It’s the million dollar question in small towns: how do we get more participation? Participation might mean volunteers, contributions, or even audience members.
|Volunteers kick off the Picture My Weekend
Photography event in Alva, Oklahoma.
I get asked this every time I speak. It seems every town and organization, every festival and fair is dealing with a smaller number of volunteers. It seems everyone is looking for ways to get more people involved.
While I don’t have a magical solution, I do offer one key insight.
You are not your target market.
No matter who you are looking to get more participation from, they are different from you. Most likely, you are the driven, goal oriented type. At the least, you’re involved. The people you are looking for are not.
I just spoke to one chamber of commerce volunteer. She had walked in to downtown businesses, handed them the event flyer and immediately asked how they wanted to participate. It hadn’t worked very well. I suggested that most people would want to be approached in a friendly manner, rather than an all-business manner. The business owners might react better to someone who came in, learned about the people and their businesses, and generally built relationships. There is probably another person in the chamber who fits that description and could get better results.
And there are more differences.
Changes in technology, the economy and society have driven radical change over even the past few years. But our volunteer jobs haven’t kept pace. We’re still doing things the old way, or the old way with a few updates and new ideas. That means we need to consider changing everything, and I mean ev-ry-thing, about how we organize and do our work.
|Marci Penner leads a discussion
on volunteers and listening.
I heard some great insight on this at a local meeting. Marci Penner and WenDee LaPlant lead a session on rural tourism. As Penner drew out both younger and older audience members, a fascinating pattern emerged. Even as we heard the “we can’t get volunteers” refrain, younger people told a different story. They weren’t able to volunteer at the times when they were expected to. They had families, young children, and obligations. But they still wanted to be involved, if they could work out timing and assignments. Except they ran into another roadblock: existing volunteers wouldn’t let them help. The people currently in charge wouldn’t let go and trust the new young volunteers.
I know the young people might fail. They might make mistakes. They might even quit half way through. But that is OK. They have to do that in order to learn. And if we’re honest, we learned by mistakes, and people have failed and quit half way through since the days of the first volunteers.
In a discussion, one audience member asked how to get young people to participate in traditional boards. Penner said to get them together in a community and truly listen to them. LaPlant told a story of a group that said they had listened to young people, but just couldn’t get them involved. So together they tried an exercise at a meeting of listening to the young people who were present without interrupting for 15 solid minutes. It was an eye-opener. They found that they had in fact, not been really listening to the younger people.
A young person in the audience pointed out that she is busy with raising her young children, and does not have time for traditional opportunities, but she can contribute in other ways. The discussion continued, with consensus that tradition makes it hard for young people to participate. The existing leaders have to be open to change.
It’s tough to think that you may be part of the reason that you can’t get more volunteers. But if you can face that, and make some changes, you may be able to address the problem.
Remember, you are not your target market. What works for you will not work for others.
I also thought about what “you are not your target market” means in business:
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