The Problem with Waitlisting Volunteers

Through years of study, we learned that waitlisting was often causing some needs to go unmet or just made volunteer sign-up overly complicated. So, we left it in the rear view mirror and haven’t found a good reason to reincorporate it in our product.

A long line of people is seen queuing up against a blank wall, extending back towards a staircase where more individuals are gathered. The diversity in clothing suggests it could be a public or social event. Everyone is facing in one direction, indicative of waiting for entry or service.
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Through years of study, we learned that waitlisting was often causing some needs to go unmet or just made volunteer sign-up overly complicated. So, we left it in the rear view mirror and haven’t found a good reason to reincorporate it in our product. If after reading the below, you feel it’s still super important, we would like to better understand why as we’re always eager to learn. Here’s the four most popular debunked reasons for offering waitlists.

1. “Our roles/positions are too popular”
Some volunteer positions are more popular than others. So, if their preferred role is “full” a volunteer could get on a waitlist to see if someone backed out and they could take their spot. We learned that this actually encourages a volunteer to hold off on selecting an alternate position or role where the needs have not been met – causing other needs to go unfulfilled. Instead, we encourage organizations to offer alternate volunteer roles should the most popular needs fill up. As a result, we see higher participation rates and a higher percentage of needs reaching the minimum required staffing levels. Additionally, by fostering a culture of “getting your favorite assignment” versus “meeting the current needs of the organization” we encourage people to switch assignments, which causes a cascading effect to volunteer schedules and assignments.

2. “We have too many no-shows”
We also discovered that organizations used waitlists because they would have a high degree of people either canceling or not showing up to their assigned positions. They wanted a back-up list of volunteers they could call on to fill those vacated slots. In this case, waitlisting treated the symptom rather than the root cause. There should not be a high rate of drop-outs and no-shows in the first place. Instead, let’s improve the volunteer sign-up process to better communicate the volunteer commitment AND reinforce that commitment through confirmation and reminder texts and emails. Also, with every assignment reminder, provide a super-simple way to withdraw their assignment should their plans change. This makes it easier to open slots during the recruitment phase and allow someone else to take their spot.

3. “We need more flexibility for staffing”
We have also found that some organizations want to staff certain roles/positions to a minimum level to make sure they have met minimum staffing requirements, and allow a waitlist just in case things should change. In this case, in an effort to provide greater flexibility to staff/administrators, they were introducing more uncertainty for the volunteer and discouraging them from volunteering for things where a need had not yet been met. Instead, for each role/position we should define a minimum headcount required and a max headcount allowed. The minimum headcount is for the staff so they can know when they can stop recruiting and the maximum headcount is to let the volunteer know when the sign-up is “full”. This encourages your organization to provide a range between being understaffed (which is never good) and the maximum number of volunteers we can absorb where each volunteer still feels they have contributed (too many volunteers can be just as troublesome as not enough).

4. “We’ve always done it this way”
This is probably the strongest resistance to accepting an alternative to waitlisting. We get it. This is a strong pull for a lot of people. However, we must recognize that in many cases the reasons we did something a certain way in the past is because there wasn’t a better way at the time. Waitlisting originated because organizations didn’t have good systems for tracking staffing levels, recruitment, self-withdrawal from assignments, excellent tools for confirming and reminding, nor the proper tools for staff to feel confident in who was going to show up to do what. We have all of that now!

In summary, waitlisting complicates the heck out of everything and discourages volunteers from signing up for their second or third option. The metrics in our studies have proven this to be true. If you think we’re wrong, we’d love to hear from you.

Mark Hopwood
Mark Hopwood
President and Co-Founder

Mark Hopwood began their work experience in 1997 as the founder of Rosewood Computing Solutions, LLC until 2001. Mark then co-founded Synergenic, LLC from 2001 to 2002. Since 2003, Mark has been the President of VolunteerMatters.

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