Volunteers Are a Terrible Resource to Waste

Now we have research suggesting one good reason associations and nonprofits fall short of achieving their boldest goals: they have not tapped the full power of their volunteers. 

A new American Society of Association Executives Foundation research project extensively surveyed and interviewed association executives and members to explore mutually beneficial volunteerism. This kind of volunteer management system delivers a meaningful experience for volunteers and a powerful ROI for their associations. Mariner Management and Whorton Marketing surveyed 1,016 unique associations, did 75 in-depth telephone interviews, and then surveyed members in 50 associations with 25,200 survey responses. The research report is available free to ASAE donors and members.

One research conclusion is that 20 to 25% of an association’s total work hours come from volunteers for an average of 67 hours per year. That sounds good except the researchers also discovered 70% of members have never served as a volunteer. Why? Probably because no one asked them. About 53% of active volunteers reported they became a volunteer because another active volunteer asked them to serve. This works far better than issuing a broad call for volunteers that organizations tend to rely on to boost their recruitment efforts.  

As part of their probe of best practices, the researchers found that few associations have a “systematic work plan to coordinate volunteer activities to the association’s priorities.”  I will be forcefully wielding that finding at the next strategic planning retreat I facilitate. Effective strategic plans must be communicated and coordinated throughout the association, and committees and task forces should align their work with an association’s strategic plan. This research reveals few associations follow that good advice.

Equally troubling is that less than half the associations reported having an orientation process for volunteers. Too many associations are putting people into leadership positions and trusting they will intuit how they might achieve the association’s goals. With good socialization and peer mentoring this might work for some associations. For others, it is clearly a waste of talent and might help explain why some volunteers under-perform or go rogue.

Furthermore, the researchers found the least common among the best practices included in the survey is having a systematic evaluation process to measure the volunteer experience. Associations may be talking a lot about using metrics to improve performance, but they are not including volunteers in their assessments. 

So to sum up what I found intriguing in this research: 

  • The majority of association members don’t volunteer largely because no one asked them. 
  • Volunteers are put into critical roles with little orientation about how they might help achieve the association’s goals.
  • Associations rarely assess the volunteers about their experience and contribution.

Perhaps I've stretched the purpose of this research to draw such a strong connection between weak volunteer management and failing to achieve bold goals. But the next time an association board laments having the staff or money to plan something amazing, I will remind these leaders they have this untapped power. They can use bold goals to recruit and organize people ready and willing to help them get the job done.