Strategy Session: Get the Best From Volunteers

How can you build stronger volunteer relationships at your association? Treat them more like your staff.

Volunteers are essential to the health of associations, but how well do associations keep their hearts pumping? A new study suggests that treating volunteers more like staff members—providing more preparation, guidance, and especially feedback—can help associations slot better volunteers into more appropriate roles.

The study, “Achieving Mutually Beneficial Volunteer Relationships,” [PDF] conducted by the ASAE Foundation with Mariner Management and Whorton Marketing & Research, reports that association volunteers carry a heavy load: Between 20 and 25 percent of an association’s work hours are supplied by volunteers, says Peter Houstle, Mariner Management CEO. However, associations often dedicate few staffers to coordinate those volunteers—a mean of 2.5 FTEs, according to the report, usually distributed across multiple employees and often as secondary responsibilities.

We have jobs that are poorly designed in the first place.

Small wonder nearly a third of associations say they have volunteers who aren’t suited for their roles. “We have people who raise their hands, but if we haven’t developed jobs they can do, regardless of how many staff we have to support that, it’s like they raise their hand and there’s nothing for them to do,” Houstle says.

One way to start closing that gap, says Mariner Management President Peggy Hoffman, CAE, is to use the same kind of HR tools with volunteers that associations use with their staffs—in particular, associations should establish volunteer job roles and assess performance.

“The problem is that the system doesn’t really evaluate the volunteer, the individual,” Hoffman says. “We don’t do what we do with paid staff. We have an HR situation, and we need to apply good HR principles.”

The study suggests volunteers are hungry for that kind of clarity: 38 percent of volunteers surveyed said they want clearer expectations, and 32 percent said they want more feedback. That feedback ought to be a two-way street, Houstle says: Staff should also listen to whether the volunteers find their roles meaningful and responsive to the association’s current needs.

“We have jobs that are poorly designed in the first place, so we bring people in to do the job that’s poorly designed and they do a poor job,” he says.

Beyond asking volunteers for their feedback, Houstle recommends that association leaders learn more about structuring their volunteer programs by getting involved themselves. Many staffers “don’t have a visceral understanding of what it means to be a volunteer in the first place,” he says. “I think that would probably change for many the way they view volunteers generally and the way they manage volunteers.”

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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