May 2, 2018

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

Three years ago, Jack Sheppard started his career with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay.

“You said you didn’t want talk to a journalist, but you’re talking to a journalist,” Sheppard said after I explained this newsletter and our monthly “not a journalist” week.

Turns out that Sheppard worked for 35 years in newspapers, including as sports editor at the Tampa Bay Times (which Poynter owns.)

He retired in 2014 and started at BBBS a month later.

“I knew when I left newspapers that I wanted to do something a little more meaningful than getting in the West Coast box scores,” Sheppard said.

And he knew Big Brothers Big Sisters. Sheppard and his wife started volunteering with the non-profit in 2003. Sheppard is now the managing director of partnerships. As we talked, one thing became really clear about how BBBS of Tampa Bay gets people to volunteer — they make it super easy.

“Don’t talk ‘em into it, don’t hard sell anybody,” he said. “Make it as easy and as quick as you can.”

Here are a few ways they do that.

Screen shot, Instagram
Screen shot, Instagram

Don’t harangue or hard sell. Just be where people are.

People often ask Sheppard what BBBS is looking for in their “bigs.” There’s no target, he said. You have to pass the background check. And you have to want to do it.

“We have great bigs who are CEOs of major companies and mailmen and cafeteria workers,” he said. “It’s really more what’s in your heart and your desire to make a difference and give back and work with a child.”

And they don’t find new bigs by pressuring people, he said.

“We don’t try to talk you into it.”

They do work to reach people in the many places they are, including on social media through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They’re constantly pushing out their message, Sheppard said.

Once people get that message, you have to …

Make it incredibly easy to sign up.

When Sheppard and his wife became bigs, the process was a lengthy one. BBBS of Tampa Bay registered people at events, then did background checks, then orientation, then matched them with kids.

“It was just a five- or six-step process that took months, so many people lost interest.”

Now, you start the process by going to an orientation. They’re at different times and during different days of the week in seven counties. You don’t have to register first. You just have to show up. From there, they schedule an interview.

“So in an hour, you’re about 90 percent of the way enrolled add processed.”

After successful background checks, bigs are matched with their littles in two to four weeks.

The result of that easy process? The percentage of people who actually become bigs has probably tripled, Sheppard said.

But you don’t have to make people come to you. You can literally go to them.

BBBS of Tampa Bay will also recruit bigs at specific workplaces. They’ll bring lunch, give their pitch, sign people up, and can get between 10 to 20 volunteers at one time. They return to the company for the background checks.

“You never have to leave your building,” Sheppard said. “It’s amazing how much easier it is for people to say yes when you bring the show on the road.”


Next week, we’re starting a new conversation about the concept of the funnel. What is it? How does it work? How should it change how we work? In the meantime, does your newsroom have events? Help Alexandra Smith out by taking this survey. Here are the 11 journalists who are launching the Membership Puzzle Project’s “Join the Beat” program. And you still have time to sign up for this online group seminar from Poynter’s News University on what the Table Stakes program is all about. (I’m part of it!)

See you next week!


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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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