How gentle volunteer recruitment efforts can yield astonishing results

Employ “paying it forward” in outreach efforts to stimulate organizational growth.

Paying it forward is a form of generalized reciprocity. It looks like extending oneself to another without immediately asking for anything from them in return. Research shows that it works in part because it feels good. The positive feeling makes the technique more effective than appealing to self-interest.

Random acts of kindness are great ways to increase prosocial behaviors that build community. Such acts involve extending oneself to an unknown person or group without immediately asking for anything from them in return. 

For example, this four-minute video shares the story of how a Lake Association was able to germinate a new source of protection for Gull Lake.

The township astonished the Lake Association by initiating the installation of a second boat wash. By first sharing information about themselves and what they could offer, the Lake Association initiated a relationship with Gull Lake. The township responded with unanticipated enthusiasm that ended up resulting in not one, but two permanent boat wash stations.

While it is a very basic example of forming a relationship, it has significant repercussions. The ripple effect occurs when one action results in impacts greater than intended. Using this approach, organizations have the potential to not only achieve their organizational goals, but make a positive impact on the greater community as well.

Research has shown that paying it forward is a force more powerful than self-interest. Researcher Wayne Baker from the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business conducted an experiment where he observed interactions and categorized them as either rewarding reputation or paying it forward. The rewarding reputation actions were motivated by self-interest, while the paying it forward actions were motivated by helping others. He discovered helping others turned out to have more lasting and further reaching impacts. The results are detailed in the article “Paying It Forward vs. Rewarding Reputation: Mechanisms of Generalized Reciprocity” published by Organization Science.

What makes paying it forward so effective? Reciprocity is the engine that fuels relationships and paying help forward feels good. The positive emotion of doing something for another when you do not expect anything in return seems to be part of the reason it is so impactful.

Still, appeals to self-interest are also effective for recruitment. Jennifer Wiechel, a specialist in volunteer development at Michigan State University Extension, discusses three types of motivations: influence, affiliation and achievement. Effective communication involves segmenting messages to highlight specific motivations of specific audiences.

By reaching out without asking for something in return, volunteer managers present a generous spirit that is attractive to others. The target audience has the room to respond naturally providing the manager with a clearer picture of the individuals’ interests, needs and capabilities. The capacity of others is rich beyond imagination. Next time you’re out presenting to a new group of potential volunteers, hold back your request. Give them the opportunity to get to know you without pressure. You might be surprised by how much more you get in return.

The author will present this content live at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 during an interactive webinar. To register for this free event: https://glccn.org/groups/adventures-in-collective-water-management/.

You can learn more about boosting volunteer or citizen engagement efforts online at msue.anr.msu.edu. 

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