How to manage volunteers effectively

By Béatrice Richez-Baum

Secretary General, The European Confederation of Directors’ Associations (ecoDa)
Board member of ESAE

Non-profit associations always seek to maximize the benefits from their limited staff resources through voluntary contributions. Volunteers are there not only to perform specific tasks, but they also help organizations grab a hold of reality. This is particularly true for lobbying organizations which rely on their member organizations to provide expertise and informative input on potential consequences of new legislations. Volunteers help establish association’s credibility and influence on a firm footing by bringing real case examples and evidences that can feed position papers.

Volunteers are by definition not financially compensated to provide support but instead they are often expected to pay for their affiliation to the association. The main challenges for associations are therefore to get the right people around, to find the right incentives to keep them in the long run and to leverage their expertise.

A good signal of success is when member organizations help identify their pool of experts by offering access to the European association as a reward for good performance. But, too often, instead of taking the lead, associations just rely on volunteers available or on their member organizations to appoint representatives. The best way to get the right people is certainly to start by defining exactly what you expect from them. It is obvious that associations should be clear on the expectations and the required time commitment but they should not overlook the importance of defining the profiles they are looking for. If the association seeks specialists offering the best advice in their area of expertise, one should opt either for a homogeneity of profiles with the same seniority level or for a diversity of backgrounds that could bring different perspectives in the debate.

When the volunteers are appointed, associations should pay attention to the induction process. Creating a community starts by making sure everyone is on the same page in terms of understanding the values and the drivers of the association – in other words its culture.

The motivations for a volunteer to join an association can be diverse: it might be seen as a way to socialize and get access to a European network, or as a way to broaden their knowledge by benchmarking national practices. Associations should consider the different motivations that drive volunteers to reward them adequately. Some volunteers will feel happy as long as they believe their actions have an actual impact on the association’s life while others look for prestige and visibility. The latter should definitely be invited to present publicly the results of their survey or be given external exposure to be recognized as experts within the broader community. Organizing only conference calls will not allow the volunteers animated by networking perspective to connect with the others. The association should not neglect the social part even for small working groups. Enabling volunteers to exchange directly is important for their long term engagement.

Volunteers’ commitment should not be considered as granted. A great risk for associations is to rely too much on one or two individuals who play major roles. Associations should always identify sources of vulnerabilities and assess their degree of resilience in case top performing volunteers have to leave. Succession planning is absolutely essential when important functions are ensured by volunteers. The best option for associations is certainly to be cautious about the group dynamic and to privilege mandate limitation and rotation of volunteers as much as they can. These are certainly useful guidelines to strike a good balance between the staff team and the volunteer team. It helps ensure that the professional team does not run into conflict with the volunteers. “Members-directed associations” tend to be more professional than “members-driven associations”. They operate less as a club and more like an organization with an accountable management.

Boards are perceived as the weak body in the governance system of too many associations. Associations should definitely upgrade their governance and get inspiration from the profit sector. Boards tend to fall into interpersonal conflicts or competing interests that may hamper all efforts of the association to move ahead. Board members might have personal agendas and often incorrect assumptions about their responsibilities. First of all, board members should be clearly informed about their legal responsibilities and be conscious that the collective interest of the association should always prevail. What is relevant for volunteers in working groups should be even more essential for board members; induction sessions and definition of profiles for an efficient board composition constitute key areas of focus. Moving away from a board composed systematically of all chairs or CEOs of member organizations and bringing outsiders or wise people with a different background can challenge the thinking approach and generate more creativity. To by-pass possible reticences, the association might consider creating an advisory board to move in that direction. In terms of governance, it goes without saying that the board has to be clearly distinguished from the general assembly. Another tool to promote board professionalism in associations is to proceed to boards’ assessment. This concept well known in profit organizations is unfortunately not a common practice in associations. Associations’ managers are often reluctant to assess board members who are usually their constituencies at the same time. Changes can be implemented with the help of the chair who will be in an easier position to take the initiative. To act as change agents, associations’ managers should rely on facilitators the chair being one of them.