How can our association turn volunteering into a member benefit?

The idea of volunteering in an association tends to evoke several different responses in the minds of members

– “It was a wonderful experience – I gained so much more than I gave.”
– “It was somewhat of a hassle – I don’t know that I would do it again.”
– “I think it’s important to volunteer but don’t know where to start.”
– “I don’t want to do it.”

All of these responses are valid.  The wonderful aspect of the top response is that the person probably considers volunteering in the association to be a benefit of membership, rather than a hassle, or at best, a duty.

Can you turn the other responses into something as positive as the first one?  If you can do so, your association members will not only have gained a new benefit at no cost to the association, but they will have also built emotional ties to both the association and the other members, which should also work for you when it comes time for renewal.

Here are a few thoughts to consider:

  • Just because someone has volunteered in the past and found it a hassle doesn’t mean that they won’t volunteer again.  In fact, someone who has shown the inclination to volunteer in the past may be predisposed to do so again – if the association can find the right role for them.
  • It’s important to touch base with past volunteers to discuss or learn about their experience.  Associations often conduct separation interviews when members don’t renew … but it could be even more important to survey volunteers each year as they conclude their volunteer role.  Not only will it give you an early warning signal of dissatisfaction, but the feedback will also help you improve the volunteer aspects of your association.
  • Much of the dissatisfaction as a volunteer directly relates to who they are reporting to, be it the committee chair or the president. A great chair tends to have a happy committee; a poor chair tends to have a dissatisfied committee.  Consider providing training and written guidelines to incoming chairs and other leaders about what is expected – and how they can make the committee experience wonderful for their members.
  • In these days of limited time and many demands, some associations are offering opportunities for very short, limited-time commitments to the volunteers.  That is an excellent idea. For example, a programming committee may be able to meet only once, during which time the committee develops the topics for each program for the year.  Committee members then work on their own to develop speakers, etc. for the program to which they have been assigned, following up with the chair and the rest of the committee via conference call or email.
  • Some associations are also offering the volunteers the opportunity to participate in a committee that meets only via phone, web site or email.  This can be a good compromise for members who would not otherwise volunteer.  It can be especially helpful for associations in which the members are geographically dispersed.
  • A note of caution about losing in-person interaction. In both of the options mentioned above that limit the face-to-face interaction time, the volunteers lose a critical element that makes volunteering so rewarding:  interacting with and getting to know other members.  Volunteers tend to be far less social and much more business-like when they don’t have the opportunity to meet in person.  While this can be good for productivity, it also tends to make volunteering feel more like an additional job, which few people want.  While this may appeal to time-pressed members who wish to volunteer out of a sense of duty, it’s far less likely to engender an emotional connection to the other members and the association.  A better solution may be to combine the volunteer duties with other association events, even if it results in a larger time commitment by the volunteer.  A post-volunteer survey of attitudes may give you a better feel for whether this might be an issue for your particular association’s volunteers.
  • Be sure to reach out to your association members.  Many of the best volunteers in associations would have never begun to participate unless an association leader or staff person invited them.  This inclusion leads to better diversity of opinion and talent in the volunteer ranks, and it also shows the membership that volunteering is not just for a perceived “elite few”, but for everyone.
  • Some members currently have no interest in volunteering, but their minds could be changed.  That’s why it is just as important to market volunteerism as much as you would other products and services.  Fortunately, it need not be nearly as expensive to market volunteerism because it can take the form of letters from the president and executive director in the newsletter, member testimonials in the members area of the web site, and other existing communications vehicles.

Volunteering in your association can be a wonderful benefit of membership.  And it’s a benefit you can offer with little or no additional expense.  Survey your volunteers to see how your association is doing, and then make the changes that will make volunteering one of your top in-demand association services.

Is your association overflowing with volunteers?  What is your secret?

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