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Summer Strategy: How Investing in the Long Game Transforms Volunteer Recruitment

I’ve come to the conclusion that most worthwhile things in life require playing the long game. 

This was certainly the case with the Quillins. Years ago, as a small group leader for their 5th-grade son, Preston, I’d catch their faces from time to time, as they dropped him off and picked him up on Sunday mornings. Some weeks, they’d wave Preston to the door, and quickly shoot me a smile that communicated, “Hey, I’m thankful for you, but I’m not interested in chatting.” Other weeks, they would reluctantly allow me to stop them when I had encouraging words to share about their son. They’d engage in minimal conversation. They were cordial, but guarded. Committed to coming, but cautious about anything more.

Their toes were dipped into the water as far as they planned to go.

Until that summer I went out on a limb and asked them to volunteer at VBS.

Reluctantly, Mr. Quillin said, “Yes.” But only if he could serve with Preston, who had, by that point, moved on to middle school. And as any VBS coordinator in dire need of volunteers, an emphatic, “Absolutely!” was my response.

Naturally, I handed them the more enticing responsibility for a father and son: Recreation. And they totally crushed it.

As an officer in the US Navy, Mr. Quillin had rules and regimens down pat, so a room full of rambunctious kids did not ruffle his feathers one bit. And Preston supplemented the structure with his cool, easygoing disposition. They were a power duo, to say the least.

I knew from Day 1 of seeing them in action, this was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up. I vowed to do everything in my power, not only to make VBS an enjoyable experience for them but to help them see the impact they had the potential to make if they continued past the summer.

That week, I seized every chance I had to toss words their way that validated the amazing job they were doing. Shouting a quick, “These kids love you!! Keep up the good work!” from across the room while I made my rounds was enough to etch a proud grin across Mr. Quillin’s face. I was certain my door had swung wide open.

But let’s be honest. VBS is a lot! So when the week was said and done, I gave them a bit of space afterward to recover before diving in for the big ask.

Later that summer, I carefully crafted my proposal. This time, I was going all in. I planned to recruit Mr. and Mrs. Quillin for the long-term commitment of co-leading a group. Not only did I see the potential they had to make an impact together, but I was about to have a bit of skin in the game. I was hoping they’d take on a group of 5th graders in the fall; one of which would be my own son, Oliver.

Sure, it would tug at their heartstrings a bit, knowing I had led their son as a 5th grader not so long ago, and now they had the opportunity to do the same for me. But in addition to my own personal ploy, I was confident this group was the right fit for the Quillins.

You can probably guess what happened. They said, “Yes.”

Isn’t that the best feeling, though? When you hear, “Yes!” rather than, “No!” To check something off your list. To fill a spot. To take one step closer to having every group covered. Ah, the immediate gratification is priceless. And while that is, indeed, a practical goal, I’m certain that if you keep steering with a long-game approach, you may find that you’ll have fewer Yes’s to strive for each year. The investment you make on the front end will pay off in the long run, because they will not want to step away from the impact you’ve helped them make.

As you consider recruiting volunteers in the months ahead, here are some things to remember:

Start with a small ask. 

For the Quillins, this was leading recreation at VBS. But not everyone may be able to commit an entire week of their summer. It’s great to have special events or Sunday morning subbing opportunities in your back pocket to use for the people you know have potential to eventually lead in a bigger way.

Use your words.

Everyone loves being the recipient of praise and gratitude. So when you do have people that agree to those short-term volunteer opportunities, be sure to pour words of encouragement and affirmation upon them every chance you get. Point out something helpful you saw them do, and let them know how big of a difference it made. Thank them more than once! And always be sure to send a note in the mail after the event is over.

Give it some time. Then ask again.

No one likes to be nagged. It may end up backfiring if you’re too hasty with another ask immediately following that first moment they chose to say, “Yes.” Give them some space before pulling out the recruitment tactics again. Find the sweet spot: just enough time to recover and reminisce fondly on the experience. But not so much time that they’ve long forgotten how much they loved it.

Find the right fit.

Just because there happens to be an opening for a role doesn’t mean it’s the right one for everyone. If you have an older gentleman who thrives on thought-provoking discussions, you might regret it if you ask him to lead a rowdy group of kindergartners. On the flip side, that woman who teaches preschool full-time may feel tossed to the wolves if you sign her up with high schoolers. Based on what you know about the person, look for a role that feels most fitting for who they are. Try your best to set them up for success, even if that means patiently waiting for the right role to become available.

Tell them what they bring to the table.

When you’ve discovered a match that makes sense, be sure to let your potential volunteer in on why you asked them, and not someone else. Point out specific qualities they possess that you believe will equip them for the role you’re recruiting them for. Telling them why they’re awesome will empower them to want to keep being awesome.

Connect them to their community.

Onboarding a new person on a team of volunteers is vital. As best as you can, immediately connect them to the other people who they will be serving alongside. The more they feel like they’re part of a team and the deeper connection they develop with the people they see week after week, the more likely it is that they’ll keep wanting to come back. They may be doing you a huge favor by volunteering. But the community they receive in return will feel like an even greater payoff.

Now, it would be silly of me to send you off on your recruitment journey without letting you in on the last chapter of the Quillins’ story. So check this out…

That fall following the VBS experience, Mr. and Mrs. Quillin began leading my son’s 5th grade group. It was a perfect match. But little did they know, 6 months later, the world would shut down. This happened to be the infamous year of the pandemic. So when it would have been perfectly justified for these new leaders to see their way out, instead, they chose to dig in even deeper. 

Remember those toes barely dipped into the water? At this point, they were shoulder-deep. But they were sailing better than I ever dreamed they would.

During those long months of shelter-in-place restrictions, the Quillins met weekly over Zoom with their group of kids. My son would look forward to signing on each Sunday evening where he connected with his friends and felt seen by adults who cared about him. They’d play virtual games with each other. They would read the Bible together. They’d laugh and ask questions and talk about hard things. And most importantly, they created a safe, predictable place during a time when kids needed it more than ever before. 

Their investment in the lives of those kids that year was life-changing. My son–now 14 years old–has a solid foundation as he’s about to enter high school this fall. Much of that has to do with Mr. and Mrs. Quillin.

Our family has since moved away from that church, due to a relocation with my husband’s job. Just the other day, I received a graduation announcement in the mail for Preston Quillin. I sent his mom a text to check in. She and Mr. Quillin are still serving on Sundays, leading a group of 5th graders. Mr. Quillin also helps on Wednesday nights. Preston is leading 2nd graders. And I don’t see this changing any time soon. They are all in, and I suspect they always will be.

Trust me. Playing the long game is so worth it.

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