Let Volunteer Leaders See What They’ve Signed Up For

Volunteers show up because they want to support your association. But keeping them means clarifying their responsibilities. Here's how one association uses video to do it.

Ask most association volunteers why they give their time to the organization, and most will tell you they want to “give back” to their organization. ASAE discovered this in its Decision to Volunteer study. When the Ontario Real Estate Association put similar questions to its membership, it came to a similar conclusion: Eighty percent of its members said in a 2012 survey that their top reason for volunteering is to give back to the profession. But it’s the answers a bit lower down the list that’s inspired some interesting shifts at OREA with how it engages with and supports volunteers.

After all, “giving back” can be a weak peg to hang volunteering on, especially if the volunteer doesn’t receive much guidance about what serving on the association means, or what skills they might acquire after they raised their hand. When OREA began investigating the matter in earnest about 10 years ago, says Bill Shepherd, CAE, executive director of OREA’s Centre for Leadership Development, the organization “discovered that the volunteers who were coming through needed training. It was fine to have a volunteer, but now what?”

The answer is in some of those other survey responses. Forty-eight percent said they volunteered “to obtain new skills/experiences.” And when asked what would encourage them to volunteer, the most common response is having more information on what volunteering actually involves.

The volunteers who were coming through needed training. It was fine to have a volunteer, but now what?

So OREA has been doing both. It’s created a series of leadership courses designed to assist volunteers from the first-time committee member to president of the board. “We tried to scale it so that people were gathering the skills as they were going, from committee member to chairing the committee to becoming a member of board of directors, then marching up to become president,” says Shepherd. “We have something for everybody along the way.”

That process has been in place for about eight years now, and has been a driver for volunteers—Shepherd says OREA’s 40 real-estate boards are now either at capacity or have a waiting list. Shepherd credits some of that to the relatively clear and simple learning curve it offers to volunteers—which speaks to what it started doing for volunteers this year.

One virtue of the courses are their specificity, getting into precise details of the particular nature of each part of board work, from parliamentary procedure to meetings management to decision making. Earlier this year OREA has been supplementing the courses with a series of “just in time” videos to help bolster what leaders are learning on some of the fine points. For instance, here’s a three-minute video on committee structures:

And here’s a video demonstrating how to control discussion in a board meeting:

In other words, the videos—about 20 are available on YouTube at the moment—cover “the little things that they need to know,” Shepherd says. “We find that we don’t always have time in the workshops to focus on these things.” Participants were also eager for opportunities to visualize these particular points in action. “Other people just like looking at videoes—they just learn better,” he says.

The benefit for any association that’s hurting for talented board leaders is obvious: Here’s a way to not just train volunteers in essential skills, but to do it quickly—-and, not unimportantly, to sell the virtues of volunteering to potential leaders in advance. “They’re using our leadership program as a recruitment tool,” Shepherd says. “When they speak to a potential volunteer, they’ll say, ‘You’re not just thrown into a pack of wolves. We have a series of courses so you’ll feel perfectly comfortable int eh role that you have.’”

What does your organization do to clarify volunteer leadership for your potential volunteers? Share your experiences 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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