How Micro-Volunteering Builds Association Ownership

A sense of ownership among members is what sets associations apart from other forms of business. Micro-volunteering—if managed well—can be a key route to building ownership among members far and wide.

One of the most important potential differences between being a subscriber to something like a publication and being a member in an association is the element of ownership. You subscribe to Sports Illustrated, but you don’t own any part of it. But as a member of an association, you’ve joined a group of people who collectively own the organization. (In many cases you may in fact own a vote by virtue of being a member.)

Two weeks ago, we discussed the question of “who belongs to whom?” in an association. One commenter noted that some associations lack a sense of ownership among members. I think that’s common, especially for associations with large memberships and correspondingly large paid staffs. Many people come to associations with a tangible need—no different than a need for a product at a store—and their interaction with the association never leads them to consider a role beyond filling that need; ownership is never part of the equation.

Hence the word potential in the opening sentence above. The less an association cultivates a sense of ownership—or at least belonging—among its members, the more it begins to resemble just any other business.

It’s real hard to not renew when you’re part of a community.

A great way to build that sense of ownership is through micro-volunteering opportunities. In the September/October issue of Associations Now, we share some examples of micro-volunteering roles from Peggy Hoffman, CAE, president of Mariner Management and Marketing. At several small associations that Mariner manages, Hoffman enlists members for a variety of simple roles at events, ranging from greeting attendees to set-up/tear-down to taking photos for the association’s website.

Getting members involved in the execution of the event gives them a stake in its success, she says, and doing this regularly with a lot of volunteers has broad ripple effects.

First is just the simple effect of engagement on renewals. “It’s real hard to not renew when you’re part of a community,” Hoffman says.

The practice of micro-volunteering also helped one association Hoffman works with weather the economic downturn. “At a time when it’s tighter and there’s less money to go around, if people are plugged in, we find they’ll come to the table and work a little bit harder as volunteers to offset some of the loss of income,” she says. “So, for example, for one of our groups, they took over some of the services to save on the management fee, but they could do that because they had built that volunteer muscle.”

Managing micro-volunteering might be a new skill to develop for a lot of associations. Hoffman and Elizabeth Engel, CAE, CEO and chief strategist at Spark Consulting, co-authored a whitepaper released in August titled “The Mission Driven Volunteer” [PDF], in which they argue for a break from the old norms of association volunteering. As my colleague Mark Athitakis wrote about their work, “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.”

A common objection or challenge to implementing large-scale micro-volunteering programs is the inefficiency in managing so many volunteers for small roles. Indeed, in any association that leans toward the staff-driven end of the spectrum, staff do the work often because doing the work is faster than managing volunteers who do the work. But that’s when the association begins to lose that sense of ownership among its members. The value of getting the work done faster or more efficiently should be balanced against the value of keeping members engaged in the work of the association.

Without efficient ways to manage large numbers of volunteers, that balance will always tip toward the former. However, Hoffman has identified tools that make managing micro-volunteering easier, such as Sparked and iVolunteer. Tools like these and others will be increasingly important to identify and learn to use as generations X and Y continue to show preference for short-term, more focused volunteer roles. Generating a sense of ownership for the association among those members will require adapting to to these new methods.

Hoffman’s examples illustrate a great place to start. How are you developing ad hoc and micro-volunteer opportunities for your members? Are you finding it easier or harder to cultivate a sense of ownership among your members today than in the past? Please share in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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