Volunteerism in the Not-For-Profit World: A New Normal

By Bud Crouch

For associations, the ability to attract and retain members is critical to success. Unfortunately, in the United States and Canada, difficulties attracting and retaining members is a growing trend. As a consultant, I assist many clients with strategic thinking and planning and I frequently hear concern about not only attracting members but converting members into volunteers and leaders. A static or decreasing membership base provides a smaller pool for potential volunteers. This can often lead to volunteer burnout when associations depend on the same people to volunteer over and over.

Is the issue that people aren’t interested in volunteering anymore, or that younger people don’t have the same volunteer spirit as their parents? Research does not indicate this to be true. Perhaps, then, it’s just time. People don’t have the same amount of time to devote to volunteering as they had in the past. When I’m working with clients, I like to ask if they have more free time on their hands now than they did in 2008. Very few hands go up and those that do are usually retirees. There is truth to the fact that people are busier than ever.

Does that mean associations are facing an insurmountable problem converting members into volunteers and even leaders? Should we give up? I don’t think so. As many studies have pointed out, there is not a widespread reduction in the desire of people of any generation to volunteer. It is about the fact that they are busier and simply have less time to give and still meet their daily life demands. People are faced with carefully evaluating where they use and give their available free time. It is about the return on their time (ROT) and how they can best use it.

The challenge is to create an experience that both attracts and retains volunteers, and encourages them to consider a larger commitment in the future. At Tecker International, we have found the following strategies successful in helping associations recruit and retain volunteers.

First, retaining members and expanding your volunteer pool starts at the beginning—the very day a person joins your association. Pay special attention to new members. When conducting surveys and interviewing members, I often hear from new members that they have not had any personal contact from anyone in the association. They feel disconnected from the leadership, frequently being unable to identify a single board member or what the board does. Studies indicate that at the end of the first year, an association member, even though they did not have any personal contact from their association, will pay the dues for year two. However, after another year of no personal contact, invitations or informal mentoring, they will probably not renew their membership.

Second, associations need to rethink the overall nature and structure of the work they are asking volunteers to do.

They will have to stop asking volunteers to change their lives to meet the needs of the association. Instead, associations will need to adapt the nature of the work that they offer volunteers to meet the realities of the time and effort that volunteers have to offer in today’s busy world. Work will need to be divided into smaller chunks.The association will need to get volunteers in and out of volunteer work faster.

Today there is much less interest in ongoing volunteer work (like being on a standing committee) and much more interest in engaging in smaller pieces of work like a task force, project team or ad hoc group. Potential volunteers know going in that the project or task will require two months, for example, and this is time they have to contribute. When they finish, they are finished. In the future, they may be available for similar work but they will need to be asked again. Because of this, we see more ad hoc committees replacing standing committees.

Third, volunteers want to work on things that are important to them and have measurable outcomes for the association. They want to be able to trace their efforts to moving the organization successfully forward. They do not want to waste their time on things that are unimportant and feel like busy work. The association needs to be very clear about the expected outcomes and what will constitute success for the volunteer group. Volunteers should understand they will all be held accountable for their work.

Fourth, volunteers want to have fun. They want to work with people who are as excited and engaged as they are. They don’t want to spend their time working with people who do not have basic social and people skills. They also don’t want to have to deal with or solve surprises, challenges or problems directly related to the outcomes of their work. They need the required resources (financial, volunteers, staff, technology, etc.) to successfully complete their task.

And, of course, they want to feel appreciated and thanked. This is a critical step often missed by associations that feel members should give their time willingly because they believe in the goals of the association. It is also a tricky one because volunteers do not all like to be thanked in the same way. Some like public recognition. Some would prefer never to be publicly recognized but would like to receive a card or certificate. If you truly want to motivate members to give their time—and more of their time—find out what is important to them and thank them the way they want to be thanked.

When they look back on their last volunteer experience they want to remember it as worthwhile and enjoyable. It will define their willingness to volunteer again.

Of course, these are strategies for getting members to volunteer. Asking them to fill leadership positions can be even more difficult. There will always be members that are drawn to leadership but it is important to attract all types of personalities and members to the leadership pool. It is this diversity that will ensure your association is moving in the right direction. I have found that if you follow the steps above, you will have a larger pool of volunteers to target for leadership, and they will be willing to continue to give their time.

It is important to have a full-time and year-round leadership development and succession committee. Its overall role is to develop a sustainable process to identify, groom and send to the board the best possible candidates for board member and officer positions. This committee’s responsibilities should include:

• Developing and managing a credible nomination process
• Working with the board to identify and mentor future candidates
• Working with the board to develop board member and officer
job descriptions
• Working with the board to develop a short, concise and easy-touse
board member workbook about what board members are
expected to do
• Having the board develop a very specific set of four to nine
values concerning how the board aspires to behave when it is
functioning as a board
• Working with the board to develop a credible new board member
orientation that focuses on strategic roles, responsibilities
and accountabilities
• Working with staff to develop materials and market opportunities
for volunteering in leadership positions

Although board work is difficult to divide into chunks, as suggested above, it is important to follow the above strategies with board members as well. You want them to have meaningful work directing the strategic direction of the organization. They want to be involved in strategic planning—not operations.

Use all opportunities you have to market the benefits of volunteering. But remember, your most effective marketing tool will be happy, engaged and appreciated volunteers. They will be your best recruiters for future volunteers and leaders. The most effective marketing tool will be a face-to-face conversation between a potential volunteer and a current volunteer who can share a strong personal experience about the value and worth of their volunteering experience, and how much fun they had.

For more information about volunteer and leadership development, including A Volunteer Bill of Rights, read Tecker International resources at www.tecker.com.

About Author

Bud Crouch

is a principal consultant with Tecker International, LLC and president of Innovations Plus. Bud has completed projects internationally for hundreds of groups in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico. He focuses on providing customized management consulting services to not-for-profit, corporate, charitable and public organizations. Bud has a twenty year track record of successfully helping organizations to identify issues of strategic importance and assisting them to confidently prepare for the future.