Get Out the Vote: Maximize Member Participation in Board Elections

When it comes time for your members to vote for their volunteer leaders, do they take the time to cast their ballot? Elections are an important member engagement opportunity. Consider these tips to make the most of it.

In politics and in associations, good participation in elections is a sign of a healthy, engaged community. If your annual volunteer leadership elections don’t generate enough interest to bring your members to the “polls,” it’s probably time to consider what you’re doing wrong. After all, your members have a significant stake in their board and other elected leaders.

To maximize this important engagement opportunity in the member experience, you may need to shore up stakeholder buy-in and consider both the timing of your elections and incentives for members to participate, says Amy Biedenharn, director of affiliate relations at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who helps to oversee the association’s annual member elections.

“We try to promote the engagement as much as possible,” she says. “We also collaborate on our national election with our chapter groups.”

First, successful association elections occur on a precise and recurring schedule. At the Academy, elections are held in February, just before member renewals happen on a calendar basis. That timing works, both because successful candidates come into office following the dues cycle and because members are more likely to take notice of member communications at renewal time.

And just like renewals, timing your election is everything. You have to know when members are busy or more likely to act. A strong call to action helps too.

Academy members “tend to vote either when they get the first communication or last communication about the election,” Biedenharn says. “I think that’s the case because there is much more urgency in the message.”

She notes that urgency can be undermined if a voting period goes on too long. The Academy shortened its voting period from an entire month to about two weeks, which boosted participation. “When people had the whole month, the mindset was: ‘Well, I’ll get to that later,’ and it was easier to forget,” Beidenham says.

For associations that don’t operate on a calendar dues cycle, elections could be timed to other important periods—perhaps before, during, or after an annual meeting—when most members are actively engaged with the organization.

Add a Competitive Edge

Competition can also fuel voter participation. At the Academy, a campaign called “Project Vote” helps turn out affiliate members in national elections.

“We group affiliates by category and size, and within each of those categories we run a friendly competition,” Biedenharn says. “Whichever affiliate gets the most participation is awarded a free conference pass. Usually, it’s raffled off to a member.”

Conversation and sharing in online communities and social media platforms keep the momentum going through an election cycle:

When all the final votes are tallied, the Academy publishes its regional voter participation rates [PDF], so chapter members know how turnout stacked up. “We also give them a visual map that tracks voter rates in real time,” Biedenharn says. It’s a reminder that organizational transparency matters for any election, big or small.

Amplify the Call for Nominees

If you’re struggling with turnout, it could be that your candidate pool is also lacking, Biedenharn says, and you may want to focus some work there. “You don’t want a situation where it’s the board handpicking future candidates,” she says.

The Academy announces its call for nominees far and wide across many different communications platforms, including email newsletters, print publications, and social media and online communities. There’s also a nominating committee, separate from the board, which is tasked with sending requests for nominations to the Academy’s dietetic practice groups, affiliate associations, and other governing bodies.

“We try to get as many people [as possible] willing and able to step forward,” Biedenharn says. “We often find in our organization that it usually takes an ask to get a member feeling comfortable and confident to run.”

What are some ways you’ve been able to boost voter turnout for board elections? Do members have any added incentives for voting? Share your ideas in the comments.

(fotomarekka/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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