Keeping volunteers engaged when their time may be committed elsewhere is a constant challenge for associations. The right approach can help, says an engagement pro.
One of the best tools at any association’s disposal is its base of volunteers. But the pandemic may have depressed volunteerism, which means that many groups now have the challenge of bringing them back..
That’s something Wesley Carr, director of stakeholder engagement at the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS), is familiar with. He says the pandemic has dramatically changed the nature of volunteering, including a major decrease in volunteer hours in the weeks after the pandemic began.
That has led to an evolution in strategy for RAPS, which is rebuilding its volunteer approach with a focus on engagement. A few strategies Carr suggests for engaging volunteers remotely:
1. Ask volunteers and potential volunteers what they want. It’s easy to build by guesswork, but the odds of success may be lower than if stakeholders are included. With that in mind, RAPS asks people what volunteer opportunities it should offer during its annual Volunteer Leadership Summit. “We talked to them about, ‘What do you need, what are you all looking for?’” Carr says. This approach can identify gaps and highlight opportunities that might not emerge through market research. Simply by asking, RAPS learned that one of the organization’s gaps was social content. “We provide information, training, and content—those things are great—but our members get a lot of value out of the engagement and conversation with other members,” Carr says.
2. Identify engagement strategies that offer value to members. Volunteer opportunities have to be more than just ways to improve your organization’s operations. Carr cites a RAPS campaign that asked members to promote the association on social media. “It’s good for us, but what does that really do for them?” he says. Instead, volunteer opportunities should help volunteers learn something about their field and better themselves as they’re helping the association.
3. Leverage your chapters. One happy side effect of the pandemic is that local RAPS chapters have seen a surge in interest in smaller-scale virtual events hosted by volunteers. Previously, chapter events were drawing maybe 50 attendees to in-person events. “Now all of a sudden, we were having 800 people come to these, because the regional limitations had been yanked off,” Carr notes. RAPS is trying to figure out how to leverage these events, at which volunteers speak, in a hybrid context after a return to the “new normal.” One question he raises: Should chapters move from regions to topics?
4. Make the time commitment clear. Not every kind of volunteering requires a big time commitment. But when people don’t know what they’re getting into, it can be a challenge to get them to say yes—even when you’re asking volunteers to do something as simple as replying to posts on a community forum. Carr says RAPS is clear about the expected commitment. “What we’ve been trying to focus on is making sure that when we are inviting people to participate, that we are clear on invariants, that we’re very clear on the time commitment,” he says. Explaining that upfront, he says, helps set expectations and encourage engagement.
5. Build conversations around member engagement. RAPS is testing a member engagement strategy called Conversations That Matter. It’s a series of 30- to 40-minute Zoom conversations about a hot-button topic led by volunteer facilitators. It’s less formal than a virtual event where presentations are the norm—and it’s more engaging, a direct response to requests from RAPS chapters. The goal is to encourage members to continue the conversation in other ways. “But we want to start off with that human interaction,” Carr says.
6. Position the opportunity properly. Many people have limited time to devote to specific tasks, so it’s important to make it clear how their assistance will help the field. Carr cites the example of having members help review chapters in publications or audit online courses, which was once positioned as explicitly helping the association. “Now we position it much more as ‘because that will then ensure that we are training the profession,’” he says. Emphasizing how the entire field benefits, not just the association, can demonstrate the value of volunteers’ efforts.
7. Make sure to recognize volunteers. With volunteers playing pivotal roles within RAPS—for example, they produce 90 to 95 percent of the association’s content—Carr says it’s key to recognize the work. RAPS is hosting a Volunteer Appreciation Week later this month. “I think right now, even though volunteer contributions may have declined, I believe volunteers are more important than ever for associations,” he says.