Leveraging Volunteer Assets & Addressing Fatal Flaws – Part 1


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Volunteers are the life blood of Associations…and one of the biggest challenges for Association Executives.  Our success as Association Executives is contingent upon our ability to effectively work with and build relations with volunteers.  

Association Management is also a profession with its own certification program and the competencies and expertise required to effectively manage complex, and unique organizations. So we live in an environment where association professionals try to apply best practices and professionalism to organizations with requirements that exceed the capacity of professional staff resources. We extend our organizational capacity through the efforts of volunteers, for whom the organization exists to serve and who have an ownership stake.  It is a complex, sensitive environment with multiple and sometimes competing stakeholders, with needs and objectives that are endless.  

While Association Executives are dedicated to facilitating the success of the individuals, professions, trades, or causes the Association exists to serve, frequently it is the volunteers that represent hurdles to the advancement of the organization for a number of reasons. We need volunteers to be involved to ensure they feel that the association that exists to serve their needs, is in fact listening and that they have a sense of ownership in setting direction and achieving objectives. While well-meaning, volunteers often do not have the skills or knowledge for the tasks and projects they take on. This is one of a number of ‘Fatal Flaws’ present in our Association structures related to volunteers and their ability to be accountable and contribute effectively.   

To engage volunteers, to add capacity to the organization and allow them to ‘own’ the outcomes of Association activity, there are roles and responsibilities volunteers need to assume. As a result, one of the critical skills for Association Executives is to understand what the appropriate roles are for volunteers and what are not and what leadership/assistance is required to allow volunteers to succeed. 

The ‘Fatal Flaws’ below look at typical mistakes and issues Associations face when working with volunteers. Part 2 of this article will discuss how to address them to more effectively leverage volunteer assets.

7 Fatal Flaws in Working with Volunteers

We often require that the President or Chief Elected Officer to Chair the meetings of the Board or volunteers to take on the Chair role for a Committee without the skills or experience to run an effective meeting.  We throw people into strategic planning and ask them to think strategically when they do not know how.   These are just two examples of many instances where we ask volunteers to step into roles and take on tasks that they do not  have the skills or knowledge to feel comfortable or to contribute effectively.  These well-meaning and motivated individuals bravely undertake their mission and do the best that they can.  Unfortunately, the outputs can range from impressive to insufficient. Some  outputs may require staff time and expertise to complete or get to a ‘good enough stage’.   Another possible outcome is a negative volunteer experience that can frequently occur with a mismatch between tasks and skills/knowledge.    

We often put volunteers in a difficult position by asking them to undertake tasks or asking Committees to accomplish a particular mandate. The most challenging aspect for volunteers is frequently knowing where to start and how to effectively focus their efforts. So we see delays in getting started and wheels spinning with little progress. Project management and processes are skills that association professionals possess and we can get things off to a great start for volunteers by giving them a head start. Volunteers may have difficulties in knowing how to start, but they have no difficulties in providing opinions on something they have to start with. 

“There is no shortage of good ideas…what there is a shortage of is focus.” Pretty well every Association is challenged with maintaining focus on the highest priorities and end up spreading themselves too thin.  Volunteers are full of good ideas that can provide positive benefits to the organization.  But a sure recipe for failure is trying to be everything to everyone, so you have to focus your efforts on where the greatest returns will be.  We also see growing diversity of thought on Boards, Committees and within the membership as to what is most important.  This increases the importance of the strategic plan that identifies the priorities for the organization following a comprehensive stakeholder consultation.  We need to ensure focus at all levels within the organization from the strategic plan to the projects and tasks volunteers are engaged with.  The strategic plan identifies broad goals/strategies/objectives and the problem is that pretty well any initiative brought forward can be justified under these broad strategies.  

A critical skill for Association Managers is to understand what projects or tasks are appropriate for putting in the hands of volunteers and which are best kept within the responsibilities of professional administration and management. There are some projects that require the skills and experiences of professional association professionals and are best managed or lead by the staff. This does not mean that volunteers cannot be involved, but the project itself is coordinated through the staff. Planning for a critical summit, marketing plans, communications and other core functions of association professionals should be utilized appropriately for optimal effectiveness.  

This flaw relates to the mistaken notion that any number of task forces or projects can be created and “insourced” to a purely volunteer activity with no staff involvement, thereby, not overburdening the staff capacity.  It needs to be made perfectly clear, that regardless of what the task force is or the project being taken on by volunteers, at some point in time it will end up on administration’s plate to undertake steps related to that project. One of the biggest problems relates to the volunteers perspectives on what constitutes completion of a project or task. Too often task forces or volunteer committees view the completion of a report, for example, or the conclusion of a meeting they coordinated to be the end of that initiative, when in fact more often than not it is the beginning. If the project was to achieve specific outcomes, the expertise of association staff will be required to achieve those outcomes. For instance, a report produced is done for a specific purpose, likely related to an issue or strategic objective.  But completion of the report is not the desired outcome, achieving some type of action would be. That action will require communication or further meetings with stakeholders to realize the desired outcomes. We need to better understand that what represents a conclusion for an initiative is achievement of the desired outcomes, not just the creation of the tool(s) that will facilitate attainment. The expertise and skills of association professionals will be required at some point to achieve the desired outcomes.

We need volunteers to be involved to ensure they feel that the association that exists to serve their needs, is in fact listening and that they have a sense of ownership in setting direction and achieving objectives. Consequences can be devastating for an Association Executive if perceived to be directing the organization, without inclusive consultation and involvement by the “owners” of the association. Association Executives need to ‘lead from behind’ to support the volunteer leaders and facilitate the achievement of organizational objectives. A critical function for Association Executives is to facilitate good decision making by the volunteer leaders by providing wisdom, experience and comprehensive information. Involvement by volunteers needs to be meaningful and accessible.  

A common trait of associations is a low tolerance to risk.  There is a natural resistance to change. Volunteers can have a particularly difficult time in pulling the trigger on decisions that represent change because of the perceived risks involved. The fear of the unknown is a real issue. 

In Part 2 of this article (coming Friday!) we will look at tools and techniques for addressing these fatal flaws.

Do you have experiences in working with volunteers within associations that you want to share.  Would love to hear from you. Please contact me at dana@amces.com

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