Rural volunteer programs have very specific and unique challenges. While a certain way of recruiting, for example, will work well in most urban centres from Vancouver, Canada to Copenhagen, Denmark, rural communities are so different that something that works brilliantly in one may not work at all in the community just down the highway. The one key issue that affects them all is a very small pool of people from whom to recruit.
I was born and raised in a community (Topley, BC, Canada) that had about a hundred people if you counted the cars going by on the highway! Rural communities are filled with tight-knit relationships and strong opinions. Building a volunteer program in a rural area involves tapping into the local way of doing things and addressing its specific challenges. Here are a few ways you can do that.
This is the one area where rural communities are far ahead of urban ones. That said, making a point of targeting the “influencers” of your town and getting them behind your organization can go a long way toward increasing the number of people who volunteer with you. By influencers, by the way, I don’t necessarily mean the mayor or other officials. Who are the people whose opinions everyone listens to? The ones who people look to when there’s an issue that needs to be dealt with. You probably know who they are! Get them on your side.
Talk about your needs …
In a small community, everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. That doesn’t mean that they know the specific needs that you may have. Be willing, while still maintaining client confidentiality, to shout from the rooftops about what you’re looking for in terms of volunteers. What skills, what availability, what attitudes would be helpful.
… and theirs.
More importantly, talk about what they get out of volunteering with you. What skills can they learn? Which people can they meet? What opportunities will become available to them? Don’t focus just on “giving back” or “sense of satisfaction” type benefits. What tangible things does helping you provide them?
Don’t be a black hole.
In rural areas, when organizations find a volunteer, they have a tendency to pull them in and never let go. Volunteers often find themselves asked to do more and more, to the point where someone who wanted to come in for an hour a week to do some small task ends up being President of the Board, leading three committees and spending close to 20 hours a week. This hurts the organization in two ways. First, the volunteer can end up unhappy and burnt out. Second, other people in the community see this, and don’t want to come anywhere near you in case they get sucked in in the same way. Never pressure people, even gently, to do more than they want.
Yes, rural communities have, by definition, small populations. But you don’t need to do all your recruiting from within your immediate community. There is a world out there that you can recruit from for tasks or roles that can be done remotely. Take a close look at the tasks you need volunteers to do and determine those that can be done remotely. If necessary, rejig things a bit to make it possible.
When building rural volunteer programs, especially in areas where there is a lot of shift work (mill towns, for example) provide flexible volunteering options that accommodate different schedules and availability. This could include one-time events or weekend projects as well as your regular program needs. Flexibility ensures a more inclusive and sustainable volunteer base.
Reach out to businesses.
Build partnerships with local businesses to support your volunteer initiatives. Large corporations, like mines and mills, often have a Social Responsibility department. Approach them to develop ways that they can provide volunteers. This may be a yearly group project that they supply labour for, or they may agree to pay an employee a portion of their wage for volunteer work. Small business, too, are often willing to help. In today’s labour market, being able to show that they give back to the community is a good way to attract new employees.
Provide training opportunities.
In rural areas where access to training programs may be limited, offering accessible and practical training sessions can be a big draw. If you’re able to provide useful training, like first aid for example, without making them travel to “the city”, people will see the hours they volunteer as well spent.
Whether the community you’re in is resource-based, agriculturally-focused, an indigenous community or one of a hundred other types of rural area, there are ways to build a sustainable volunteer program. It requires a thoughtful blend of relationship building, flexibility, and a genuine understanding of local dynamics. Leverage technology to increase your pool of potential volunteers. Rest lightly on those that you do have so they don’t burn out. Offer more than just a “feel good” opportunity. Yes, administering rural volunteer programs is more difficult, but once you find a system that suits your community, you will thrive well into the future.