Leadership and the Future of Volunteering

The old structure of volunteer management is broken. Strong leadership is required to fix it.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of your organization. They sit on your board, lead your committees, and develop the ideas that drive an association’s work. Why, then, are people so eager to avoid it?

ASAE’s 2008 publication The Decision to Volunteer reported that while association volunteers generally feel positive about their volunteer experience, a large chunk of members want nothing to do with it: 27.9 percent say they are “very unlikely” to volunteer for their association in the next 12 months, and few (13.9 percent) say they are “very likely” to recommend volunteering to a friend or colleague. It is a matter of finding the right volunteers, with the right skills, for the right job, at the right time.

Theories abound for the reasons behind this: burnout, busy personal lives, time commitment, simple lack of awareness of what volunteering involves. A new white paper on the subject sheds some new light on the subject, adds a handful of thoughtful case studies, and offers a sensible framework for a less dysfunctional volunteer structure. But the change won’t happen in a vacuum. Indeed, a common but unspoken theme in the paper is that a strong leader stepped in to make sure old volunteer methods got tossed.

Smarter, Faster Volunteering

The paper, titled “The Mission Driven Volunteer,” [PDF] was cowritten by Peggy Hoffman, CAE, and Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, and it opens with a fairly dire portrait of the current state of association volunteering. The rusty ’72 Dodge Dart that is the current volunteer model—low enthusiasm, low attendance, low accomplishment—is fueled largely by a failure to respond to generational differences, along with an overly restrictive structure. As Boomers slowly edge toward retirement, they’re being replaced by Gen Xers who are impatient with all your rules, man, and Millennials who expect to do meaningful work quickly.

“While younger, upcoming generations are  willing and enthusiastic volunteers,” Hoffman and Engel write, “they seek different  kinds of volunteer experiences that their predecessors, ones  that are less about structure, position, and prestige, and are focused instead on independence, meaning, impact, and ‘getting it done,’ none of which are easily accommodated by the traditional committee model.”

Three Fixes

The authors spotlight three organizations that successfully retooled their volunteer structures to more closely resemble adhocracies—task forces that assemble to address particular problems or innovative idea proposals. At the Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA), town hall meetings serve as ideation sessions and low-commitment opportunities increased. The National Fluid Power Association (NFPA) created more opportunities for volunteers to engage and cleared away that brush that kept people at different volunteer levels from communicating. And the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) keeps only two standing committees; everything else is done by committees that form around a relevant issue and then disband.

“It is a matter of finding the right volunteers, with the right skills, for the right job, at the right time,” Hoffman and Engel write. Simple sentiment. But it’ll require a lot of work to make that happen.

The Leader’s Role in Volunteering Innovation

One irony of adhocracies is that they don’t truly self-organize; somebody has to create the environment that allows an adhocracy to thrive. One thread that runs through each of the associations the white paper discusses is that decision makers played an important role in this regard. MACPA’s CEO, Tom Hood, wrote the report-outs from those town-hall meetings himself. ONS “pushes” its members to volunteer with an aggressive information campaign, after which participants are encouraged to “pull” together self-organizing groups. And NFPA’s new volunteer model was designed by its CEO, Eric Lanke, who explained his thinking in a follow-up blog post to the white paper. “I really rebelled against the traditional chart with committees reporting up to the Board like employees reporting up to their boss,” he writes. “That seemed too ‘command and control’ to me, and, importantly, inaccurate when it came to describing how my association functioned and how I wanted it to continue functioning.”

Which is to say that Lanke needed to take charge in order to avoid a command-and-control structure. That’s something to keep in mind before tearing up your volunteering playbook: Even if its replacement is more centerless and less heirarchical, somebody will still need to be in charge.

How have you made your volunteer structures more flexible, and what hands-on role did you play in making it happen? Share your experience in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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