National Volunteer Week: How to Engage and Assess Your Volunteers

New volunteers thrive when they’re given ad hoc opportunities instead of committee roles, according to one expert.

This week marks National Volunteer Week, an annual opportunity for associations to celebrate the work that volunteers do. And it is indeed work: According to the 2017 ASAE Foundation study “Mutually Beneficial Volunteerism,” volunteers contribute up to 25 percent of an association’s total work hours.

According to Peggy M. Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, president and managing partner at Mariner Management & Marketing and one of the study’s coauthors, that places a responsibility upon associations to think carefully about two aspects of volunteering: How to engage volunteers so they’ll start a relationship with your association, and how to give feedback that will sustain it.

What’s sitting on your desk that you can’t get to, that a member can potentially do?

On the engagement side, Hoffman said, associations will be more successful thinking about necessary tasks that volunteers can be recruited for, instead of just slotting them into preset committee niches. “Rather than just automatically say, ‘OK, we’re going to have all these jobs,’ they take on a new issue or opportunity and they build it differently than they would have in the past,” she said.

For instance, Hoffman noted one association that was looking to improve its member onboarding process. The membership committee asked a small ad hoc group outside the committee to lead a discussion about possible onboarding options, which were then fed to another ad hoc group that determined the product it should create as a result of that discussion. “People say, ‘It’s extra work. I could just give it to the committee. Why do I want to create this extra work?” Hoffman said. “Well, because that’s also the entree for your next generation of leaders.”

Finding essential volunteer tasks doesn’t necessarily require a rigorous study process, she said. The answer might be as close as that overflowing inbox: “One of the questions you can ask staff is, ‘What’s sitting on your desk that you can’t get to, that a member can potentially do?’” she said.

That work can go a long way toward identifying volunteer tasks that bring value to the organization, rather than the make-work that many committees are often criticized for. But it is just as critical, Hoffman said, to ensure that volunteers not only receive kudos and thank-yous for their contributions (though she has a few suggestions for that), but also more substantive feedback that they might be able to apply to both paid and volunteer work.

According to the “Mutually Beneficial Volunteerism” report, satisfaction on that front is the weakest: Nearly half the respondents said they were dissatisfied or neutral about the feedback they received.

Associations can address that issue, Hoffman said, first by soliciting feedback from volunteers if they haven’t already—knowing where they were satisfied and dissatisfied can clarify what their expectations are and help set tasks that will meet their goals. Another tool Hoffman suggests is a simple performance evaluation in which a volunteer is assessed for meeting or not meeting expectations on a set of criteria. Volunteers will be informed of the evaluation before their tenure begins. “It’s another way of restating your expectations, but they know how they’re going to be judged or evaluated,” she said.

“People don’t want bad feedback, but the problem right now is I get on the committee and at the end of the year we all share a drink and there’s this sense of, I don’t know if I’ve made a difference,” she said. “So you have to do something.”

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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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