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Micro-Volunteering: No Small Thing
Many association members are faced with two competing forces — the desire to volunteer and the lack of time to do so as much as they would like. But in recent years, a trend called micro-volunteering has emerged that allows members to serve their association even if they have limited amounts of time to give. “Basically, it involves offering opportunities for engagement that don't require the traditional year-long or multi-year commitment that a committee position, a board role, or even a task force would involve,” explained Meghan Carey, executive director of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC). An increasing number of associations, including NSGC, are creating these micro-volunteering opportunities for members and expanding their capabilities.

Engaging Millennials … and Beyond

It’s no secret that people have less time these days given commitments to work, family, social activities, and other pursuits. Further, since the Great Recession, many people are being asked to do more at their jobs and generally have less time to volunteer. Obviously, board service is a major commitment that requires a significant amount of time. Some avoid making that commitment, not because they don’t want to serve but because they don’t have the time to make it a priority. This new reality often results in associations not getting input from a lot of smart, talented people with much to offer. Micro-volunteering allows boards to tap into this vast resource of knowledge and skill. Simply put, the more voices and perspectives that are heard, the better the likelihood that the association will be successful.

Initially, micro-volunteering started as a way to engage Millennials. However, it soon proved to be an effective way to get people of all generations involved. Over the last five years or so, it’s been employed strategically to both engage members and conduct important work that needs to be done.

Developing a Strategy

In developing a micro-volunteering strategy, the NSGC board wanted to engage members in association activities in a way that was meaningful, impactful, and convenient. But another part of it was that the board wanted NSGC’s committees and task forces to remain more focused on the charges they’re given. In the past, when short-term projects came up, they were usually given to one of the committees even if the project didn’t fall directly under their purview. Often, then, the short-term project would divert the committee’s attention from the work the board needed the committee to do. “Micro-volunteering has allowed us to use others for these newer ideas and needs that don't fit neatly into a committee. It’s also helped us to expand our overall capacity,” said Carey.

When a committee has such a need, it develops a description that outlines the task, topic area, how much time it will take to complete, what the volunteer needs to do, and what the board is intending to do with what they produce. It’s also important, said Carey, to let the volunteers know what kind of impact their contribution will have. The time-commitment for the project can be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to a few months, but usually not beyond that.

Putting Micro-Volunteering into Play

NSGC puts out calls for volunteers for these short-term opportunities through discussion forums, e-newsletters, and other vehicles. Technology makes it much easier to tap into people who wouldn't have been found otherwise because either they hadn’t volunteered before or the association wasn’t aware they had specific expertise. The board or committee that oversees the project reviews those who have expressed interest, and then establishes a work group to carry out the project. Keep in mind, it’s not a task force, which typically has a broader focus and a longer time commitment.

Recently, NSGC put out a call for people with expertise in understanding a proposed federal policy that could affect the genetic counseling industry. The policy was related to returning genetic test results to patients directly, instead of through a healthcare provider. “Instead of our leadership team spending time delving into it, we asked for volunteers willing to parse through the language of the proposed policy and summarize it for the board,” explained Carey. What they produced helped the board determine if the association would make an official comment on the proposed policy.

In another example, NSGC put out a call for session moderators for its recent annual conference and got a great response. Other associations have sought people to serve three-to-four-month stints as mentors for young professionals, but that can be a micro-volunteering activity as well. The approach can also be used for advocacy, with micro-volunteers serving as leaders in their state or region to encourage involvement in key issues.

When it first started this program, NSGC didn’t necessarily know that the interest in volunteering for short-term projects was there. But they did know that the expertise was present. They also understood that if it didn’t work — if people did not raise their hands — then this work would be done by either staff, the board, a committee, or a task force. Fortunately, lack of interest has never been a problem for NSGC, said Carey. “We've gotten enough interest that we've been able to pull people in for everything we're doing.” But other associations may want to poll their membership first to gauge interest in the concept.

Unexpected Benefit

One of the unexpected benefits of this initiative, Carey found, is that more members are now bringing ideas to the board. “People really feel like they have a voice,” said Carey. Not every idea that has bubbled up from membership is pursued, but many are, like the idea to build a webpage with job descriptions, salary data, and other information for use by employers of genetic counselors. The idea was based on the experience of a member who was trying to hire more genetic counselors for her hospital, but found information to support attracting high-quality candidates lacking. The association is working on that now.

This type of involvement can also result in continued gains in member involvement, added Carey. “The more experiences people have that are positive, the more willing they are to volunteer for more and get engaged on a deeper level,” she said. That could mean stepping up to a board or committee role should they find the work fulfilling. Or it could just mean they are willing to continue to engage in future micro-volunteering opportunities. Either way, it helps build the leadership pipeline for the association. In addition, micro-volunteerism helps with retention. The more people are engaged, the more likely they are to stay with and support the association. In a sense, it creates a sense of ownership among members.

There are almost no limits to how an association could use micro-volunteering. It promotes engagement and delivers meaningful results. The key is to put in place a formal process to use micro-volunteerism to tap into the valuable resource that is your membership.
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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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