You Can Sit With Us: The Power of Acceptance and Belonging

One of the most significant issues most volunteer leaders talk with us about is motivating and retaining volunteers. There seems to be a constant cycle of losing volunteers, recruiting new ones, training and then going through the period again. The problem is, this takes up tremendous amounts of time and resources. What if we had a volunteer team who was in it for the long haul? Loyal and committed return volunteers are like unicorns. Most of us think they don’t exist, but we sure would love to have one if we could get it!

There are many strategies for improving the life-cycle of your volunteer. One of the easiest ways to start is to invite someone to sit with you.

We’ve all experienced it. We’re the new kid. Holding our tray of cafeteria food and nervously looking around the room for a place to sit. It feels like everyone already has their group of friends and are laughing at their regular seats. If only one person would look up at you and smile, life would just be perfect, and the lunchroom wouldn’t feel so much like the Thunderdome. In the movie Mean Girls, the titular clique rejects one of their own when she wears a sweatsuit on Monday (instead of the designated casual Friday) by stating, “You can’t sit with us.”

Inviting someone to sit with you was the ultimate show of acceptance in my childhood. It demonstrated belonging. When you sat, you were part of the group, the tribe, one of the gang. You were automatically a part of inside jokes and felt a sense of inclusion. It’s a beautiful feeling.

That’s why tribe mentality is so strong. When people are accepted and feel they belong, they are more inclined to develop strong emotional bonds with your brand. Strong emotional bonds lead to repeat volunteering and ambassador behaviors where they begin to recruit other team members themselves. Science proves that a sense of belonging can create repeat business. If that’s the case. Can’t the same feelings of acceptance lead to volunteers who are loyal and passionate about your brand?

In college, I spent a lot of time volunteering with local middle-schoolers (ages 11-14 years). I absolutely love this age group. It’s a time when kids develop strong friendships, seriously get into hobbies they like, and generally begin to learn their personal identity. It’s also a time when they start becoming aware of social hierarchy and experience strong urges of wanting to fit in with their peers. One of my roles as a volunteer was to meet first-time guests and register them in the organization’s system. I quickly learned, this process was filled with anxiety for the kids. They were coming to a new place where they didn’t know anyone, and there was a lot of pressure to find a group they could fit in with quickly. I started doing something with those kids that I ended up using in all other areas of my life. I would learn their name, take them into the room with the other kids, find a group of students I knew, and say, “Hey guys! I want you to meet my friend, Jake!” The new student would look at me with big eyes and then look back at the other kids. Right away the teens would step a little to the side to let the new member of the group into the circle. That was it. He was accepted. All it took was introducing him as my friend. It was a simple little social experiment. I tried it hundreds of times with different students who came through the program. I found the straightforward title immediately identified the newcomer as not only accepted by me but part of my tribe. Since they were with me, others accepted them quickly too. Soon, I began using this trick in all my social interactions. At work, when a colleague would call my extension, I would answer with, “Hi friend! What can I do for you?” At school, I would plop down next to my deskmate and nod, “How’s it going, friend?” The title turned prophetic. It turns out, if you start calling people “Friend” they start acting like one.

It was such a simple gesture, but it forever changed how I interact with people. Now, there are no such things as strangers. Just potential new friends.

If it sounds overly simplistic, it’s because it really is. The trouble is, a lot of times we’re just too busy, too shy, too important, too (fill-in-the-blank) to take the initiative and make those connections.

This week, when you see someone nervously looking around for a friendly face, smile. Wave them over. Scooch over a bit and make room. Pat the space beside you. There’s always room for one more.

Yes, you can sit with us.

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