At this nonprofit, group volunteers don’t just act: they reflect – and create great social media content

Greg Rockwell solved a marketing problem and an education problem with four simple questions. Along the way he created a more meaningful volunteer experience.

Greg, the Community Relations Manager for THRIVE DC, a nonprofit that serves the homeless in Washington, DC, observed that the groups showing up to assist with meal preparation knew very little about homelessness – or about the organization. At the end of their shifts, the groups were leaving with the satisfaction in a job well done but without much added insight into the needs of the clients they served or how THRIVE DC helps to turn their lives around.

At the same time, the development staff needed content to share on social media platforms. And while volunteer stories are great to share, the underlying emotional connection is much more compelling.

The question was, how to gather this kind of information in a simple, easy-to-access kind of way?

One of THRIVE DC’s social media posts: Greg Rockwell (second from right, back row), poses with a group, highlighting a volunteer takeaway

For Greg and his team, the answer was to build reflection time into the volunteer experience. They created a four-question handout that is given to group members at the end of the volunteer shift. Then, the group and THRIVE DC staff sit down together to consider the questions and discuss the takeaways.

The questions are:

  1. What are your impressions of THRIVE DC?
  2. What are things that you discovered you had in common with our clients?
  3. What moment, conversation, or realization stood out for you today?
  4. When you leave here, what can you do to end or prevent homelessness?

“The most common first impression of volunteers is that our program is efficient and organized,” says Greg, “but once they turn their attention to their own feelings and observations, the comments become very different – and quite moving.”

One volunteer observed, “One woman told us we provided joy in a life otherwise filled with misery. I will never forget that.”


Another commented, “I was conversing with one of the clients and I was kind of shocked at how many views we shared and how similar our ways of thinking were. The person was very open to hearing my view, just as much as I was about theirs.”


One student said, “When the chef and I were handing out grocery bags, a man started singing and people started dancing and clapping along. It was very powerful to watch.”


When the volunteers consider how they might continue to end or prevent homelessness, the responses look like this:

  • Volunteer more or donate more goods and clothing
  • Step up the advocacy to keep people out of homelessness.
  • Get to know the homeless in their neighborhoods and respect them as individuals

“We don’t track whether our volunteers follow up on their next steps, but we have observed that more groups are returning to volunteer,” Greg added.

After the debriefs, the staff takes a group photo, which is uploaded to THRIVE DC’s social media accounts, along with one of the volunteer quotes. The group photos and quotes rank among the organization’s most liked and re-shared posts.

Sometimes marketing is considered a negative.  It’s considered, “pushy,” or “manipulative,” not to be trusted. The implication is that marketing cons the public into buying or doing something they don’t want. But those actions are not true marketing. True marketing is all about communicating the value of a service. It’s an opportunity to meet important needs. In THRIVE DC’s case, the content created by the debriefs goes straight to the heart of volunteering. And the process of creating that content gives volunteers a deeper experience.


Readers in DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. If you want to learn the for-profit techniques that attract volunteers who will stay and donors who give, attend my June 20 marketing intensive.  All the details are here – – or email me if you have any questions.  – Elisa