How One Group Lets Volunteer Groups Lead Themselves

When PEAK Grantmaking empowered its members to self-organize, it found a way to strengthen bonds among volunteers.

Associations understandably deal with a lot of stress when it comes to volunteers. There are administrative tasks volunteers are tasked to manage, but volunteers also want a sense of belonging, a feeling that they’re doing valuable work, and participating in an opportunity to develop professionally.

But perhaps instead of being a helicopter parent to volunteer groups, associations might benefit from letting them be a little more free-range.

Something like that is happening at PEAK Grantmaking, an association of approximately 7,000 grants professionals. Before the pandemic, members in its regional chapters began to self-select into affinity groups, such as grant managers, according to Membership and Community Engagement Director Sara Sanders. After COVID-19 struck and social-justice activities gained more attention in 2020, that self-selection accelerated and widened.

 “People were meeting based on the attributes or the lived experiences that they wanted to connect with more deeply,” Sanders said. “Out of one of our community conversations, one of our members started saying it’d be really great to meet more deeply and talk about racial equity. So we got a cadre of volunteers—it ended up being 44—who met with our program and our membership teams.”

But PEAK Grantmaking leadership wasn’t looking to steer or restrict the groups’ activities; rather, it was seeking out ways to better support them. “We reached out to specific individuals who we had heard from who wanted to make these spaces,” Sanders said. “And we also had an open call to folks: Do you want to be a part of envisioning what these peer groups could look like with us? Getting the word out to our community and making intentional asks for folks who are interested.”

We learned how important it is to have dedicated staff support if you want to have a volunteer-led group.

Sara Sanders, PEAK Grantmaking

The product of that effort is the association’s peer groups, which launched in 2021 and break down into four categories: Caucuses (such as for Black and Latinx members); Affinity Groups (such as corporate grantmakers or intermediaries); Communities of Practice (such as technology and DEI); and Working Groups (addressing issues such as reporting practices). Since launch, the number of Peer Groups has grown from eight to 12.

PEAK Grantmaking has expanded its staff in turn; its community engagement team now includes a peer-group specialist in addition to a chapter specialist. But the whole staff is involved in the change. “We’ve had almost every staff person who is currently a part of the team in one way or another being a staff liaison to our peer groups,” Sanders says. “And in some ways, it was great: Folks felt staff members felt deeply connected to various groups. What we learned was how important it is to have dedicated staff support if you want to have a volunteer-led group.” 

Sanders anticipates that the peer groups will be fluid—some meet short term or ad hoc goals, while others will be more lasting. In either case, liaisons are there to coordinate meetings and gather feedback to bring back to the association’s leadership. While that’s not as formal as the work products many associations task their volunteer groups with, Sanders says they have more engaged members involved in the association’s work.

“Now we have additional opportunities for volunteers to really lead, to develop new skills, to be seen as leaders within the communities that they care about,” she said. “And folks have stayed on. The vast majority of our co-chairs who said that they would take on [a peer group for] one year, people are sticking around and are staying in the peer groups.”

(SDI Productions/iStock)

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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