The Dublin Food Co-op is a wholefoods co-operative committed to providing the community with control over their access to affordable, wholesome and sustainably produced food – local, organic and zero waste. I became a member in 2020 and have been actively volunteering since 2021.
Successful food co-ops rely on volunteer support to help keep operating costs down, which in turn keeps the food affordable. Volunteers avail of a discount in the shop in proportion to hours worked each month. However, after COVID hit and the staff had to temporarily pause volunteering, the organization had a hard time rebuilding the volunteer community. I offered my services to help figure out why.
As members of a co-operative, we need to understand what’s working well and what needs to change in our volunteer scheme so that we can better engage our community members and sustain our cooperative business model.
Goals of the research study
The ultimate goal of this research study was to increase our number of volunteers. We aim to do that by understanding the following:
- What prevents members from volunteering in the first place
- Why former volunteers have not registered again after the COVID restrictions have lifted
- What parts of the volunteer experience worked well and should be maintained
- What parts of the volunteer experience did not work well and should be improved
- If any additional incentives could draw former volunteers back to the co-op
Participants & methodology
At first, I contacted existing members who had never volunteered for 30 minute generative interviews. I received little response so I then shifted gears toward former volunteers. I opted for an anonymous survey as a way to reach a wider audience, and speed up the data collection. I also acknowledged that if a former volunteer had negative feedback to share, they may feel more comfortable doing it in an anonymous survey than to a fellow member.
If I had more time, I would have also held interviews or at least surveyed existing volunteers to compare against the data from past volunteers. This could have helped prioritize areas of improvement—if an issue existed then and still exists today, then it’s important to address ASAP.
What did we learn
Takeaways and recommendations
New ideas to try
While the data gathered in this round of research was about past volunteer experiences, I recognized that the ultimate goal was to figure out how to regrow our volunteer base. As such, I made some suggestions based on the findings that could directly impact this goal.
- Try out a different approach to recruitment by advertizing specific roles, with clear expectations of tasks and compensation. Advertise on the co-op’s website, via email, and even in external job communities.
- Focus on recruiting and welcoming newly joined members who don’t already have a pre-established relationship with the co-op.
- Have a dedicated over-seer role for volunteer recruitment and success. This could be a volunteer position and could be as simple as sending out quarterly surveys to volunteers to see how they’re getting on.
- Be more transparent about our goals and current affairs. Deliver the message that volunteering is a way to help cut operational costs, which is critical to the success of the co-op.
- I was able to support a local non-profit that aligns with my values, where I am an active member and hold a stake in the organization’s success.
- Typically, I volunteer in the shop 2 hours a week, helping out with the check-out counter, stocking and displaying produce, and keeping the space clean and organized. This opportunity allowed me to volunteer at a more strategic level.
- This was essentially a pilot project that will hopefully pave the way for other professional members to contribute their own unique skills back to the co-op.