Miss Conduct

Advice: How to ask for volunteers and actually get them to show up

Is there some magic method that gets people to say yes and mean it?

What are some tips for asking people to volunteer in a way that has them say yes?

Anonymous / Holliston

Hound and guilt-trip them like Inspector Javert’s own stage mother! That’s how you get people to say yes! Then they’ll spend decades evading you, like Jean Valjean. What you want is for people to actually do the thing, which means one early challenge is to weed out the reflexive “say-yes-then-ghost” people-pleasers.

When you ask people to volunteer, always let them know it’s acceptable to decline. A cornered animal is a dangerous animal, and we don’t put dangerous animals in charge of our bake sales.


Find out how — and whether — the people in your group or community want to volunteer, so you can tailor your requests. Some people love to use their day-job skills for worthy causes; others prefer a break from routine. Some people like social activities; others don’t. Some folks are leaders, others followers. Ask, don’t assume — people may surprise you with their preferences.

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Let people know exactly what will be expected from them. This is an effective request: “Can you come to the mosque on Tuesday night and help sort the food pantry donations for two hours?” This is not: “Do you want to join the ad hoc task force that is working on a statement of purpose for our diversity coalition?”

Ask groups of friends, especially if you need volunteers for repetitive or mundane tasks. Working with friends makes the job more fun — and makes people feel more accountable, and thus more likely to show up and do a good job. (Don’t let cliques take over all the fun jobs or planning committees, or new group members will feel frozen out.)

Finally, persistent difficulty recruiting volunteers is a red flag. Maybe the project itself isn’t as crucial or meaningful as it once was, and your organization should rethink it. Maybe you need new members. Maybe among the existing volunteers there is a harasser or bully or stubbornly incompetent and incurious soul who ruins the experience for others, and who needs to be gently removed.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

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