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Volunteers, the unpaid workforce that helps run many organizations, are an asset deserving good stewardship. Knowing the “why” that motivates volunteers and the “what” that engages their energy and excites them is easily a full-time job, either for staff or leaders (themselves volunteers) serving on the board or chairing committees.

As Patty Anderson, a SBI Association Executive, points out: “There are a lot of things people can do with their time and one of them is nothing. We’ve found that if members are going to volunteer, they want to be sure that why they’re doing it is achieved.”

So can you understand why people volunteer? Prevailing reasons include:

  • To give back to their industry
  • To make connections for personal advancement in their career or business
  • To learn new skills that may transfer to their professional world

There’s another reason, one that’s more nuanced. Some volunteers desire personal fulfillment in terms of being recognized and feeling valued. Harnessing any of these motivations is not easy. But engaging volunteers is often the key component to successful member retention.

It’s incumbent on the Executive Director to play the role of counselor, giving guidance to volunteer leadership. In turn, volunteer board members and committee chairs themselves become “Volunteer Managers,” deploying fellow members to carry out the organization’s agenda.

Leadership, confidence, and knowledge of the industry are all great attributes, but it takes an unique member to manage other volunteers, says Anderson.

“We once had an individual who volunteered to chair the website redesign committee, which seemed great,” she recalls. “We pulled the rest of the committee members together and started to work on it. Later, we found out that this person had no skill set, no experience in working with websites. So we found ourselves really struggling because they didn’t have the knowledge or background to really lead and direct the group in what needed to be achieved. In that case, they should have been a committee member, but not the chair.”

There are a number of ways to avoid this scenario in order to move a committee forward with motivated (and useful) volunteers. Here are some suggestions:

  • Recruit a team of two members to serve as co-chairs, ideally with complementary skill sets and strengths. Volunteer co-chairs may each feel less burdened by sharing responsibility and they can also keep one another accountable for commitments and follow-through.
  • Create a written job description for the role, including baseline (minimal) experience requirements. Use this to help the right volunteers to self-select for the assignment.
  • Task a board member to liaise with committee chair(s), helping to identify potential issues before they become problems.
  • Involve staff in strategic ways to equip volunteers to do their job. Staff members are valuable in that they know an association’s particular capacity (i.e., finances, technology) and can save volunteers lost time in guiding their activities and decisions.

Today’s volunteer has many demands competing for his or her time. So the care and feeding of your volunteers – the individual chairing a committee meeting or volunteering to lead a task force – is key to any organization’s success. Be sure to invest in thanking, recognizing, and rewarding that volunteer!

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