Member Engagement Can Lead to a Robust Volunteer Pipeline
While there may be a strong demand for committed volunteers within associations — especially in leadership roles — the supply of members equipped to fill those roles is generally sparse. As a result, the precious time of board members can often be devoted to filling open volunteer roles instead of achieving the organization’s goals.

To avoid this fate, associations should follow the example of the Society of Gastroenterology Nurses and Associates Inc. (SGNA), an 8,100-member professional association of nurses and associates dedicated to the safe and effective practice of gastroenterology and endoscopy nursing. More than 10 years ago, SGNA faced a volunteer drought. In response, its board launched a robust volunteer engagement effort designed to increase loyalty among its members, improve retention and produce an always-ready pipeline of next-generation volunteers. Today, after years of refinement, SGNA has found itself in the enviable position of having a healthy stable of ready-to-serve volunteers for its leadership positions within its board, committees and various task forces.

“I cannot remember the last time where we had to scramble to fill key roles,” said Lisa Fonkalsrud, the newly appointed president of SGNA. “We have a vibrant pipeline because we mentor members as they move up through the volunteer ranks. Our volunteer engagement effort has developed and strengthened leadership at every level of the society.”

Fonkalsrud is proof that SGNA’s approach is successful. She is just one of hundreds who have benefited from SGNA’s systematic, annual process, which accomplishes the following:
  • Identifies volunteer needs
  • Clearly communicates expectations
  • Provides mentorship and development opportunities
  • Evaluates performance
  • Elevates promising volunteers into positions of increased responsibility
From Volunteer to President

Fonkalsrud was a self-described average SGNA member when she received a “call to volunteer” message more than 12 years ago. The communication outlined all of the open volunteer positions and the expectations and time commitments required for each role. The message then encouraged members to apply.

Although these messages are common for associations, SGNA’s annual process involves more than just updating the previous year’s message with new dates and deadlines. Each October, the board defines the goals and priorities necessary for the committees to support the organization’s strategic plan for the upcoming year. The committees then identify the volunteer requirements needed to achieve those goals. Once the call for volunteers is made, committee members and staff use the remaining fall months to evaluate and discuss the candidates best qualified to help each committee meet its objectives. By late December, the board reviews and votes on the committees’ recommendations. New volunteers are in place by January. This process repeats each year, with SGNA typically filling about 40 open positions across its 13 committees and the board. To keep the pipeline strong and diverse, volunteers serve one-year terms that can be renewed and are frequently rotated into other roles or elevated into expanded positions.

When Fonkalsrud received her first invitation, she applied for a position on SGNA’s Program Committee, which is charged primarily with planning and organizing the association’s annual conference. After receiving board approval, she served on the committee for six successive one-year terms. As her breadth of leadership and experience grew during those years, Fonkalsrud was then encouraged to serve one year as co-chair, which led to her next yearlong assignment as committee chair.

“When I first volunteered on the committee, I had no idea that I was capable of becoming, or would even want to serve as, committee chair,” Fonkalsrud said. “Volunteering on the committee gave me new opportunities each year. And as those grew and expanded, so did my leadership ability. I gained more confidence in myself.”

After her eight-year run on the Program Committee, Fonkalsrud ran for the SGNA board. There the diversity of her leadership experiences continued. On the board, she served three years as a director, one year as secretary and one year as president-elect. She currently serves as president. For Fonkalsrud, what she cherishes most is not the progression from member to board president. Instead, it is the mentorship that she has received from SGNA’s community along the way. And she is not alone. In a recent assessment survey, SGNA members identified mentorship opportunities as one of the top five reasons for renewing their membership.

Fonkalsrud describes mentorship as the "connective tissue" that holds SGNA’s volunteer engagement program together. As volunteers advance through the program, they are exposed to multiple mentorship opportunities with committee members, committee leaders and board liaisons. In addition, the board provides professional development and leadership training for select committee leaders. Since Fonkalsrud has been in the program, she has been mentored by as many as 20 different leaders. In return, she has personally mentored more than a dozen volunteers.

“Having someone see something in you that you do not see in yourself is an important seed to plant,” Fonkalsrud said, recalling the time when one of her mentors first told her that she had what it took to become SGNA president. “For me, my mentors have come almost exclusively from SGNA. And my experiences with them have allowed me to interact with other leaders as I never would have imagined. My mentors have been a great source of encouragement, and the whole experience has made me very loyal to SGNA.”

Now, as president, Fonkalsrud has one leadership development goal for herself and any other leader in the organization: to make themselves replaceable by developing and mentoring the next generation of SGNA volunteers.

“We believe the organization needs to be bigger than any one person and must constantly develop future leaders,” Fonkalsrud said. “It is so important to take the time to cultivate your volunteers, because they are the future.”

Best Practices

Fonkalsrud maintains the principles of SGNA's a robust volunteer engagement program can be applied to any organization, of any size and in any sector. She offered these tips:
  1. Take baby steps. Start small and build momentum. Identify a small pool of roles (on the board or key committees) that your organization needs filled. Then, gradually expand your scope.
  2. Be clear about expectations and time commitments. Make sure the organization knows what it is asking its volunteers to sign up for. In exchange, ensure that prospective volunteers understand what will be expected of them.
  3. Extend an invitation. A lot of people are just waiting to be asked.
  4. Develop and mentor a small pool of volunteers. Provide an atmosphere where mentorship happens and is encouraged. Have board members reach out to emerging volunteers. A personal touch means a lot.
  5. Have the courage to say “no.” Not everyone will be the right person for the right job at the right time.
  6. Thank your committed volunteers. It has been often said that people will remember how you made them feel, so make your volunteers feel appreciated and valued.

A mere 10 years ago, SGNA made a strategic decision to leverage an untapped asset: its volunteers. By building a volunteer engagement program that invested in Fonkalsrud and other volunteers, SGNA has improved its member loyalty, increased membership retention and provided the organization with a steady supply of next-generation leaders who are ready to step into open roles. As a result, Fonkalsrud and the board can focus on the organization's strategic goals, while the engagement program continues to grow and develop the board’s future leaders.
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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