As your board collaborates with your management team, it can be easy to get tunnel vision and focus solely on the responsibilities of your association’s leadership. In planning tasks the board and management team need to accomplish, you can accidentally overlook a large portion of your organization – your volunteers.

The Importance of Relationships

If the board is the head of your nonprofit, your volunteers are the neck that turns the head. Your volunteers are the ones who are on the ground floor, campaigning for your association and bringing your initiatives into reality. Because volunteers can have a much looser definition of what it means to be involved with your organization, as a leader you want to be able to identify the best ways to utilize the skills and experiences of each of your volunteers while also ensuring an enjoyable and satisfying experience for them. 

As you start the process of building a fruitful environment for your volunteers, consider the relationship your volunteers have with your association and with each other. Peer to peer relationships are the core of any membership community. As staff, you want to create an atmosphere that fosters the development of these relationships, whether it’s through Zoom happy hours, a private Facebook group, or a few minutes of casual conversation before the start of a meeting. Allow your volunteers opportunities to make connections, but don’t force them to happen. Organic peer to peer relationships are the strongest bond you have in your nonprofit. These relationships not only make your volunteers’ experience more enjoyable, they also can help volunteers open up to new opportunities they might otherwise have never considered.

Create Meaningful Volunteer Experiences

As leaders, you and your board want to focus on facilitating experiences that are impactful on a personal and professional level for the volunteer. Your deeper experience with your organization can give you insight on how volunteers can best serve your organization’s mission. It’s important to recognize that each volunteer is there for different reasons. Someone who is volunteering because the work relates to their job does not have the same motivations as someone who sees volunteering as a break from their work life.

Keep this in mind when approaching your volunteers for projects and events – your volunteer who works in event planning might seem like the perfect person to help organize your next conference, but if their motivation for volunteering is to get away from their day-to-day, they’ll be unenthusiastic at best and at worst they’ll be second-guessing their involvement with your association. A good way to avoid this kind of pitfall is to create easily accessible resources pages for your volunteers and let them identify areas they’d be interested in exploring. The goal isn’t to assign volunteers specific and permanent responsibilities, but to lend a guiding hand as they explore your organization and discover a niche that they delve into (or change) over time.

Provide Guidance as Needed

Depending on the size and organization of your nonprofit, how you guide your volunteers can take a variety of forms. But regardless of size or structure, the best way to make sure everyone in your association has a positive experience is to have regular check-ins with your volunteers. Having mid-year check-ins are a great way to touch base with your volunteers, not only to hear their experience so far, but to also have them reflect on their involvement to date. Year-end evaluations serve as a natural breaking point, allowing volunteers to decide if they want to further explore their current responsibilities, or decide if it’s time to explore a new area of your organization.

If you’re meeting with a volunteer who voices some reservations about their current duties or seems like a better fit elsewhere, as a leader it’s okay to encourage (or even direct) the volunteer to another area. In extreme cases, it might even be appropriate to “fire” the volunteer. Keeping in mind that the goal is to create a system that allows your association to achieve its goals while also creating a comfortable atmosphere where volunteers can help where they feel most comfortable and potentially discover new interests.

Think Long-Term

Once you establish a relationship with your volunteers, it pays to look at longevity. Some volunteer-run initiatives can be completed in a series of weeks or months, but most nonprofits’ long term goals span years. This affects everything related to your volunteers. Large-scale annual events like a conference require heavy planning and attention to detail. While the board will oversee the larger details like time and place, committees of volunteers will be the people who bring your association’s vision into reality.

When it comes time to decide who will be spearheading the majority of planning and execution, it certainly pays to know your volunteers well and know how to best maximize each member’s skillset, but it’s also important to identify which members are likely to remain involved not just for the year, but for the next five to ten years. A volunteer who has little planning experience but has an eagerness to learn and commitment to your nonprofit can be trained over time. And if you take the time to develop their skills, they can help plan your association’s events for years to come.

A member who has a lot of event planning experience might be able to execute a large convention with ease, but if they are not interested in returning next year, you’re back at square one. Taking the time not only to identify your volunteers’ skills and interests, but also their interest in your organization is crucial to building a community that sustains itself over time.

Your Organization is as Strong as its Volunteers

Your volunteers are the ones who keep your nonprofit growing. To keep your volunteers interested and invested in your community, you need to get to know them well enough to identify their strengths and find areas where they can best exercise their abilities. If you put in the time and effort to get to know your volunteers, their backgrounds, and their goals, you can develop a truly strong community that lasts for years to come.