Engaging and Retaining Large Groups on Small Budgets [Expert Insights]

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Big organization, small budget—it doesn’t sound like an ideal situation. But by remembering the individuals at the root of every action, Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society of Canada employee Nicole Dube has found a formula for success.

Dube is a coordinator of volunteer resources for the MS Society, a charitable organization that requires a massive force of volunteers to fulfill its mission of supporting people with multiple sclerosis while finding a cause and cure for the debilitating disease. Like in any large business, Dube must deal with the daily HR challenges associated with recruiting and engaging big groups of workers, but does so with the additional challenge of being unable to offer money as an incentive.

Volunteer Coordinator Nicole Dube
Volunteer Coordinator Nicole Dube

Communication and recognition tactics, says Dube, are two areas she’s found critical to maintaining a high level of volunteer involvement.

“If [volunteers] feel like they’re being left in the dark, then they move on,” acknowledges Dube. Keeping recurring volunteers informed of upcoming opportunities to contribute and giving newsletter updates, even when volunteers aren’t as in demand, are important fixtures of keeping people engaged, she says.

This extends into actual event days as well, where Dube may be overseeing between 200 and 300 people, for a large-scale event.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” she says, to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Proper processes, from filling out individual paperwork, to simply ensuring everyone understands their role, must be followed, even with volunteers.

“I actually recruit volunteers to help me manage the volunteers on event day,” Dube explains. “Using volunteers in different levels, it really does help to coordinate everybody and get everything operating smoothly.”

This goes hand-in-hand with recognizing the value of the people who are working for you. Offering different responsibilities to people with varying levels of commitment and experience is one way to do this. But according to Dube, even a simple thank you—something that can be forgotten when working with large groups—is powerful.

“It’s very easy for someone to get lost in the shuffle, because there’s so many people,” she says. Following up with a “personal touch” to acknowledge contributions is necessary to ensure people keep coming back. In addition, the local MS Society holds an annual recognition event, and tries to find award opportunities for volunteers whenever possible.

Dube continues, “To us, recognition means trying to acknowledge the volunteers that are outstanding, or providing opportunities to highlight any outstanding things that they’ve done. It helps people feel good about what they did and feel that they were valued, which means they’ll be more likely to come back.”

It’s something she wishes they could do more of, but it’s one of the unavoidable challenges of working with a small budget. “We make it work, it’s definitely doable,” she says. “I think even on no budget, as long as you’re putting the effort in, that’s what’s really important.”

Ensuring that volunteers are a proper fit for the working environment they are placed in is equally important. Just as an employee can be attracted to and engaged by a company’s culture, this is something to consider for volunteers entering a team atmosphere as well.

"Even on no budget, as long as you’re putting the effort in, that’s what’s really important"

Dube asserts, “If they don’t fit in with the culture and aren’t having a great time while they’re doing it, it may leave them with a bad taste in their mouth in terms of volunteering. We want people to enjoy their time here and really feel like they’re giving back, and I think it’s hard for someone to do that if they don’t fit right in with the office and the ways things work and the attitudes that we have.”

Whether you’re dealing with hundreds of employees or hundreds of volunteers, size can present a huge challenge for those responsible for HR management. Fortunately, finding ways to tackle this can start small. From an initial job posting to the completion of a project, tailoring recognition techniques to keep the individual in mind is an easy way to produce extraordinary results.

Interview and story by Lindsay Purchase (@LindsayPurchase).

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