How to get and keep volunteers

(Yes. That is our CEO Kimmy volunteering at her buying club while wearing her preschooler)

Unless you have a teeny buying club chances are you need help on a regular basis. Trying to do everything yourself will limit how many families you can have in your group and, even with a small group, will likely result in burnout.

Volunteers are essential to keep your group sustainable in the long run. However, recruiting and keeping volunteers can be challenging. Managing them can be time consuming as well. We have learned a few things that help this process go smoother. They fit into two categories- recruiting volunteers and keeping volunteers.

Recruiting volunteers:

  • Make your needs known
    • Whatever communication channel you use to share information use it to announce what tasks need to be done. If people don’t know you need something they can’t help! Try and post tasks as far in advance as possible so members can plan.
  • Set a regular schedule for volunteering
    • While some tasks will be one off, many tasks can be lumped together at specific times. Don’t try and sort each order as it arrives (as tempting as it may be!)  but rather set days and times that sorting will happen. That way you can have several members show up and spend time together! Also it can help reduce the amount of time you spend working on the buying club.
  • Make simple one sheets on how to do jobs
    • From time to time there may be tasks that need to be completed when you aren’t around. Or there may be a time when you have 80 other things to do and don’t have the time to walk someone through a specific task. Having sheets that clearly outline the way a particular job needs to be done can help reduce errors and streamline volunteering.

Keeping volunteers:

  • Be consistent
    • People do best when they know what to expect. As best as you can strive to make hours, tasks, and projects consistent. Communicate early and often about what needs to get done. Creating a pattern will help with awareness! If you need to change things communicate what the change is upfront so your volunteers know what to expect.
  • Offer incentives
    • It would be lovely to not have to bribe volunteers but offering incentives can and does help. Reward volunteers who put in a certain number of hours or have all volunteers track their hours and hold a drawing for a prizes! Snacks at volunteer events encourage a fun and light atmosphere (as do treats like say wine).
  • Surcharge
    • Many buying clubs have either an additional fee for those who don’t volunteer or discount the membership fee for volunteering. It is a very simple method that can encourage volunteers to show up on a regular basis.
  • Provide ownership
    • Volunteers who feel heard, valued, and that they make an impact are the most likely to stay around in the long run. Endeavor as best as you can to give competent volunteers latitude to make their small part of the buying club their own be it hours they keep the buying club open, or they are in charge or a particular sort, or they manage a relationship with a designated vendor. If they feel responsible they will be more consistent.

Sort it all out!

Hooray! You ran a buy! You managed to get over the hump of your first order! Members are excited to get their goods, you have collected all the money, and you even placed the order with the vendor.

Now what do you do when it all arrives?

“Well I’ll just sort it” you think.

Just. Um. Sure.

You may be absolutely right. If it is a small order with not a lot of participants and not very many items, sorting can be relatively straightforward.

But what if you have 20 participants and 20 different items? Things can go downhill faster than you think.

We have seen it all when it comes to sorting and most groups move through several different ways of sorting throughout their existence. One constant, however, are packing lists or invoices. You have to know who has what. On Manage My Co-op this is available with the click of a button and easily printed. Whatever method you use just make sure you have a list of what each member ordered before you start sorting.

Once the order arrives your crucial first step is to note what has arrived and what is missing. Compare what you receive to the order you placed with the vendor and to the packing list. If anything is missing decide what you will do- substitute for another item, wait for the backorder to arrive, or credit the member for that item. When you decide communicate it quickly and clearly. Emails sent out about the buy is a great place to do this.

Ok. Now you have your items and your invoices or packing lists and are ready to sort. Here are a few ways we have seen things sorted along with the pros and cons:

  • Sort as people pick up.
    • When members show up use their packing list to find what items they ordered. Pack it up and off they go.
    • Pros- Member is there to help with the packing and they can often pack it themselves. Low volunteer needs.
    • Cons- If a mistake occurs the member has usually already left with their items so correcting a mistake is hard. Having a careful check out process that double checks orders is crucial. You might get shorted if people misweigh as they go.
  • Sort ahead of time by person
    • Have all the invoices printed. Pack all items for a member into a box as listed on the invoice. Nothing leaves the premise until all boxes have been packed.
    • Pros- Mistakes are easy to correct as all the items are still in the building. Easy for members to pick up as things are ready to go.
    • Cons- If you have a lot of members it can take up a lot of space. Volunteer intensive.
  • Sort ahead of time by item then by person
    • Take each item in an order and sort it out (Manage My Co-op has an easy Order Items report for you!). So if you have a 50 lb bag of rice divide it up into the ordered quantities. Once all items have been sorted use the invoices to pack up each member’s box.
    • Pros- You will immediately know if you are short something of if there are extras of a certain item. Orders are ready to go when members show up. Mistakes are easy to correct at either stage because all the items are still in the building.
    • Cons- Volunteer intensive.  

