Cultivating engagement: how might you like to contribute?

In The Decision to Volunteer, one of the surprising findings (for some) was that association staff and board members often have a more limited definition of volunteering than the members.  Staff and board members may focus more on those members serving in formal positions within the association's governance structure (i.e., newsletter editor).  Members are more likely to include ad hoc contributions to getting the work done (i.e., writing for the newsletter).

This emphasis on positional contributions is symptomatic of the larger problem I think many make when it comes to association volunteering: we treat members as if only some of them might want to contribute.  While that may be true for positions of leadership, we are better served to assume that everyone might like to contribute to the organization's work if it lets them act on what they care about, the question addressed in my previous post.

So to cultivate engagement, ask "how might you like to contribute?" not "do you want to volunteer?" Think of it as a potluck.  We just need to learn what dish you can bring to pass.  At minimum, we need to gather insight into four contribution-related areas:
  • The expertise or capability individuals have to contribute
  • The type of contribution they want to make: write, curate, speak/present, create, review, donate money, research, coach or mentor, provide input, etc.
  • The way they want to make the contribution: working on their own or as part of a group, face-to-face effort or virtual volunteer, etc.
  • The time associated with their preferred contribution: one-time or ongoing (weekly, monthly, quarterly, periodic) and length of each contribution (one hour, a couple of hours, etc).
I also want to learn how important it is for people to build relationships with the other volunteers.  In other words, for whom is the work alone the reason they want to contribute, and for whom might the social and networking aspects of contributing be important?

Ridiculously obvious?  Well, of course.  But in my 25+ years of belonging to a variety of professional organizations, I have never—I repeat, never—been surveyed to learn what I care about and how I might like to act on that caring.

Is your organization collecting that information in a systematic way that staff and other volunteers can easily access and apply to increase individual engagement?  More likely it is incidentally learned by individuals interacting with members over time and often known only by the staffer or volunteer involved in that interaction.

We should ask people how they would like to contribute as part of the membership application process, not something we relegate to a separate outreach effort.  Why?  Because doing so sends a message at the very beginning of the membership experience: this is a community where people make contributions.

So we now know what members care about, their areas of expertise, and how they prefer to contribute.  It's up to us to routinely use that information to offer personal invitations to individuals, asking for a contribution based on what what we have learned about them.  Doing so should easily begin to increase the number of members actively contributing to the work of the organization.

This post is a part of a short series of daily posts on cultivating engagement.  Your comments, reactions, and refinements are encouraged. I am not a marketing, data or information analysis, or membership specialist. I am a generalist in the trenches, sharing what makes sense based on my experiences and observations of others’ efforts. I am a deep believer in trying a lot of stuff to learn what works.  These posts are in support of that commitment.


Stephen Lemire said...


Here is a summary of Lessons in Volunteership which I drew up a few months ago:

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Thanks for sharing Stephen. I think your suggestion that we have to treat volunteers as individuals and not as a group is spot-on.