The Mission Driven Volunteer Rides Again!

Earlier this month, Mission Driven Volunteer co-author Peggy Hoffman and I had the opportunity to present about our research on this topic for Wild Apricot. As is often the case with webinars, we weren’t able to get to all the questions during the Q&A. So we’re answering them now.

What do I do about volunteers who are invested in the old way of doing things (standing committees, hierarchy, “paying your dues” before you can get involved, etc.) and don’t want to change?

PH: Start outside the system. That is look for places where you haven’t used volunteers to try new ways. Create a writers’ pool to invite members who are willing to comment on and contribute to your publications by responding to questions and inquiries on a monthly email distribution list. Or if you don’t already have a young professionals (or other targeted audience) group or committee, use the opportunity to set up a task force to assemble recommendations.

EE: See if you can get them to agree to an experiment. Pick one small task of the committee and involve ad hoc/micro volunteers in getting it done. Even better? Actively reach out to younger members for those ad hoc/micro tasks. Most associations are eager to bring more young members into the volunteer fold. Assuming it works well – which it likely will – pick another small task, same process. Nothing convinces like demonstrated success!

How do I get volunteers to follow through on their commitments?

EE: That is maybe the most intractable problem in volunteer management. We’re all familiar with the 80-20 rule (or perhaps it should be the 20-80 rule): 20% of the people end up doing 80% of the work. That’s exacerbated when, as with volunteers, there’s no real “stick” you can wield if people don’t follow through.

But Peggy and I feel that’s one of the biggest strengths of the mission-driven model. By increasing the number of small commitment volunteer opportunities and decreasing the number of large commitment jobs, you naturally work your volunteers through a ladder of engagement, with different volunteers electing to stop on different rungs. Because there are so many small-scale opportunities, people who want to contribute don’t end up accidentally taking on a role that’s too consuming for them, and the association has ample low-risk opportunities to see who does and doesn’t follow through, which helps you do more efficient and effective succession planning for those large commitment roles.

PH: And stop recognizing individuals who don’t follow through. One of the biggest mistakes we make in volunteer management is often overlooked but has huge unintentional consequences. By routinely thanking and acknowledging everyone on the committee equally we send the message that “sitting” on the committee is all they have to do.

How do I balance mission/big vision and the practical things we need to do to keep the doors open (like make sure we have a positive revenue flow)?

PH: Assuming you are talking about getting volunteers to do the operational work, tie even these “licking the stamp” jobs to the larger picture. For example, we have a tough time getting a treasurer for our small board because it’s a heavy lift in many ways. We had much more success when we talk about helping the organization use member and donor money effectively to meet member needs and drive the organization to success.

EE: Also, the two shouldn’t be incompatible. But it’s important to remember what’s the means and what’s the goal. Your mission is your association’s goal. A positive revenue flow is a means to that end, but it is not the end in itself, which is one of the things that ostensibly distinguishes us from the for-profit sector. If you feel like or experience that what you need to do to bring in revenue is incompatible with your mission, it’s probably time for your Board and senior leadership to do some serious soul-searching about why your organization exists and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Our association has more than one mission. How do we orient our volunteer opportunities appropriately?

EE: Despite our often-extensive lists of benefits, members generally join for one or at the most two reasons. This presents an opportunity for you to learn what your members really value, based on what they actually sign up to help with, and then to target mission-based opportunities to the specific members who, by their behavior, demonstrate that they’re particularly concerned about that specific aspect of your mission. And if you discover, based on observing behavior, that one aspect of your mission just isn’t resonating, that’s probably a clue that it’s time to re-examine that item.

Having a “volunteer coordinator” seems like a great idea. Is this a position that has to be filled by a staff member, or could it be filled by a volunteer? How would that work?

PH: Yes, the volunteer coordinator can certainly be a volunteer. It’s not an ad-hoc position obviously, so you do need a volunteer who’s willing to take on a big job. There are a couple of ways to handle this which I shared in a recent blog post. If you have a solo position, the person essentially operates as the match maker. They work with each program area (aka committee or project team) to identify volunteer positions. They interview members on interest areas and then forward names of possible volunteers to committees and teams for follow-up. Another strategy is to tie the volunteer coordinator to the member welcome or engagement team. So as your welcome team meets and greets members they essentially do the intake activity which is feed into the system.

Should we propose ad hoc/micro volunteering projects ourselves, solicit them from member volunteers, both, something else…?

EE: YES! That’s one of the key points of the National Fluid Power Association case study in the whitepaper: good ideas can come from – and should be solicited from – anywhere. To quote the charming children’s movie Ratatouille: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” One of the best things about involving large numbers of your members actively in the work of the association is that it creates a culture in which it’s permissible for anyone to have a good idea.

PH: And Yes! It is a little like the chicken and egg question as you get started in opening up volunteering. You have to show members the possibilities and encourage members to offer ideas. So steal ideas to get started (here’s a list). Consider asking a group of members to get together and draw up a list of neat ideas.

We like the Mission Driven Volunteer concepts, but do you have any specific tips for implementing them in a really small staff association? An all-volunteer association? An association that has a really small pool of members to draw from?

PH: Think small. And focus on catching members on their way – that is ask them to help on something they are already participating in. For our monthly events, we started simply by sending an email accompanied by a list of small on-site jobs to all who registered for the event with the message that we needed a few helping hands at the event and since they were already coming could they help. To put together our social media pool, we pinged a few active members on social media and asked them to be part of a pool for six months. Tapping a volunteer coordinator to manage the effort is a great way to relieve staff of the primary duty. Finally, the main concept is to focus volunteer activity on mission – so you might want to simply start by having your volunteers rate their experience and tell you what will make it better.

If you are starting with a small pool of members, you might want to really focus on adhoc or task volunteering so you don’t tie up members on long-term commitments. And look for ways to involve people outside your membership. If you are a cultural group for example, there may be educators or students who aren’t members but could help the association.

We’re a mostly traditional association when it comes to volunteer structure, but we’re intrigued. How do we start moving down this road?

EE: I’m going to go back to my first response and urge you to start small, with a single experiment. Learn, succeed (hopefully), grow, gather supporters, continue to iterate. Change doesn’t come overnight, but it does come, if you are persistent.

PH: And read the Maryland CPA case study … they started with asking questions and then made changes slowly.

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