How to Lead the New Culture of Volunteers

Volunteers want more from their experience than a sense of belonging and general leadership skills. More diverse training options can pull more people in.

Association leaders can understandably be frustrated by volunteering today. Though volunteers might want a relationship with their organization, today they’re less likely to want to make extended, multiyear commitments. There’s important committee or task force work to be done, but sometimes progress in those contexts can be so slow that volunteering can sometimes feel like make-work. 

For associations feeling that struggle, something needs to change in both how volunteering is structured and how it’s sold. Last month, Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, president of Mariner Management, voiced some of these frustrations on EventGarde’s blog, pointing out that many associations are “still wedded to traditional, term-based volunteering.” 

Organizations that escape that problem, Hoffman writes, tend to do three things. First, they give volunteers a meaningful issue to focus on—DEI, for instance, or safe industry practices during the pandemic. Second, they’re open to creating short-term opportunities. Third—and perhaps most importantly—they make those opportunities personally meaningful in terms of volunteers’ professional development. Associations often pitch volunteering as a way to have a sense of “belonging” to an organization or industry, and that’s still powerful and important. But people are looking after their own interests too.

Successful volunteering matches the kind of work the association needs done with the volunteer’s professional needs. Last year, Mariner coproduced a Volunteer Training Strategy Toolkit [PDF] that makes a distinction between transactional training—the kind of things people learn to be a functioning volunteer in a particular role—and developmental training, which provides skills that can transfer elsewhere. “Developmental training is focused on leadership cultivation; that is developing the hard (teachable, measurable) and soft (interpersonal) skills needed to be a successful leader in any role,” according to the toolkit.

But the skills being taught shouldn’t be limited to leadership—there are opportunities to provide more specific, practical training. I asked Hoffman how associations can successfully understand volunteer motivations and pitch volunteering as a developmental training opportunities. There’s still work to be done, she said. “Most [calls for volunteers] just include a ‘build your leadership skills’ bullet.”

Most calls for volunteers just include a “build your leadership skills” bullet.

Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, Mariner Management

But some associations, she said, have more successfully framed volunteering as on-the-job training. “A healthcare association I worked with … would train members of the committee that did credentialing visits on how to assess programs—something they used in their own job,” she said. “Another association regularly taught members of their editorial committee editing skills—again, quite valuable in the workday.”

She added that associations shouldn’t be guessing about what kinds of professional development experiences volunteers are looking for; conduct the surveys and interviews necessary to learn what kinds of training they’d find most meaningful. Last year, my colleague Ernie Smith wrote about how the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society tweaked its approach to volunteering during the pandemic to be more responsive in just this way. It reduced time commitments, but also rejected volunteer activities that served the organization but not the volunteer. “It’s good for us, but what does that really do for them?” as former RAPS director of stakeholder engagement Wesley Carr put it.

 “Bottom line, if you say to a member, ‘Volunteering gives you hands-on training needed to do the volunteer job and that you can bring to your own job,’ you make that connection,” Hoffman said.

How has your pitch to volunteers evolved during the pandemic? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Daria Voskoboeva/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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