In this time of lean operations, when budgets and time need to be carefully managed, volunteer leaders represent a critical component of the association business model. Given the important role they play in driving an association’s mission forward, it’s essential to create engagement, enthusiasm and accountability among volunteers.
A strategic approach that integrates the 3Rs—recruitment, retention and responsibility—can help your association create rewarding experiences for volunteers and maximize their contributions to the organization.
Learn more about the best practices to help keep your volunteers onboard.
Recruitment—Laying the Foundation
Volunteer recruitment focuses on transitioning individual members from rank-and-file involvement to deeper engagement. This higher level of involvement includes contributing time and expertise to advancing your organization’s mission.
Word-of-mouth is a popular recruiting tool. In a benchmarking study we conducted a few years ago, the majority of associations surveyed stated they used organic word-of-mouth referrals to bring in new member-volunteers. Most of the study participants also shared that referrals from current volunteers were a preferred method of recruitment. This approach relies heavily on volunteer experience. It’s about leveraging current volunteers as ambassadors for spreading the word to peers and colleagues. Therefore, it’s important to make sure the volunteer experience is valuable and rewarding—more on that below.
Go beyond word-of-mouth to ensure a diverse and inclusive volunteer leadership. Word-of-mouth is helpful, but typically leads to associations pulling from the same circles and potentially creating a homogenous volunteer leadership. Thus, with a commitment to DEI, it’s critical associations push themselves outside these circles to ensure volunteer leaders represent the diversity of the full membership and the profession/industry they serve.
How do you widen the net?
Leverage a Leadership Development Committee. Transition the traditional nominating committee to a leadership development committee that’s charged with developing and overseeing the process of identifying, coaching and stewarding qualified pools of applicants to serve in volunteer leadership positions. For example, key functions of this committee might include maintaining a database of potential candidates for volunteer leadership and regularly communicating with membership about service opportunities. In addition, it could provide a vehicle for members to express their interest in volunteer leadership.
Consider your communications plan. Do the research to make sure you are using communication channels, vehicles and messaging that reach and resonate with all your audiences, including new members and young professionals.
Retention—Continuing the Process
Leadership development is key. Leadership development is critical in delivering value to volunteers and driving retention. With structured development and support, volunteer service can often enhance an individual’s professional growth beyond what is possible within a current position or career stage. Just as you invest in staff training, invest in your volunteer leadership so they can do their best work and grow as leaders.
Ensure a strong staff/volunteer leader partnership. The relationship between staff and volunteer leaders is critical to the success of your governance structure, and ultimately the experience of both parties. This relationship can get tricky at times, so setting a strong foundation from the start is key:
- Define clear roles and responsibilities and ensure all parties are clear on their charge.
- Make time for relationship-building between volunteers and staff through social events and other opportunities.
- Ensure strong and regular lines of communication to support ongoing collaboration.
- Define your organizational values and commit to them. This will help build a healthy work culture.
Tracking satisfaction is important. Keep a tight pulse on your volunteers by measuring their satisfaction levels and overall experiences. In doing so, you will be better able to identify volunteer needs that should be addressed and help you enhance their experience.
Responsibility—For Your Volunteers and Your Organization
What is your responsibility to your volunteer leaders? It’s important to provide a rewarding, valuable experience, which in turn drives their motivation to serve your association’s goals. This takes time but is well worth the investment. Here are some key responsibilities to keep in mind:
Offer a strong orientation: First, you need a strong orientation program that covers the organization’s history, volunteers’ roles and responsibilities, and the specific charge they’re working on.
Create an accountability framework: Just as staff leverage an implementation plan to execute a strategic plan, volunteer leaders need clear goals too, with tasks, milestones and timelines for which they are accountable. This helps volunteer leaders stay organized and provides the tools they need to accomplish the task at hand.
Recognize their contributions. Volunteer leaders spend valuable time to support your organization and the industry/profession you serve. Show appreciation for their hard work. Need ideas? Consider handwritten thank you cards, 30-60 second thank you video messages from stakeholders, sharing volunteers’ accomplishments on social media, giving them something to display in their home or office, and recognizing them at your annual meeting.
The 3Rs of volunteer programs are interdependent for success. Without recruitment, you can’t grow your volunteer base, but without effective retention, those efforts go to waste. Finally, without proper responsibility, you cannot ensure that volunteer efforts will help you reach your larger goals.
An investment in the 3Rs of volunteering can go a long way towards enriching the value of volunteers at your organization—both for your organization and those contributing their time.