Making sure your volunteers are active in your association is deeply tied to how you measure and prioritize member engagement. I was asked what my experience has been from the perspective of having been both a volunteer and as an executive dependent on volunteers. I wish I had an the answer on recruiting, retaining, effectively utilizing volunteer’s skills, respecting their time, showing appreciation for their dedication without burning them out or causing their disillusion.
While I certainly don’t have a silver bullet for all things volunteering—and, in fact, there most likely isn’t just one answer on how to master volunteering—I have picked up a few strategies along the way.
1. Open the Ranks
I think the way one approaches volunteerism is largely dependent on the organization. For instance, when I worked for a Medical Society, all my members were local, which made it seamless for them to engage with the paid staff. The society conducted breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings for committee and board members. And because we only had a couple thousand members, it was a close-knit group. Like many established communities, this one had a self-regulating hierarchy—in other words you had to work and earn your way into the volunteer club. Often this meant serving on various “lesser” committees, associating or ingratiating oneself to the existing leadership and biding your time. Those who could endure the process without stubbing their political toes or becoming jaded by “seeing how the sausage was made,” advanced to ever more prominent volunteer positions. If you couldn’t then you didn’t.
The system kinda worked, but in retrospect it wasn’t open despite the best efforts of the organization to attract new talent. One of the struggles I witnessed was when we did attract a new “superstar,” we tried to get them involved in everything at every level possible. Burnout was inevitable and while it happened with great regularity, we never learned because we were always busy (desperate) searching for the next super volunteer. Our failure was not having the foresight to build a bench of volunteers who could complement and augment one another.
2. Learn from Those Who Do It Well
My volunteer experience at ASAE couldn’t have been more different, and while I don’t know the inner workings of the ASAE volunteer infrastructure, I can tell you my experience was nothing short of inspiring and the support from ASAE was outstanding.
My ASAE experience started with a call for volunteers. This clearly set out the various opportunities and succinctly articulated ASAE’s expectations of me if I were fortunate enough to be selected to serve. Not only did I fully understand what I was signing up for, it created mystery as to whether I would be chosen. I found myself thinking like that kid on the playground: “pick me, pick me!” But more importantly it drove home the importance of remaining committed if I were selected.
ASAE also does an outstanding job of communicating with its volunteers, regarding the organization and its initiatives. It made me feel like I was an important part of the process. Further, committee members are expected to attend an annual kick-off meeting to make sure everyone on the committee understands the committee’s purpose. In my case, we also had a mid-year face-to-face meeting, in addition to our monthly committee meetings.
Is the ASAE model perfect? I suspect they’d be the first to say it is not, but it’s darn good and if you’re looking to emulate a solid process, I recommend you start by contacting ASAE.
12 More Strategies to Savor
If I were initiating or revising a volunteer community. I’d start with these strategies to drive engagement and enthusiasm:
- Don’t allow just any warm body to become a volunteer—screen them to make sure there is alignment and understanding of the organization’s purpose. You want a healthy mix of opinions—opposing ideas are wonderful if done with the purpose of creating meaningful change. At the same time, you want to screen out people who want a seat at the table to instigate chaos for the pure sake of creating a disruption.
- Make certain the volunteers understand what they are volunteering to do and they are firmly committed to following through on the commitment.
- If a volunteer goes through some sort of life change and their level of commitment changes, help them step down in an honorable manner while leaving the door open for future service opportunities.
- A solid staff liaison to a volunteer committee is critical. (Our staff liaison at ASAE was Alexis Terry and she was awesome!)
- Periodic face-to-face committee meetings are critical. How can you possibly work and achieve high levels of excellence if you don’t have solid relationships with members of the committee?
- Rotate members through the committee and stagger their tenure. I cringe when I think about the various boards/committees who have members serving in their twenty-fifth (or more) year.
- Conduct regular volunteer forums where the executive leadership team communicates the organization’s vision.
- Provide learning/teaching opportunities to help volunteers understand their role.
- Make certain volunteers know when and how it is—or isn’t—appropriate to speak as representatives of the organization.
- Evangelize the organization and the benefits of volunteering and belonging.
- Encourage volunteers to actively participate in the organization’s social media platform.
- Thank your volunteers. Simple recognition and a thank you for service goes a long way. At Aptify and at ASAE volunteers are often thanked publicly at regional or national events.
Like I said, there’s no one answer to driving member engagement through volunteering, so please share your thoughts below. What have you seen that works? Or doesn’t.
Improve how you measure, analyze, and increase your member engagement with our three-part series: Scoring Member Engagement.