How to create wicked simple volunteer email campaigns that inspire supporters

photo of water dripping, upside-down, on an orange-fading-to-yellow background
Mar 2, 2017
10 minute read
Digital Communications • Program • Volunteer Management

For nonprofits and membership-based organizations, volunteer management can feel overwhelming. There are often too many people and not enough time to maintain a personal touch with every person.

Automated “drip campaigns” are the perfect intersection of technology and volunteers and can be a simple way to stay in touch, nurture relationships, and even weave together requests for time and cash contributions.

What is a drip campaign?

Email “drip campaigns” (also know as drip marketing, automated email campaign, lifecycle emails, autoresponders, and marketing automation) are automated series of emails scheduled to go out at a predetermined time (either a specific date and time or at specific intervals), depending on how you set them up.

In the marketing world, drip campaigns are used to nurture a prospect and ultimately make a sale. In the volunteer world, they can be used to automate and simplify communications and reinforce behavior on the part of your volunteer supporters.

As opposed to individual personal emails or group email “blasts,” drip campaigns are fully automated. Once you design a campaign, you can set it and forget it. Your readers then complete an online form and/or are “tagged” in your email system. Once a contact is tagged, the email series begins.

Four different volunteer management email drip campaign types

You can use drip campaigns for a variety of reasons throughout the volunteer lifecycle: to build an interested fan base, to increase the trust or skills of newcomers, to share updates and program changes, to keep supporters engaged over the long haul. Below are a few ideas:

  • Volunteer Recruitment – To follow up on inquiries from the community, or to let volunteers who have submitted an application know the next steps in the process.
  • Volunteer Onboarding – To help volunteers transition from their orientation training to consistent service by providing helpful tips, resources, and encouragement as well as gathering suggestions.
  • Volunteer Skill Building – To help volunteers learn online, over a sequence of steps; this can either be integrated into your onboarding or be sent separately.
  • Event Volunteers – To share event updates and logistics to ensure that event volunteers follow through and show up for the shift(s) they have committed to.

Can you use drip campaigns to re-engage lapsed volunteers or members?

You might be tempted to reinvigorate the participation of someone who hasn’t “shown up” or participated lately by sending them an automated series. You might to impress them with your organization’s progress, share what others are doing, and even asking for a donation.  It might re-energize them…or you might be wasting your time.

Before giving this a shot, check to see if the majority of your lapsed volunteers are at least opening your emails. It is highly likely that they are disengaged across the board. Don’t expect an automated email series to perform miracles. In this case, a phone call or personal email will be a better use of your time.

For excellent insights on what you might put in an email be re-activate someone (in this case in an online community) check out this FeverBee blog post.

Sample new volunteer onboarding series: what to include

Below is an example of an onboarding drip campaign you might use to welcome new online community members or volunteers. Be sure to include a signature with contact information (and an unsubscribe link) at the bottom of every email.

Check out tools like Animoto and Powtoon to make quick and easy videos that look good. Most email campaign software will allow you to embed video in the email itself.