Bottom line? We recommend you sort everything before anything leaves the building.

In our experience we have found that smaller groups with smaller orders can sort by person without much trouble. Larger orders (with lots of items) or orders with lots of members benefit the most from sorting by item then by member. Sure it is an extra step but it will save you so much time rectifying errors at the end. Trust us.
So how does your group manage sorting?

Access, Curation, and Savings Oh My!

Let’s talk about some things that are true.

First off buying clubs are a bit of work. Using a tool like Manage My Co-op makes managing one easier but there is still a lot of work to be done.

But on the other hand, buying clubs are awesome. The communities they build are amazing. Working together for a shared common goal is thrilling.

So why do it? We have found that buying clubs provide their members, and manager, three main benefits- access, curation, and savings. Different clubs have different emphases but by and large groups all offer some degree of all three.

Access

When you are buying in bulk you can often buy goods and foods that are otherwise not available in your community. One example we see often is with heirloom fruits and vegetables. A farmer might grow a special crop of kale knowing that the local buying club will buy the harvest. Alternatively, we see buying clubs buy cases of specialty apples that aren’t in local stores.

And let’s not forget chocolate. Have a favorite chocolate bar but no local store carries it? Buying clubs can usually easily aggregate enough demand to order a large shipment every few months. Just remember to stock up!

Curation

Buying club managers put a lot of time and effort into the products they offer their members. For food, they usually know the farmer or producer personally. They know the story behind the products. They know how the field is managed or the cow was raised.

Sure you can curate your own food but it takes an immense amount of time or money. As a group, you can share the labor and curate foods and goods that meet the desires of the members in your group.

For me (Kimmy) this is my favorite aspect. At our buying club in Eugene, we get the most delicious coffee from Cafe Mam. I bought it for months before I realized it was shade grown, fairtrade, AND organic. One of the members of our group had done the leg work to provide us with not only delicious coffee but with an ethical sustainable product. Oh, and it’s local too.

Savings

Chances are high you joined or started a buying club because it would save you money. Buying in bulk is naturally cheaper even if you have to pay for overhead expenses for your club. In our experience, we see groups save anywhere from 5-50% or more off of retail. Typically most groups average a 30% savings.

How much you will save will depend on the size of your group, what your buying club fees are (we strongly believe all groups should charge a fee), and what kind of products you are buying. You will rarely ever see a savings on dairy products. Produce, however, you can save a considerable amount. With toys, such as Melissa and Doug, you can save a lot.

I think saving money is the number one reason people start buying clubs. I also think as groups grow it becomes more of a secondary aspect to being in a buying club. Access to specialty foods/goods and curation of quality products will usually quickly take center stage. Sure, you will likely still be saving money as you go but I will bet you that it will not be your main reason for continuing to participate or run a club in the long run.

(And as an aside to buying club managers- we here at MMC have noticed that groups that foster curation and access are more sustainable and better managed in the long run. Groups that focus on savings tend to wind up with curmudgeonly members who gripe. Just our two cents. Want to chat about this? Drop Czarena or me a line)

Why Membership

The landscape of buying clubs is ever changing. The nature of running and being a part of a buying club is that this change will be constant. Members will come and go, you will move into or out of a building, state and federal laws may go into effect, and suppliers will go out of business.

Some of these changes are great. When you have an awesome new volunteer float into your life it can make running your group so much smoother. New farmers in your area can supply you with delicious foods you didn’t have access to before. Having to move to a new space can mean your group is growing!

On the other hand some changes are challenging. New laws that change the way farmers can sell to consumers can make getting your favorite foods to your members challenging. Moving your group out of a residential area to a commercial one is both exciting and incredibly challenging.

