Leadership

Develop a Volunteer Corps That's Built to Last

By / Aug 29, 2021 (studiostockart/DigitalVision Vectors)

Association volunteers are more engaged and fulfilled when they’re growing with the organization, not just filling chairs. One model proposes how staff can help them do that.

If you devote any amount of time to the care and feeding of volunteer leaders, eventually you’re going to confront a matrix. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good practice for associations to determine which skills it needs from potential volunteers and to codify those needs in a way that’s clear and visible.

But matrices, if not managed well, can turn people into widgets. An association may simplistically plug people into slots to fill immediate needs, when what it needs are people willing to make long-term commitments. And that requires a better understanding of your volunteer pool. “Associations usually ask what a volunteer wants to do but not why they want to do it,” Sarah Garrity recently wrote as part of a fine four-part series at Billhighway on leading volunteers.

Associations usually ask what a volunteer wants to do but not why they want to do it.

The series focuses on a volunteer model developed by Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, president of Mariner Management, and Kristine Metter, CAE, founder of Crystal Lake Partners. Like most matrices, their model is built on competencies that the association needs for different roles at the organization, from first-time chapter volunteer to board member. But it’s constructed from the assumption that volunteers want an ongoing relationship with the association, building competencies in one area before moving up to the next. Hoffman and Metter have developed a toolkit (PDF) laying out the steps.

The system is gratifying and transparent for the volunteers, who know what’s expected of them and don’t have to scratch their heads and wonder how they’ll get there. (That is, how to get there in ways that don’t require schmoozing. If schmoozing is required, it’s clear your leadership ladder is a little rickety.) The system is a kind of modified choose-your-own-adventure approach: Volunteers identify where they want to go (self-assessments can be handy for this), which helps the association identify appropriate roles, guiding them from ad hoc tactical tasks to more long-term strategic ones.

One important insight that Hoffman and Metter share is that the association has to put some effort into figuring out how to get its volunteer pool prepared to do the kind of work it needs. They propose that associations draw up scenarios of likely volunteers, their competencies, and what skills they’ll require to fill volunteer roles. From there, the association can determine what kind of training to provide for those volunteers. You can’t assume that a mid-career professional and new volunteer who wants a board seat just naturally knows how to read a financial statement—or knows that being able to do so is an important qualification for board work. These folks need to be trained up.

But—and this is an important point too—“training up” is a two-way street. Just as volunteers ought to have skill sets that fit into a matrix, so should the association staffers working with the volunteers.

“The role of committee liaison comes with many association jobs, often as ‘other duties as assigned,’” Garrity writes. “But rarely does an association recognize and help staff develop the unique competencies required for this role.” A “membership ambassador” might be charged with answering immediate questions and getting to know volunteers’ goals, while other staffers would emphasize the leadership training that helps those volunteers rise into more strategic roles.

In other words, it’s a fair amount of work, for volunteers and association staffers alike. But then, so is laboring to imperfectly slot new volunteers into committee roles year after year as other dissatisfied volunteers drift off and question their engagement with your association. Volunteer contributions are essential to an association’s success, and it’s worth the effort to make that experience as valuable for them as possible.

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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