Leading Volunteers From the CEO Suite

Staff leaders have plenty to manage beside the volunteer pipeline. One volunteer-leader-turned-CEO discusses how to spotlight volunteering without managing it day-to-day.

Leadership runs on at least two tracks: It involves not just gathering the skills to become a better leader yourself, but helping others lead as well.

That’s especially true when it comes to association volunteering, I think: because serving on committees and boards doesn’t involve financial compensation (usually), the need to be a leader and to help others lead is all the more pressing. That’s one of the conclusions I came to while reporting “Step by Step,” my feature story in the Associations Now Volunteer Leadership Issue. As the people I spoke with explained, there’s a constant effort to identify, train, and support volunteers, and for volunteers to develop those abilities themselves. As consultant and former association executive Donna French Dunn, CAE, points out of successful volunteers, “Board leaders, not just the board chair, have a great sense of what’s also going on in the world around them.”

There’s an interesting postscript to this story: Shortly after the article was wrapped up, one of the people I spoke with, Cecilia Sepp, CAE, became an association executive. I spoke with Sepp in her capacity as a longtime association volunteer and expert in volunteer management. But now that she’s running the show at an association—she’s president and CEO of the American College of Health Care Administrators—how has she helped support volunteers?

You don’t know enough in the first 90 days to make sweeping changes.

It’s early days yet—Sepp began at ACHCA at the start of 2016. But she made sure to come in with a supportive attitude toward the variety of volunteer roles at the association, from the board to committees to chapter leaders. “I’ve worked at a couple of organizations where the chief staff executive did not really like having chapters, and would say things like ‘this chapter just causes me problems,’” she says. “I was between the chief staff executive and the volunteer liaison, and that not a comfortable place to be sometimes if you don’t have an executive who’s supportive.”

At ACHCA, she’s found enthusiastic volunteers, but also work to be done, especially when it comes to limiting the bureaucratic aspects of running chapters. “Like other associations we struggle to make sure that chapters are getting the support they need,” she says. “There are responsibilities that all chapters have, but what we’re trying to do for them is relieve some of the administrative burden that has been created over the years, and make that easier for them, so they can spend their time doing things like planning networking events, having webinars and writing newsletters.”

To highlight the priority she’s given to volunteering, she’s made a bit of an org-chart change, having ACHCA’s volunteer relations staffer report directly to her. “I think that sends a message to the chapters of how important they are, because the CEO is getting directly involved,” she says. However, she’s made a point of approaching changes with care. ACHCA is a relatively small association, with 2,300 members and six staff members, and though its staff doesn’t have deep volunteer experience outside ACHCA itself, early on Sepp is more interested in talking about its process than rushing to retool them. “A lot of CEOs feel they need to come in and change everything and put their imprint on them immediately,” she says. “You don’t know enough in the first 90 days to make those sweeping changes.”

But in addition to hearing out the processes the association already has in place, she’s been working to impart the importance of guiding volunteers on their own path, even if she has plenty of competing priorities on top of volunteer management. “I am already working with my staff to talk about some of these things,” she says. “What are we doing in this organization for our volunteers? Are there things we want to do differently? Are there things we should do differently? Can we make it more interesting and engaging for them? What I’ve started telling my staff is, they’re doing this to get something out of it. We have to make sure they have a meaningful experience.”

What do you do as an executive to guide volunteers on their paths, and how do you balance that job along with your other responsibilities? 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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