One change we have noticed of late here at Manage My Co-op is the move towards membership based groups. If your group has been open, everyone is welcome to participate, no membership required we want to encourage you to move towards a membership based group. Here is why:

  • Private groups keep you safe: If you are running a group requiring membership helps protect you. You have an agreement from the people joining your group. The rules of the group have been clearly stated and expectations have been set. The chances of someone ordering then not paying for their order greatly decreases. Also, with agreements, you are more likely to know your members better than if someone you have never met just decides to participate.
  • Membership helps work around some tricky things: First and foremost we are not claiming to be experts in the laws of your state but what we have found here at MMC is that groups who are private, who require a membership fee and have a signed agreement, are exempt from many of the regulations around buying and sellings foods that a public group might face. If you are not offering goods to the public you generally fall into a different category than say a retail store.
  • It creates buy in from your members: Many membership agreements we have seen require members to agree to volunteering or helping out. When members read this and agree to it they are more likely to participate. Also when you require a membership fee (however small) your member is financially investing in your group and has made the decision to join you.

Ok, I can imagine you are saying “sure this is all well and good Kimmy but this is hard!” I wholeheartedly agree. But in this instance I think the hard work is well worth it to keep your group around and keep you sustainable.

So how do you go about doing this and what should you do? Well, we recommend:

  • First make your group private: If you are on Facebook, Yahoo Groups, or Google Docs make the information about what buys you are running, how to place an order, when and where pick up is, etc private. Manage My Co-op keeps all of your buy information private already.
  • Draft a membership agreement: This step can take some time. Go easy on yourself. Put together a group of key volunteers to help you. Contact me at kimmy@managemy.coop or Czarena at czarena@managemy.coop if you need help with this step. We have samples we can give you.
  • Set a membership fee: The fee, and its use, varies by group. We have seen everything from $5- $250 a year/lifetime. Most of the time the funds go towards support the group and for infrastructure. Do consider setting up a scholarship fund or payment plan for members who might not be able to afford it.
  • Make the transition: Be very clear about when the agreements will go into place and how the transition will happen. We encourage you to give people about a month to transition. Once the due date to turn in your form has passed do remove people from your group that haven’t completed it. Rolling enrollment will allow members who missed the deadline to re-enroll at a later point.
  • Don’t get discouraged: You will likely get some pushback from some members. It’s hard to hear negative feedback. Hang in there and know the reason you are doing this is to keep your group sustainable and around for many more years.

    I hope this is helpful. If you have any suggestions to add please comment below so other groups can learn from your expertise.

Get your village

Mamas, papas, husbands, wives, women, men, people,

Let’s talk about village for a minute. I am extraordinarily passionate about fostering connection between people. It has personally saved me more times than I can count. I know first hand the importance of having people you trust in your life.

I am talking about people outside your family. So while you may (luckily) have that connection with your sister, dad, aunt, cousin, there is something magical about closeness with a chosen family. In fact studies have shown it improves mother’s well being.

In 2015 a group of researchers from the University of Western Australia surveyed 313 mothers with kids under the age of 5. They found that mothers who had social support networks and who participated in parenting groups had better social and emotional well being than those who went at it alone. Mothers who were in communities for longer than three years also scored better than those who had recently moved.

Community matters. It completes us.

Sadly over the years it has decreased. We have moved to the suburbs, erected our fences, and taken to shopping at the pristine grocery stores. No longer do we linger with friends over a cup of coffee or reach out to truly know who our neighbors are.

So what does this have to do with buying clubs?

Buying clubs only work if you have a community. Spending time with others, working towards a goal of purchasing at a discount, sorting your purchases in someone’s home all make us spend time together and foster a sense of community and belonging. Yes this may seem like a tiny thing but here at Manage My Co-op we have watched it happen over and over again. Buying clubs naturally foster this connection.

So what can you do as a member of one of these groups? Or if you run a group?

  • The first step to all of this is showing up.
  • The second is simply making the choice to be involved.
  • The third? Look for the connections. Seek it out by asking questions or sharing about your life. Relatively quickly you will realize that you share a common purpose or direction.

Repeat steps one through three over and over. Through the process you will find that only will you have access to awesome deals with your aggregate purchasing power but you will find that you can grow a village with these like minded people.