Why Volunteering Needs a Transformation

New research reveals a disconnect between what association volunteers do and the value they deliver. Leaders can close the gap with clearer goals and a plan for measuring progress.

Association CEOs lead their staffs, their members, and to a substantial extent their boards. And though it’s not talked about as much, they also run their association’s volunteer model. That model often can be creaky and dysfunctional, though, which may be why it’s not talked about as much.

A new publication by the ASAE Research Foundation, A Holistic Approach to Holistic Volunteer Management, is based on survey research that attempts to show where the cracks in the model are. Among the findings is a stark disconnect between how useful volunteers feel they’re being, and how useful staff feels the volunteers’ work is. Forty-six percent of volunteers describe their work as “highly effective”; only 29 percent of association staffers say the same about volunteer work.

A likely key cause of that disconnect, as I discussed in a recent Deep Dive article on the report, is that there’s a lack of measurement and goal-setting around volunteering. According to the report, 40 percent of association staffs have no formal volunteer assessment in place. 

A lot of associations have to stop, step back, and ask, ‘Why are we using volunteers in the first place?’

Peter Houstle, Mariner Management

This is why fashionable ideas around volunteering that circulate in the association world—microvolunteering, badges, etc.—don’t tend to get much traction. Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, president and executive director at Mariner Management and a member of the report’s research team, said, “we didn’t hear anybody that was really embracing micro-, ad hoc, episodic volunteering in any really substantive way. They’re still grappling with committees, committee assignments, and selections.”

There’s increasing pressure to get it right. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t reduced overall volunteer engagement: According to the report, the number of volunteers has increased or stayed stable through the past three years.  But volunteers expect something more meaningful out of their commitments now: 48 percent of association staffs said the pandemic increased “the extent to which volunteers expect their time to be used effectively.”

“One thing I think the pandemic brought forward was the awkwardness of the association model,” said Mariner Management CEO/COO Peter Houstle. “A lot of associations have to stop, step back, and ask, ‘Why are we using volunteers in the first place?’ I don’t think that question is really asked as often as it should be. And because of that we’ve often abused volunteers inadvertently.”

Asking that question—at the top of the organization, with the CEO and board—is one way to start a change process. The necessary second step is to build metrics around that “why”—to look for ways to measure success. As the report puts it: “An association needs a definition of effective that allows for measuring impact and driving decisions on resource allocation and strategy to optimize volunteer effectiveness.”  

That definition will vary from association to association, of course. But the report has a few suggestions in its “Volunteer Impact Template.” The matrix asks associations to measure what benefits redound to the volunteer (improved professional skills, increased knowledge), which redound to the association (reduced costs, increased revenue), and which redound to membership (member growth and engagement). 

However you measure, it won’t happen in a vacuum. It requires the attention of association leadership, who can say that that making volunteering meaningful and measurable is a key value of the association. That’s always been meaningful when it comes to staffs and boards; it can mean something to your volunteer corps too. 

(Sakorn Sukkasemsakorn/iStock/Getty Images)

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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