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5 Things I Learned from Dad to Help Grow Volunteer Membership

“We’ve grown our membership each year and it is steadily growing.”

“How do you do that?”

“Basically, we are inviting, and we have certain standards that we maintain.”

Given that this is the IAFC’s newsletter, it would be natural to think that we are talking about a fire department, probably a volunteer one. Actually, this was the beginning of a conversation I had with my dad over the holidays. We were talking about how the church he attends is growing.

This was especially interesting, given that overwhelmingly, churches are currently dealing with decreasing membership. In 1992, 70% of Americans said they were a member of a church. In 2017, 25 years later, that number was 55%, a 15% drop.

Sound familiar? In the past 30 years, volunteer firefighters have declined by 12%.

The similarities between successful volunteer departments and this church didn’t stop with these few exchanged sentences. Other points were discussed, and here is how they may apply to helping your department:

  • “If a visitor comes to our church, they are approached by a member of our First Impressions Committee. This committee is made up of those who really know how to talk to people and make them feel welcome.”
    • Not everyone in your department is great at welcoming people, and that’s okay. Make sure that they know a sentence or two on how to talk to potential members and who they should refer them to.
  • “The First Impressions Committee gets some good information from the visitor. We get their name and email address and send them a letter within 24 hours. It shows them our website and tells how to take the next steps to join, including when the next orientation session occurs.”
    • Most departments find success when they quickly follow up with interested people. By including specific directions on how to apply to become a member, you set up a clear path for their next steps.
  • “Almost immediately, the new member begins an orientation to our church that is an hour every Sunday for four weeks. You cannot join the church without going through orientation.”
    • One of the areas where new members are most fragile is the onboarding process. What do I do now? How can I help when I have no training? Who do I turn to when I have questions? If your department doesn’t have a system to answer these questions and explain the next steps, you could be missing a great opportunity to get new members off on the right foot.
  • “When someone joins our church, they are told that everyone is expected to serve.”
    • Clear expectations should be part of your efforts to get people interested and in any introduction for potential members. When we aren’t crystal clear about what new members are getting into, it allows them to make up their own minds on what the department expects. When their believed expectations collide with actual department expectations, they may experience disappointment, regret and possibly anger at not being made aware of the way things operate.
  • “There is something for everyone to do. One of the things you wouldn’t think about is the parking team. Each Sunday, they help fill the parking lot in an organized manner and help those who need a little more attention get to the church. Usually those are the people who didn’t quite fit into another team or committee, but they love doing that job.”
    • People want to be a part of the team, a family, an organization. It is one of the reasons they join. By having something for everyone to do, their membership brings value to the team, family and organization. That feeling of value is an extremely important aspect of getting and keeping quality people.

There are a number of lessons to learn from this successful organization, but the final lesson is to not limit your focus to just other fire departments. Many types of organizations offer positive and negative examples of how to make your department better. Just like the volunteer fire service, to be successful, those organizations need to continue growing their membership by bringing in and keeping quality members.

If you have other civic organizations in your community — and you do — ask them where they have found success and what hurdles they experienced in failure. You may find some great ideas as well as new advocates for your organization.


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