thank your staff, volunteers, advisory council, funders, and all others who play a part.
Welcome other opportunities to recruit
If an agency or school calls requesting a volunteer, ask them to help recruit their own. Send them flyers and information they can use in their own publications.
When people call requesting Senior Companion services, ask if anyone is currently helping them. Quite often a neighbor or friend is providing some help — this person may be an eligible volunteer.
When a potential volunteer comes in for orientation, ask if they have friends or relatives that may be interested.
In just one year, Senior Programs at Lewis Street successfully enrolled 62 new volunteers — of those, 39 were Senior Companion volunteers and 23 were new Foster Grandparents (Allen-Caballero, n.d.).
For more information:
Allen-Caballero, K. (2001, July). Recruiting senior volunteers. Session presented at the National Senior Service Corps Atlantic Cluster Conference, Philadelphia, PA.
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