Leveraging Volunteer Assets & Addressing Fatal Flaws – Part 2


Published on:

Part 1 of “Leveraging Volunteer Assets & Addressing Fatal Flaws” identified seven common fatal flaws of working with volunteers in associations.  This list is by no means comprehensive, but certainly all will be familiar to associations.  


In this follow-up article we want to present some tools and techniques for avoiding or addressing these fatal flaws to more effectively leverage volunteer assets and provide a positive, successful volunteer experience. 

The tools and techniques listed below can be used for one or several of the fatal flaws.  However, all are intended to increase effectiveness, efficiency, accountability and the overall experience for volunteers and staff.

A.    Training 
Invest in training volunteers to provide the skills they need to succeed (i.e. chairing meetings, effective Board leadership, project management, etc.)

B.    Mentoring/Coaching 
Take the time to sit down with volunteers to discuss the objectives and approach that can lead to their success in pursuing an endeavour.  This investment of time will pay off as the time required to fix a substandard output will be more substantial.  Create a coaching plan for regular check-ins to help keep things on track.

C.    Project Management Template
Develop a project template that provides a step-by-step approach to starting and managing projects.  Include desired outcomes, resource needs, budgets, steps to completion, tools, timelines, etc. This lays out the ends as well as the beginning to get them started and a plan to follow. How is success for this initiative defined? Make sure it is recognized within the resources required, that staff will be in there somewhere.
D.    A blank page is a very difficult thing to start with  
Always give Committees and volunteers something to start with, such as the first draft of project management plan, or an outline, or some type of shell document that allows them to hit the ground running.  Volunteers often get stuck getting off the start line but they have very few barriers to providing an opinion on a draft. 

E.    Break down the ‘elephant’ 
Large projects are daunting but identifying the individual parts that can be tackled makes it much more manageable. This project planning aspect can serve as milestones within the project management plan the volunteers follow.

F.    Focused operational plan 
The operational plan that lays out the tactics and tasks to accomplish strategic objectives within the tasks identified is where we get the focus we need to effectively manage resources and avoid the ‘being everything to everyone’ syndrome. Keep volunteers focused on the tasks identified in the operational plan.  If new tasks, are identified to pursue a strategy, they need to replace one already identified, not just be added to the list.  Rather than justifying new initiatives within a broad strategy, a focus on revising the operational plan will provide great second thought and prioritization. 

G.    For Committee and volunteers projects, give them a head start with a focus on the desired outcomes 
Be clear on what the end result of their efforts should achieve with a measurable metric. Those focused outcome(s) should be accompanied by an understanding of the bigger picture of how the initiative contributes to the strategic objectives of the organization. 

H.    Use Meetings to Increase Effectiveness
Not too many of us like meetings, however, they are effective tools to encourage accountability and keeping a project on track. Coordinate committee/task force meetings before Board meetings and includes reports to the Board on the progress of the project.  

I.    Understand what the core competencies of the staff team are and how best to utilize those in volunteer leadership  
A general rule is that for each project, recognize the criticality of quality outputs. If we looked at a scale (ranging from ‘staff lead’ on one end to ‘volunteer lead’ on the other), consider that the more critical the outputs or outcomes are from the initiative, position it more toward the ‘staff lead’ end of the scale. That is of course assuming that it falls within the skill set of the association staff.  If it requires, legal expertise for example, and you have that within your volunteer pool, then it makes sense that project have a ‘volunteer lead’ lean.

J.    We need to have a well-developed volunteer leadership plan 
Association Executives and staff need to have the attitude of facilitating the success of volunteers. Each win for volunteer efforts is a win for the association staff. The volunteer leadership plan discusses recruitment, retention, expectations, how volunteers are recognized and celebrated. Make them feel a part of the team, not just outsiders getting in the way.
K.    Celebrate 
Make sure that members are aware of the volunteer efforts and how they have contributed to the success of the organization. Go overboard of giving credit to those volunteers involved. However, also recognize the contributions of where staff involvement contributed to success so that your value to the organization is enhanced.

L.    Facilitate Excellent Decision Making by Volunteers
A critical success factor for association executives is the need to provide comprehensive information to facilitate good decision making. We recognize that there is apprehension for volunteers to make decisions that represent change and that there are perceived risks. This requires the Association Executive to ensure that transparent, comprehensive information is provided to facilitate good decision making. Comprehensive information answers questions around: how this decision relates to the strategic priorities; the benefits that can be realized; the problem being addressed; the resources required; the specific desired outcomes; the potential risks; and, the consequences of failing to achieve outcomes.

Working with volunteers is one of the most unique and rewarding aspects of Association work. Avoiding the fatal flaws and working with volunteers to help them be more successful will directly contribute to the success of the staff and the organization as a whole.

The fatal flaws and tools and techniques presented are by no means comprehensive. I would love to hear from you about your experiences in working with volunteers and some of the techniques you have had success with.  Please contact me at dana@amces.com.

Related Articles

Lindsay Pealow CAE to Serve as CAE Class of 2023 Valedictorian

Lindsay Pealow CAE to Serve as CAE Class of 2023 Valedictorian

AMCES values lifelong learning and since its inception has supported continuing education for our team.  We encourage all staff to complete the Certified Association...

Sarah McCabe CAE Awarded CSAE 2023 Young Leader Award

Sarah McCabe CAE Awarded CSAE 2023 Young Leader Award

We are proud to recognize Sarah McCabe CAE for being awarded CSAE’s Young Leader Award.  This award celebrates emerging talent and leadership in the association sector...