Volunteer management: I gotta feeling

jugglingLike many of you, I’ve been known to juggle a handful of volunteer roles in addition to my nine-to-five job at any given point in time during my association management career. (Who am I kidding? When’s the last time I was able to get away with working an eight-hour day?)

Scanning my current commitments, I now serve on the editorial advisory board for Michigan Meetings + Events magazine, I’m a subject matter expert and facilitator for MSAE, I’m the luminaria chair for the East Lansing Relay for Life and I’ve recently been appointed to the ASAE 2014-2015 Professional Development Section Council.

Whether volunteer, volunteer leader, staff liaison or some other essential component of the volunteer management continuum, we all know what a good experience “feels” like. The sense of accomplishment from a job well done, the delivery of a long-anticipated product or service, a new friendship or business contact and the list goes on.

According to The Decision to Volunteer, association volunteers also expect a chance to work with like-minded people, network, keep skills sharp or learn a new skill, pass on their knowledge and contribute to a cause they believe in. Above all, people who volunteer for associations expect to be involved effectively.

Emphasis here on the word “effectively.”

Unfortunately, the study goes on to state that “turnover among association volunteers is high.” So why is this the case? In my experience, it’s because something is out of place or doesn’t “feel” right. Following are just some of the examples I’ve experienced over the years:

  • Volunteers are unhappy or frustrated.
  • Little to no direction from staff/organization.
  • Volunteer leaders are unprepared for meetings.
  • Few measurable outcomes are achieved.
  • Communication among volunteers is unpleasant.
  • Lack of resources to support scope of work.
  • Contributions are not appropriately recognized.
  • Milestones and deliverables are continuously delayed.
  • Lack of information or decision-making authority.
  • Workload is disproportionately assigned/assumed.

photoOther addressable issues in The Decision to Volunteer include poor follow-through with volunteers, lack of support or training and unclear roles.

And with the amount of work our associations set out to accomplish each year, we simply cannot afford to perpetuate these types of off-putting experiences. In addition to committees and councils, volunteers support our organizations as board members, SMEs and speakers (many of whom are uncompensated).

Following I’ve compiled just 10 simple ways we can take ownership of the volunteer management process (both as staff and as volunteers):

  • Identify a strong staff partner to support volunteer success – continuously refining his/her skills.
  • Align the group’s scope with the organization’s strategic plan.
  • Establish clear goals and expectations – communicating them early and often.
  • Ensure all new volunteers are oriented/trained.
  • Draft agendas for meetings and conference calls – and share them at least a week in advance.
  • Maintain appropriate communication levels between meetings – and in your volunteers’ preferred styles.
  • Create fun opportunities to build trust and camaraderie.
  • Quickly remove roadblocks, barriers and challenges that inhibit progress.
  • Celebrate successes – both large and small.
  • Strive for a proportionate distribution of responsibilities.

With our propensity for putting out fires, not to mention the countless other responsibilities that fill our task lists, it’s no wonder we don’t “evaluate” more regularly the volunteer experience. In fact, it’s usually not until something goes wrong that we take the time to identify and institute best practices in general.

So allow this to serve as your reminder. Check in on your volunteers this month. Assess their experiences, as well as those of your staff. Don’t become a turnover statistic. Leveraging just some of these course corrections while there’s still time could have a profound impact not just on your volunteer numbers, but on engagement and membership, as well.

In the meantime, tell us in the comments what you would add to our list of volunteer management best practices. What works particularly well for your organization?

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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