Culture Chat

And other musings on humanizing the workplace
Unlocking the Potential of Your Volunteer Culture

Unlocking the Potential of Your Volunteer Culture

January 30, 2017
Jamie Notter

Many of our clients are associations and most of those engagements focus on internal culture.  But all associations and membership organizations have two distinct workforces: staff and volunteers.

If associations are being honest, they will admit that they have a love/hate relationship with their volunteers. They love them because volunteers produce a significant volume of work—without pay. This means they get to accomplish their missions while expending a limited amount of resources, so what’s not to love!? On the hate side, of course, volunteers can be quite annoying. They frequently don’t know much about the business of running an association, so they’re known for sending association staff down rabbit holes and creating problems that later need to be fixed. And managing them sometimes feels like herding cats. Association executives often “manage” a group of hundreds of volunteers on an annual basis (many times larger than their staff), even though they’re spread across the country (or world) and there’s very little formal control or authority on the staff side of the equation. It’s a challenge, to say the least.

But as much as associations like to analyze volunteers through best practices for managing boards and committees and chapters, and want to learn how to increase engagement among volunteers, they are overlooking a hugely important fact that I casually mentioned in the first sentence of this post:

Volunteers are a part of your workforce.

They are not employees in the legal sense, and no, you (usually) don’t pay them. But the organization has made a conscious decision to bring these people in to do the work of the enterprise. The value exchange isn’t financial, but it’s still basically the same thing we do with our paid staff: we say, hey, I’ll give you something if you come in and be a part of our organization and help us advance our mission.

So here’s a big disconnect. With the paid segment of our workforce, we feel completely entitled to make demands on them. We tell them when to show up, what to wear, and--if we’re smart--we explain very clearly what kind of culture we have in this organization, and if they are not willing to behave in ways that are consistent with that culture, then we will ask them to go work somewhere else.

Volunteers, on the other hand, have the power to set their own culture, and we as staff have to work around that. After all, it’s “their” association. This approach is arguably the single greatest destroyer of value in the association community today. To have a workforce that is that large, operating without a clear culture, and having nothing in place to actually hold them accountable to a culture that drives the success of the organization—you are leaving unbelievable amounts of energy on the table. You're expending energy just "herding cats" and keeping the system somewhat organized; and you're likely worrying about low engagement and low participation issues, or the "SOP" (same old people) problem, or you're stressing about how to attract the next generation of volunteers.

I’m not saying that all volunteer cultures are bad. That’s not the point. The point is that you don’t know exactly what your volunteer culture is, and even if you do, you have set yourself up to be powerless to change it or shape it in a way that helps you accomplish your mission.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Our Workplace Genome culture assessment helps organizations align their cultures with what they know is driving success. The Genome was designed with employees in mind; after all, that’s where we think of organizational culture existing, among our paid employees; but after several requests to explore volunteer culture, we have developed a "Volunteer Edition". 

The Volunteer Edition of the Workplace Genome gathers data via a ten-minute email survey from the volunteers themselves and will show you in great detail what your volunteer culture is truly like—across levels, geographic locations, and volunteer tenure. Then we’ll help you determine whether or not that volunteer culture is aligned with what drives your success. Take a look at what we measure. You can decide, by the way, if you want to measure your formal governance folks sitting on councils and committees, or expand that pool to include microvolunteers and any other segment you choose. We work with you up front to decide who the survey pool will be and what demographic segments (existing or new) you can explore and compare the results from. 

This has the potential to unlock incredible value. Imagine a volunteer workforce that really knew what it was getting into when it signed up, where their routine behaviors were carefully aligned with what drives the results of the whole organization, and where their experience as volunteers actually matched what they were promised as they were recruited. Suddenly the traditional staff versus volunteer battles would go away, because you’d all clearly be part of the same culture.

To find out more about the Volunteer Edition of the Workforce Genome Platform, contact us.

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