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.

Trade Secrets in the Art of Futures Scanning

Recently a client marveled after I briefed her team on the preliminary findings from my futures scanning, “I don’t know how you do it.”

Honestly in that moment, I would have been hard-pressed to explain my techniques either. But her question stayed with me while I continued to scan for two different futures projects.  I paid closer attention to how as a futurist I learn quickly about the future in fields where I am not an expert.

One of my futurist colleagues used to describe the Holy Grail of scanning as that great synthesis article that gives you a reasoned analysis of a trend or issue. But like the Holy Grail, those articles or papers can rarely be found.  With persistent searching you can usually find these three invaluable sources:

Shared vision for new directions.  In every field there is a turning point in how people view what needs to be done.  In the past these visions were commonly issued by high level study panels or think tanks.  Lately they are just as likely to be reports from a summit of the most influential leaders and organizations.  Foundations are also into this vision-setting business in a thoughtful and well-resourced way. These reports give me a sense of the next big ideas in the field.

Futures scans by others.   Search for published scans by related organizations. This has long been one of my favorite tactics. The only downside to these reports is you can feel a bit like you’ve stepped into an echo chamber of the official future.  However, discovering the official future is powerful. If that many people believe in something, some part of it just might come true. 

Thought leaders who challenge the assumptions.  I love searching for the perspectives of people with either great imagination and strategic thinking talent or a very different world view.  The strategic thinkers have a talent for seeing the outlines of the future first. The contrarians can help you uncover your own blind spots.  They are more likely to see the potential for very disruptive changes.  Thought leaders are not always published, so I often factor interviews or thought leader panels into my scanning methodology.

I will confess. This learning never feels particularly efficient. Most of what I read quickly in scanning only proves to be useful context to understand the systems at work in a particular field. Clients experience the magic and see little of the struggle—except maybe reflected in my fees. My real trade secret as a futurist comes down to relying on these three learning tactics:  Find the shared vision. Read other scans for the official future. And use the outliers to challenge the assumptions.