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The Key to Attracting Volunteer Leaders
Attracting qualified volunteers to serve in leadership roles on boards and committees is a challenge for many associations. Approximately 36 percent of association executives and 52 percent of board chairs said it was either difficult or very difficult to find volunteer board members, according to the 2017 Leading with Intent survey from BoardSource. It’s a concern that Jon Hockman, principal at McKinley Advisors, sees from many of the organizations his firm advises. Part of the problem, he contends, is in the way that many associations approach volunteer recruitment. He says many need to flip the script when it comes to attracting volunteers. “The only way the association is going to get what it needs is if it first meets the needs of the individuals who can volunteer,” said Hockman. “Oddly, that’s rarely where the conversation starts in most associations.”

Be More Volunteer-Centric

It’s not that people don’t want to volunteer — in fact, they do, the research states. But it is more likely they will serve if it is in a capacity that better serves their own interests and needs, said Hockman. Hockman offered some advice on how associations can be more volunteer-centric in their recruiting, focusing on the needs of the volunteer first.

Associations must begin by learning why qualified/talented individuals in their industries and professions want to serve, why they don’t, and what their challenges are. McKinley has found that a major obstacle is time. “We hear over and over again that time is the most precious commodity,” said Hockman. “Volunteers want less time-consuming opportunities.”

Further, research finds that the primary reasons people want to volunteer is to utilize their core skills, develop new ones, and gain new perspectives. For up-and-coming professionals, a primary driver is the desire to make a difference, while more senior-level volunteers are often driven by a desire to give back. Hockman noted that, contrary to some perceptions, young professionals are just as interested as older generations in volunteering.

Ask the Right Questions

To learn the specific wants and needs of your association volunteers, Hockman recommends asking four questions of prospective board members and volunteers:
  • Why do you want to be a volunteer?
  • What are some of the talents and skills you're really interested in sharing?
  • What are some ways you'd like to learn new things or stretch yourself professionally or personally?
  • What do you never want to be asked to do?
The answers to these questions can help you customize both experiences and opportunities for each volunteer. Based on their feedback, would the person be better suited for a committee role, or volunteering for a one-off project? Or perhaps an individual with a particular skill would be an extraordinary addition to the board of directors. “Boards need to think about the structure of volunteer roles differently, repackaging the opportunities to better fit the needs of the volunteers,” said Hockman. That can be accomplished by offering shorter terms, more flexible schedules, or some other solution.

Be Deliberate

Boards also need to invest real time and attention in seeking out volunteers. Hockman has found that, aside from the time commitment, two other reasons people don’t volunteer is because they didn’t know about the opportunity or they weren’t directly asked. It takes more than just posting a notice or making an announcement at the annual meeting to get the word out. “Boards think they've asked by putting a notice in the newsletter, but that is not really asking somebody to volunteer,” Hockman said. “You need to actually have a conversation with the individual so that you can ask those four key questions.”

It’s also important for boards to set up a framework to reach out to volunteers, rather than just letting candidates come to them. Finding potential volunteers could be done through a nominating committee, the executive committee, a talent council, or some other means. The key is to make it a year-round effort, so you can constantly be filling up the pipeline of potential candidates. Effective outreach is critical, said Hockman, because volunteers are essential to the success of the association. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 20 to 25 percent of the average association’s total work hours are from volunteers. “You’ve got a quarter of your personnel tied up in this model, so you better be putting time and attention into doing this right.”

Make the Business Case

There is truly a business case to be made for volunteerism, not just for the association but for the volunteers themselves and the organizations they work for. Among the benefits for the individual, volunteering can help people develop new skills, strengthen existing proficiencies, have an impact on an industry or profession, and become better leaders.

As for those who employ volunteers, Hockman cited a 2017 survey by Deloitte that found that companies that create a volunteer culture enjoy competitive advantages. Specifically, 89 percent of American workers said employers who sponsor volunteer activities offer a better overall working environment than those who do not. Further, 77 percent say volunteering is essential to employee well-being, while 74 percent think volunteerism provides an improved sense of purpose and 70 percent say it boosts company morale. These benefits need to be communicated to potential volunteers and their employers. “It’s not just what's in it for the individual, but it's also about what the employer is going to get out of it,” he said.

The Deloitte survey also had two other very interesting data points. One, it found that 69 percent say they are not volunteering as much as they would like to. And two, of that group 62 percent said they cannot dedicate time during the day to volunteering. These figures encapsulate both the opportunities and challenges for associations. People want to serve, but they don’t have time. “To make it work, put yourself in the shoes of your potential volunteer,” said Hockman. “Understand what she is looking to do and what her constraints are, and then build the opportunity around what you learned.”
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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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