Opt in [web form or tag]
  • Your audience can either fill in a form on your website that then tags them, or you can tag them manually in your system
  • Collect at least a first name and email address (you can then give your communications a personal touch by using the merge fields in the email subject line or the salutation of the email)
  • When possible, use a double versus single opt-in to make sure your emails are delivered (set your system to send an email with a confirmation link versus a simple sign up)
Welcome to our team (or community)! [sent immediately after confirmation link is clicked]
  • Thank them for joining
  • Let them know they can expect to get a series of emails over the next few weeks
  • Emphasize that you hope to save them time by focusing on the most important “need to know” info
  • Let them know they can unsubscribe at any time if the info isn't helpful
Our story [send two days later]
  • Use photos and/or video to show and tell your story
  • Focus on the history of your organization, why it was started, where you are now
  • Keep it brief!
  • You can include quotes from volunteers, community members, or those who have benefited from their service
What we stand for [send three days later]
  • This is a “manifesto” of sorts, where you share your values and beliefs (either in text or video)
  • Don’t beat around the bush
  • This is a good time to weed out people who aren’t aligned with you – better now than later
Free tips & downloads [send every 2-3 days]
  • Send a minimum of three, but you can send more
  • Each should be focused on one critical skill you want your audience to know or be prepared to do (e.g., how to log into our community, how to access our online training, how to sign up for a shift, customer service skills, who to call for what, etc.)
  • Keep it brief!
  • Offer all tips and instructions in a printable format
Call to action: Sign up for a shift (or complete your online profile) [send three days after last Tip Email]
  • Focus on a simple step you want your reader to take
  • Provide a link and super simple instructions
  • If possible, have your system tag them if they click on the link in the email to track who is following through
Thank you! [send three days later]
  • Volunteer appreciation should start early, so why not now?
  • Express your gratitude; include quotes and photos of paid staff members and why they love volunteers (or make a video!)
How is it going? (feedback survey) [send 1-2 months after joining]
  • Include 3-5 questions only
  • Ask the net promoter question: How likely is it that you would recommend volunteering (or joining) to a friend or colleague?  
  • Ask for specific suggestions (e.g., tell us one thing we could do to make your experience even better)
  • Ask any other questions that get at things you are trying to improve

More tips for better volunteer management email campaigns

Here are a few tips to make sure your automated campaign is successful.

Send an introductory non-automated welcome email from your personal email account

Let the volunteer know that they should be expecting a series of emails from you and include a confirmation link (most email services can generate a link for you) that the volunteer clicks to confirm it’s OK to hear from you via email. If you don’t do this, emails may end up in their spam folder or, worse, they’ll be marked as “unresponsive” and your email distribution service provider won’t send to them.

Make sure you use a compelling email subject that describes a benefit

Generic subject lines like “Update from XYZ Nonprofit” can feel boring or like spam and are likely to get deleted. Describe what’s in it for the volunteer of the read it. For example, “Our Volunteers’ Share Their Top 5 Tips With You” Try CoSchedule’s headline analyzer or another tool to determine if your subject line needs work.

Write naturally and conversationally

The email is coming from you, even if it is automated, so write to volunteers as a human being, not a robot. It’s OK to convey emotions. To make it even more personal, include an image of your handwritten signature at the bottom of each. If some volunteers respond to your emails, you know you’re on the right track.

Reference volunteers’ “pro-social” behavior

Reinforce the norms you are striving for by sharing messages that reflect your expectations. For example, “95% of people who request a volunteer application complete it and turn it in within one week” or “the average volunteer donated 6 hours last month, helping us reach our goal of serving 45 youth.”

Whenever possible, include actual photos of your volunteer fans

Social cues are even more powerful when they are demonstrated through photos. A picture is truly worth a thousand words, and photos will increase the perceived truthfulness of your testimonials.

Be sensitive to the timing of other digital communications

If there are e-blasts that go out to your audience on certain days (e.g., e-newsletters on Wednesday), don’t schedule your drip emails to go out on those days. Also, you may want to consider waiting to send donor solicitations until after a welcome campaign is over (with many systems you set them to remove a tag once the campaign is complete; then, you can sort accordingly.

Be sure your software tracks your open rates

You need to know what’s working for your specific audience. If you’re wondering what a passable open rate might be, Check out MailChimp’s stats on average open and click rates by industry. For non-profits, the open rate is about 24.9%. That means about one in four people will open your email.

“Listen” to your users

Include helpful information in your emails by providing tips that help alleviate some of the common problems experienced by your volunteers or community members. Also, if you hear complaints about getting too many emails or see rising unsubscribe rates, you may need to space out or consolidate your email campaign.

Want to learn more?

If you're interested in learning more about what triggers volunteers to act and how you can better work with human nature, check out tips and the free VolunteerPro e-Course Better Volunteer Recruitment in 6 Easy Steps.

Tobi Johnson

Tobi Johnson

President + Founder,

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