Getting the Right Job Done with Your Volunteers

In associations and nonprofits, volunteers are as critical to achieving an organization’s vision as the board and staff.  Yet the structures and processes to organize this human capital can easily get out of alignment with an organization’s vision, mission and strategic plan.

This oversight became obvious to me through two recent projects, one a strategic planning effort and the other a governance improvement initiative. 

The organization doing strategic planning had a very complex structure for organizing members into geographic regions, professional sector divisions, professional interest groups, local affiliates, and a host of committees, task forces and commissions.  A typical association in every way.  

The board members kept coming back to how they would get this job done with a small board and a lean staff. I held up a diagram of their organizational structure and asked a better question, “How will you get all these moving parts in alignment with your vision and goals?”  Because if they could, they would have many times the people they need to accomplish their plan. If they didn’t, they would be no more effective than a flea on the back of an elephant. They now have a new understanding of their role as liaisons to these various structures.

The association involved in the governance review is reworking the structure and processes of its board-appointed groups.  Again, this is a complex organization that can easily evolve out of control over time. This association seemed to have it together until we looked closely at the experiences of volunteers in that system now.  While the work group tasked with finding a better approach is just getting underway, the broad outlines of a solution are already evident.     

  1. The board needs to define the scope and priorities for each appointed group consistent with its strategic plan and current priorities.
  2. The work of the committees has to be structured to achieve and be held accountable for specific outcomes. (Any group without a meaningful contribution to the association or profession should be disbanded.)
  3. The process for reporting findings and recommending actions to the board must be clear.
  4. And as the survey and focus group results indicated, the volunteers want feedback and evaluation of their value to the board and their contribution to the association/profession.

Experiencing these two projects within the same week, I was reminded how easy it is to overlook and mismanage volunteers.  Volunteers can give you incredible capacity to get the right job done if you align their work with your vision and plan and have a system that respects and values their contribution.