12 Volunteer Management Practices to Adopt for 2011

Yesterday's Twitter chat for associations (#assnchat) focused on volunteer recognition and appreciation.  It was encouraging to see all the great ideas participants had for this important topic, but somewhat discouraging to realize how few organizations seem to have a comprehensive, systematic approach to volunteer development.

Answer me this:  would any credible, successful HR professional manage paid staff the way volunteers are managed in your organization?

If the answer is yes, congratulations.  You can probably stop reading.  If the answer is no, you've just identified where your New Year's resolutions should focus.  It's time to get resolute and do the following:
  1. Develop a comprehensive strategic plan for the recruitment, development, and recognition of volunteers throughout the organization.
  2. Appropriately incorporate volunteer development responsibilities in the job descriptions of every staff member and volunteer, and train them appropriately.
  3. Create dashboard metrics that assess the success of your volunteer development efforts: # of volunteers recruited, # of hours contributed, # of individual efforts recognized, etc.
  4. Ensure that volunteer contributions are tracked in your membership management systems, be that a sophisticated AMS, a few fields in another type of database, or index cards with handwritten notations.
  5. Remember what we learned in ASAE & The Center's Decision to Volunteer: some of what members consider volunteering (writing for newsletters, speaking at conferences, etc.) often isn't on the radar screen of organizations that focus almost exclusively on "positional" volunteering.
  6. Implement multiple "touch points" throughout the year, times when volunteer efforts are given recognition and appreciation beyond the real-time feedback and thanks that should be ongoing. Consider a covert thank-a-thon involving a multi-faceted week-long volunteer appreciation effort that is unannounced and unexpected.
  7. Develop mechanisms for volunteers to notice what their peers are doing and share information about those contributions/accomplishments with the organization for recognition. Think of hotels who give guests a card to note when an employee has done something above and beyond.
  8. Ensure that the more significant the volunteer's contributions, the more personal the recognition.  A simple thank-you is just fine for stuffing binders for the annual leadership conference, but concluding a term of service as board chair merits something more than a generic plaque.
  9. Make it possible for people to begin volunteering at any time and create and/or highlight multiple volunteer pathways that reflect the varied motivations people might have for getting involved: developing their professional network, sharing their talents or expertise, bring a particular program or project to reality, generating leads or growing their business, deepening their connections to the community and the profession/industry, getting recognized in front of their peers, or advancing through the leadership ranks.
  10. Gather more information about the prospective volunteers.  At minimum learn what they would consider to be a meaningful volunteer experience, but also inquire more about their time availability and talents.  Here's a PDF of what an expanded volunteer interest form could look like, but this same info could easily be gathered in an online electronic submission.
  11. For volunteer training segments that are how-to or fact-based, create short video clips or synced slides and audio that individuals can watch on their own time.  Use in-person volunteer development efforts to engage people in strategic thinking and more interactive discussions.
  12. Help volunteers who have held significant leadership positions remain a part of the organization and the community in meaningful ways, but let newcomers move into formal leadership positions.  We want them to "let go" of their leadership positions, not let go of their connection.  Don't cut the knot; tie a new string.
I've long held a belief that many association executives consider heresy: I want as many volunteers as possible making as many contributions as possible year-round.  Yes, it initially could be a logistical and management challenge until you develop appropriate systems, but here's the payoff for this approach: it gets people connected.  Our organizations are communities of people—not just catalogs of programs and services—something we too often forget.  When we make it easy for more people to care and to act on their caring in ways that they find meaningful (and that advance the community and the profession or industry), great things happen.  And guess what?  People want to join organizations where the community is strong and great things are happening.  So getting better at volunteer management might just mean getting better results at membership recruitment and retention.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow in the United States, it's appropriate to reflect on our attitude of gratitude for the thousands of contributions volunteers make to our organizations each year.  But let's make 2011 the year when more volunteers say they are grateful because the organizations they belong to embrace and respect their time, talents, and interests and use them to achieve meaningful results for their professions/industries and the stakeholders that they serve and affect.