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Lessons from the Other Side: 4 Things Volunteering Has Taught Me About Volunteer Management

Volunteer management is a critical skill for association professionals. After almost a decade of managing various committees and task forces, I thought I knew all the ins and outs of volunteer management.

Then I became a volunteer.

Since January, I have served as the co-chair of the Indiana Society of Association Professionals Inbound Marketing Committee. While it’s been a wonderful experience, being on the “other side”—that is, being the volunteer instead of the staff liaison—has taught me number of lessons about volunteer management. Here are four things I’ve learned about managing volunteers since becoming one:

1. Be patient.

As a staff advisor, it was always frustrating when a volunteer seemed to ignore my emails. But guess what? As a volunteer, I find myself not always responding to emails as quickly as I’d like to. Sometimes it takes a few days before I’m able to squeeze in time to focus on my volunteer responsibilities.

My executive director once told me, “On a good day, your committee will be the third priority for a volunteer. First is their family, and second is their job. Both of those will always come first.” Now that I truly understand the time constraints placed on volunteers, I have more patience when waiting for a response. And I know that a few gentle reminders are appreciated by both sides when something is truly urgent.

2. Volunteers Have Great Ideas—And They’re Not Trying To Ruin Your Life

Alright, maybe that is a little dramatic. But as a staff advisor, you understand all the daily tasks fighting for your time. You feel stretched thin and pinched for resources. But guess what? Your volunteers don’t see all of that. They have gathered around to solely focus on the one project they are tasked with and they want that project to be the best it can possibly be. So when a volunteer comes up with a Big Idea, as a staff member, it’s easy to go into defense mode: We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the time, we have never done it that way, it will never work, there’s no way I can handle all of this new work, they must be unhappy with how we have done it in the past, they must think the organization isn’t “good enough” because we haven’t tried it this way, I might as well start sleeping in the office…RED ALERT RED ALERT RED ALERT!!!

But when I’m serving as a volunteer, it’s very exciting to come up with new ideas that will push the organization forward—and these ideas have never once come from a place of thinking the organization wasn’t “good enough”; in fact, these ideas are proposed because I believe in the organization and know we can reach new heights by implementing these ideas. This has taught me that as a staff advisor, I can’t just shut down when new ideas come up—I need to be able to explore them and find ways to see them through. There will always be more an organization can do. This ties into lesson #3:

3. Volunteers Are Capable, Too

Association management professionals tend to be control freaks. (Which is ironic, because in all actuality, there is very little that is within our control… but that’s a blog post for another day.) So when a volunteer suggests a new task, the natural inclination is that a staff member should be the one to develop and implement it. But as we saw in #2, most staff advisors can’t add it to their already full plate.

So: It’s time to delegate. Repeat after me: “That’s a great idea. Who on the committee would like to see that through?” If it’s truly a great idea, a volunteer will step up and take it on. If it’s not that great of an idea? No one will be that passionate about it, it will fizzle out and everyone will have forgotten about it by the next committee meeting. It’s better to delegate up front than have a staff member spend precious time and energy on something that may not move the needle.

Is it scary to delegate something? Yes. Is there a chance it won’t get done? Yes. But as a volunteer, I know that I am capable of diving in and doing what needs to be done—so it’s okay to expect the same from the committees I work with.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Then communicate again.

As a staff advisor, you live and breathe your organization. But guess what? A committee member doesn’t. You may have their attention for as little as a one hour every couple of months. And then they’ll promptly forget what was discussed and go back to their day-to-day lives. Serving as a volunteer has given me a communication checklist for keeping my committees informed in the little time we have together:

  • Make sure everyone on your committee is clear on your committee charge. Place it on the top of all meeting agendas. This will help avoid off-topic tangents that eat up valuable meeting time. As a staff advisor, don’t be afraid to bring people back to the committee charge when things start to go off track. Your committee chairs (myself included) may not always recognize the slippery slope of trying to tackle projects not related to the committee—so feel comfortable speaking up and getting back to the work at hand.
  • Reach out to each member of your committee individually. It may be as quick as an email thanking them for their contribution to the most recent call, or a phone call when they join the committee to bring them up to speed on the committee’s tasks. Give them the opportunity to ask questions one-on-one that they may not have felt comfortable asking in a large group or in front of their peers. Communicate your enthusiasm about having them on the committee as well as your excitement for the work that the committee is doing, and each volunteer will feel welcomed, valued and informed. Encourage your committee chairs to develop these relationships as well.
  • Send an agenda well in advance, and send meeting notes soon after. Make sure everyone has access to both documents so that they can accurately remember what happened on the call.
  • Set expectations and deadlines, and follow up. Did someone agree to take on a project while they were on the call? Great! They’ve probably immediately forgotten. (Guilty as charged.) As staff advisor, my job is to make sure volunteers are held accountable. Take the time to follow up with them and make sure they understand the specifics of the project they are working on. Be sure to track all deadlines and send reminders ahead of time. As a volunteer, I always appreciate when I receive a little direction on how to approach something that may not be familiar to me, as well as a reminder a few days in advance so I can make sure I follow through.
  • Communicate success. As a volunteer, I want to feel like I’m making a difference. I’ve learned that in order to keep my volunteers motivated, I need to make sure they feel the same. Find the metrics that are directly related to your charge, track them, and keep everyone in the loop on what has been done to date.
  • Stay on the same page as your committee chairs. As a committee chair, I want to be sure that the staff liaison I work with is comfortable with the new suggestions and projects that come up. As a staff liaison, I have a new-found appreciation for the role my committee chairs play. (It’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure!) If this staff-chair relationship is healthy and candid, your committee will be much more effective and successful.

These takeaways are just some of the lessons I’ve learned since serving as a volunteer. Over the next couple of weeks, other RGI staff members will be sharing the lessons they’ve learned through their various volunteer roles.

So let’s hear it: What are your top tips for volunteer management—either as a volunteer or as a paid staff member? What works for you—and what doesn’t?