Shrinking Volunteer Pool: It’s Not Them, It’s You.

26 Mar 2021 6:11 AM | Brett Jeffery (Administrator)

Many associations are facing an ongoing challenge: a shrinking volunteer pool. However, in most cases, the volunteer pool isn’t actually shrinking — it’s that your organisation isn’t aligned with your volunteers’ needs. Reorient your way of thinking to view volunteer roles from a volunteer’s perspective. If your association is struggling to fill volunteer positions, it’s time to restructure and adapt — because it’s not your volunteers, it’s your organisation.

The world is changing, and so are your members. It’s time to align with that shift.

Why are you struggling to get volunteers?

Associations typically rely heavily on volunteers to help fulfill their mission. In recent years, recruiting volunteers has become more difficult due to a number of factors, including:

  • Lack of volunteer time. With professionals juggling work, family and other commitments, time is a notable barrier to volunteer commitment, especially for long-term roles of one to two years of service. During the pandemic, many volunteers have stepped back as other family and business needs take priority.
  • Lack of perceived value drivers and engagement. The volunteer experience needs to be about value for your volunteers, not just for your organization. Many times, that value isn’t clear or compelling enough to overcome the time constraint issue.
  • Lack of organizational adaptability. Often, the association staff know that they need to change the volunteer experience, but volunteer leadership is resistant to that transition. What used to work may not work anymore.

What can help?

It’s time to revamp the volunteer experience. The nature of volunteerism has changed. Your association needs to change with it. Start from the standpoint of what your volunteers need and want to get out of their experience — not what you need from your volunteers. Define the value and communicate it to your volunteers.

We’ve found some key strategies to add value:

Leverage technology and put processes in place to support volunteers.

Better technology, automation and processes make for a more seamless volunteer experience. Your volunteers should be contributing their expertise at a high level. Provide as much automation and support as possible to limit tedious tasks and lighten their load. An extreme example would be a chapter treasurer manually tallying finances, rather than having access to a centrally-provided reporting system.

Provide a welcoming environment and effective onboarding.

We’ve heard that volunteers sometimes feel like they aren’t part of the larger plan or feel excluded. Take steps to ensure they are welcomed and feel valued during onboarding and beyond. Ensure that the onboarding process is inclusive and creates an environment for all to thrive, preparing them for success.

Define expectations and time commitment.

Give volunteers options for different levels of commitment and outline clear expectations of outcomes. In many cases, volunteers are given direction on what their specific duties are — but not on the goals they are meant to achieve. Clarity is important. For example, the ASAE (American Society of Association Executives) online Volunteer Town Square provides a list of opportunities along with role descriptions and expected time commitment.

Make value drivers clear.

What are the needs of your volunteers? It is critical for potential volunteers to understand how they will benefit from volunteering. Is it through connections? Having a voice in the direction of the organization? Gaining leadership opportunities to enhance their career? Make your case for how volunteering will benefit your volunteers. If you are unsure of what their needs are, do the research to find out. Research can be critical to moving beyond the individual opinions of senior volunteer leaders. See below for more on research in this area.

Make it meaningful.

This falls under value drivers, but it’s worth reiterating. To help overcome time pressures, it has to be worthwhile. Let volunteers know how they are making a difference. If their service doesn’t make a difference, consider ending that opportunity to free up capacity for meaningful options.

Provide opportunities to connect.

Volunteers are often hoping to network and make peer-to-peer connections with like-minded professionals at their level — for example, CEOs with CEOS, or marketers with marketers. Offer connection opportunities beyond their volunteer responsibilities. For example, organize a volunteer luncheon at an annual meeting to provide valuable interaction in an unstructured environment. In a virtual world, a similar experience could be created with lunch ordered individually and breakout rooms for small groups.

Provide recognition — and even perks.

Professional recognition is always welcome. Perks are too, especially for students or young professionals. For example, Salesforce is launching Salesforce Loyalty Management, a tool for organizations to create their own loyalty program. An association could potentially use that tool to track and link volunteer hours to perks such as conference upgrades, an “insider” session with a prominent keynote speaker, or early access to new releases. This kind of program might be critical in increasing student member engagement, which is a key factor in retaining them through the typically high-attrition transition from student to full member.

Data and Benchmarking

Data and benchmarking are the keys to making informed decisions. The right data could help you understand your volunteers’ needs, as well as get a baseline on who your volunteers are. Identifying and benchmarking key performance indicators will allow this program to improve year over year.

What do volunteers want?

We’ve employed qualitative interviews and surveys for our clients to discover what volunteers want from their experience, and how volunteers feel about their current experience. This can ensure you are providing the offerings that are truly important. Our research often leads to important pivots or adjustments to previously-held beliefs on volunteer and member needs. Some associations integrate regular evaluations of the volunteer experience, asking questions such as:

  • How was your experience?
  • Was it fulfilling?
  • How can we do better?

Who is actually volunteering?

Who is volunteering is just as important as why they are volunteering. Benchmarking and dashboards are important to track growth in DEI initiatives for volunteerism and membership. Representative volunteerism is crucial in creating a welcoming environment. Does your volunteer community represent your organizations’ membership base? This can inform diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) initiatives and provide important insights.

Take the steps you can

Don’t get bogged down in an all-or-nothing approach. Institutional change takes time, but individual managers and volunteer leaders can start to enact change. A manager at any level of the organization can make volunteers’ experiences more efficient and meaningful with small steps. Start with one-on-one dialog with your volunteers and a survey after every engagement ends. Talk about value and what would help them. If you are providing a great volunteer experience in your committee, word will get out.

With an informed approach, associations can align with volunteers’ needs effectively, thereby advancing both volunteers’ goals and organizational objectives.

C. David Gammel, FASAE, CAE and Kristi Donovan, M.S., CAE



The Australasian Society of Association Executives (AuSAE)

Australian Office:
Address: Unit 6, 26 Navigator Place, Hendra QLD 4011 Australia
Free Call: +61 1300 764 576
Phone: +61 7 3268 7955
Email: info@ausae.org.au

New Zealand Office:
Address: 159 Otonga Rd, Rotorua 3015 New Zealand
Phone: +64 27 249 8677
Email: brett@ausae.org.au

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