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Reflections on National Volunteer Week
By Matt Sanderson, President & CEO, SmithBucklin

There were many moments of heroism in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last fall in Houston, but one in particular stood out to me. You may remember the video. A group of about 15 people locked hands to create a human lifeline to rescue a man trapped in his SUV, which was submerged in the floodwaters. They were all strangers, people from various walks of life and different backgrounds who came together, no questions asked. Working together, they were able to help the man out of the vehicle and guide him through the shoulder-high waters to safety, one link in the human chain at a time.

Stories like this remind me about the best in people. So many are willing to come together to help, regardless of the situation and even in trying times. At the core, it’s the spirit of volunteerism—a sacrifice for the greater good without thought of personal gain or compensation—that shines through time and again. We saw it in Houston and we saw it in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and Florida last year. And, although it is much less dramatic and less publicized, we are fortunate as a company to see the same strength and spirit on display every day in the association world.

Spirit of Volunteerism

The volunteers who serve associations represent that very same powerful spirit. They sacrifice time, commit energy, and lend knowledge and resources to serve industries and business communities. They help create and protect jobs and increase product and workplace safety. Those who support healthcare associations and scientific societies help enhance patient outcomes and advance professions and new discoveries that save and improve lives. And those who work in technology help increase the reach and impact of solutions that are changing the ways people, businesses, and future generations operate, interact, and achieve new successes.

National Volunteer Week, which occurs this year from April 15–21, was established to honor the contributions that millions of volunteers across America have made to improve society. And we at SmithBucklin are privileged as a company to recognize those who take on volunteer roles in trade associations, professional societies, and other nonprofits, with which we are so familiar. These volunteers, who we are fortunate enough to call clients, power their organizations and make a difference every day in their professional fields.

Recently, Heidrick & Struggles published a survey called “Association and Nonprofit Boards: Maximizing Effective Service” that examined the attitudes and behaviors of board members. It included a quote that captured what perhaps many people outside of the association community don’t realize about volunteer leaders: “This country would not be what it is without the volunteer spirit of its people. At the highest level, associations and nonprofits, run by their executive teams and boards of directors, are focused on valuable missions—striving to better society as a whole, expanding economic opportunities, eliminating crippling diseases, providing for those who cannot provide for themselves, and offering education and development opportunities to their constituencies, among other undertakings.”

Well said, indeed.

Mission Accomplished

The Heidrick & Struggles survey polled more than 500 board members, of which 49 percent were from trade associations and 26 percent were from professional societies. Ninety-one percent of all respondents said they are driven to serve because they believe in the mission of their organization. While there are a lot of fantastic reasons to serve on a board, there are probably none more important than furthering the mission of the association.

"In looking at the perspectives of association and other nonprofit board members, we found that directors are laser-focused on how they can positively impact the vision and mission of the organization,” said Julian Ha, partner and practice leader of the Government Affairs and Trade Association practices at Heidrick & Struggles. “In fact, they believe their main responsibility is to think big to help drive the organization forward."

What’s perhaps most amazing about volunteer leaders is their dedication, something we are fortunate to see every day. The same study concluded that board service is extremely time-intensive, and that these demands are increasing. Board member respondents reported spending an average of 172 hours per year in service, with some volunteering many more hours. It just shows the passion and dedication of these volunteers, many of whom have full-time jobs in addition to families and other interests. Further, 64 percent of respondents say the demands on board members have increased in the past five years, with most saying that additional demand is spent focusing on the mission and organizational vision.

Despite the increasing commitment and responsibility associated with these volunteer commitments, more than 90 percent of association and nonprofit board directors say their board service was a good use of their professional time. Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering volunteering can be so fulfilling and rewarding. In fact, studies have also shown that it can actually make you happier. Maybe that’s why the survey found that 41 percent of respondents have served on two to three boards, 23 percent have served on four to five, and 16 percent have been on six to nine boards in their careers. A few even said they have served on more than 15 association or nonprofit boards during their careers!

The Best In Us

The participation and contributions of association volunteers power and shape industries. And we are continually mindful as a company of how fortunate we are to play a role in enabling their success. Volunteers not only make our work possible, but also meaningful, fulfilling, and fun. At SmithBucklin, we have spent a great deal of time thinking about volunteers and understanding what they find most important about their board experience. Four things appear to be universal: 1) a passion to make the organization better; 2) a sense of personal fulfillment and enjoyment; 3) a desire to receive the support they need to lead; and 4) the feeling of appreciation. So, if you see a volunteer, thank her or him for their service. That’s what National Volunteer Week is all about. And if you are a volunteer, know that you inspire others, including those at our company, who are inspired every day to be at our best.

  Matt Sanderson is President & CEO of SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other.

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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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