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How to Fix the Disconnect Over Volunteer Effectiveness

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New research from the ASAE Research Foundation identifies a disconnect between what association volunteers do and what staff find effective. To bridge that gap, clarify what success looks like and how outcomes will be measured.

Volunteers are crucial to an association’s success: Board members are typically uncompensated, and bylaws usually require the creation of several standing volunteer committees. But despite building volunteering into the core of their work, associations are often uncertain about what role volunteers are supposed to play and how to measure their effectiveness.

One piece of evidence to that effect comes from a new ASAE Research Foundation report, A Holistic Approach to Association Volunteer Management, which reveals a disconnect between association staff and volunteers. While nearly half of association volunteers (46 percent) rated their fellow volunteers as “highly effective,” less than a third of association staffers (29 percent) gave their volunteers the same ranking.

Part of the challenge, says Mariner Management President and Executive Director Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, is a lack of clarity about what “effective” means.

“If you ask volunteers, many will tell you that they’re doing everything and that the organization couldn’t exist without them, when in fact what they’re doing is perhaps not moving the needle,” Hoffman said. “Without valid, objective metrics, there’s no meaningful accountability, and ‘effectiveness’ remains a purely subjective assessment.”

Lindsay Currie, CAE, executive officer of the Council on Undergraduate Research (and chair of the foundation study’s research advisory council), has been working on this challenge with her own association’s volunteer pool. One issue, she says, is that CUR’s volunteer structure hasn’t been substantially updated in the 45 years since its founding, and its organizational policy focuses more on board governance, with little guidance on other volunteer roles.

“We really needed to reevaluate our programs to make sure that we were actually clear about what being a volunteer meant,” Currie said.

To that end, CUR has a task force that is working on retooling both its board governance and its general volunteering model. Some things have become clear through that process, she says. Requiring committees to be subject to the bylaws is a roadblock to change. CUR also has a large council of elected members that define volunteer roles—more than 300 people serving three-year terms, with no term limits. That structure has closed off opportunities to younger members and has further limited flexibility.

“What we’re trying to do is diversify the number of volunteer opportunities and establish clear roles and responsibilities, so we can leverage different talents and interests,” Currie said.

While nearly half of association volunteers rated their fellow volunteers as “highly effective,” less than a third of association staffers gave their volunteers the same ranking.

Searching for Purpose

One positive note in the ASAE Research Foundation report is that the appetite for volunteering in associations doesn’t seem to have been significantly affected by the pandemic. A substantial majority of surveyed association staff (78 percent) said that their total number of volunteers has remained stable or increased.

But once those volunteers raise their hands, Hoffman says, associations need to be better equipped to make their participation meaningful. The report highlights several characteristics of successful volunteering, including “clarity of purpose and definition of ‘high performing,’” “commitment to continuous improvement,” “staff readiness and preparedness,” “resource commitment,” and more.

“You have to start by confirming why you have volunteers in the first place and what metrics define effective performance,” Hoffman said. “Everything else falls from there. Once you’ve set your metrics, you have to adopt a volunteer system that’s built to deliver those outcomes.”

To create that environment, says Mariner Management CEO/COO Peter Houstle, associations will have to get away from simply calling on familiar names to volunteer—a practice that leads to skills gaps and a lack of diversity. “Far too often, familiarity supersedes competence,” he said. “There’s a fair amount of discipline required to really implement the structure and processes that will ensure a more open and inclusive recruitment process for volunteers.”

That can seem intimidating, but CUR’s Currie says the effort is rooted in asking basic questions about an association’s reason for being.

“Can you answer the question: ‘Why does your organization leverage volunteers? What is their purpose? How is it tied to your mission?” she asked. “Answering those questions first will help you find out what excellence in volunteering looks like.”

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.

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