Opening the Door to Volunteers

Originally posted December 24 on Event Garde

As recently as this month, December, an association pro began a Collaborate discussion with the question “are associations seeking a reduction of volunteers interested in board or officer positions?” Volunteer burn-out is real and for many associations, we saw that with increasing clarity in the past 18 months.

But wait, not all responding said yes. Interestingly, in one of our smaller associations, we inaugurated a robust DEI committee and program, and increased the number of volunteers engaged in our programs and running for the board.  We weren’t alone. On an ASAE webinar on volunteering and COVID, several associations weighed in sharing how members had stepped up on advocacy, creating effective practices and building new programming.

What’s the difference between associations struggling and those succeeding?

The difference is these associations responded to the changing volunteer workforce – pre-pandemic – while others are still wedded to the traditional, term-based volunteering.

In that Collaborate discussion, Donna Dunn captured this disconnect between what we’re offering and what volunteers want perfectly:

“We are long past the time when people volunteer for a committee (think three-year term) because it’s the right thing to do for my industry/profession/community. We’ve all been on committees where we aren’t enthused about participation because — we don’t know what the committee is supposed to do, it doesn’t seem to make a difference, the work of the committee gets ignored by leadership, the committee exists because it has always existed and people are no longer certain about its purpose. Who wants to volunteer for that?”

The difference between struggle and success can be seen in three critical areas: the work we are asking to be done, the time we are requiring and benefit giving that time.

The work: the secret is connecting members to an issue to rally around such as addressing diversity and inclusion or in the case of the American Industrial Hygiene Association creating up-to-minute briefings that helped members safely reopen workplaces.

The time: creating short-term, impactful volunteer opportunities like work groups, action teams, one-time jobs and ad hoc advisory councils.

The benefit: tapping into the immediate needs of members as they require gaining key technical skills, sharpening leadership skills or gaining knowledge.

The cracks were already in our volunteer systems pre-pandemic. The 2017 Mutually Beneficial Volunteerism study shared the framework for a strong volunteer program and the ASAE Foresights Volunteering Driver gave us a road map in 2019.  The driver identified two important opportunities available to associations when we reimagine our volunteer programs:

  1. Modernizing our volunteering systems with flexible project focused jobs that are purpose-oriented is the ticket to attracting incoming generations and career-changers to engage with the association.
  2. One of the hot buttons that came out of ASAE ForesightWorks is a call to accelerate decision-making. Digitization and the rapid rate of change spells a greater complexity and uncertainty to many organizations. Meanwhile, the traditional volunteer board and committees inherently slow down decision-making processes. The call to action is: take a hard look at the volunteering driver and ask ourselves how can we take our volunteer game to the next level to ensure we can make meet the demands of operating in this decade and next?


So, what’s the right volunteer model for 2022 and beyond? The ASAE Foundation research underway is looking to define effective models; findings are due early 2022. Meanwhile, the answer lays in creating flexible volunteering that connects to the mission and strategic plan, providing robust effective volunteer support and connecting to impact. Volunteers are the heart of our nonprofits and changing with their needs supports our needs.