by: James Young

A Strategic Approach to Service that Drives Outcomes


Associations are volunteer-led organizations. We exist to meaningfully engage a diverse community in order to serve our purpose, reach our vision, and live our values. 

Volunteers should not be treated as transactional labor, but like an investment in community-building, excellence, and the achievement of our shared aspirations. 

In advocating for a balanced and strategic approach to volunteer management, this article addresses the need for a pipeline to drive enhanced role clarity. In doing so, we walk the reader through the process of creating and sustaining a steady flow of engaged volunteer leaders. 

Note: This article focuses on volunteers in general; we will address governance and board issues more specifically in future articles. 

The Product Community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations. 

The Need for a Strategic Volunteer Pipeline 

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family; whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” 

Jane Howard

Volunteers are our most important asset. We rely on, partner with, and engage meaningfully with volunteers in order to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. 

I strongly believe in a balanced and strategic approach to volunteer engagement. The best associations are true collaborations between volunteers and professional staff. 

Volunteers play an essential role in associations by offering their time, skills, and expertise to support the organization’s activities and goals. They willingly contribute their services without receiving financial compensation. They do so because they have a genuine interest in the association’s mission and want to make a positive impact in their professional community.

Source: Eloise Renouf

For framing purposes, here are some disconnects that suggest a need for a volunteer pipeline. They can serve as a foundation and structure for developing a volunteer program that stresses role clarity and successful outcomes.

  1. Knowledge and Experience. Volunteers step up and dedicate their time and talent; they bring representative knowledge and wide-ranging experience. An association’s domain (oncology nursing, apple farming, public libraries, etc.) is typically too vast for any group of volunteers to sufficiently cover, especially when the need is often practical in nature (organizing, planning, evaluating, programming, etc.). This skill mismatch can expose gaps and pose execution challenges.
  2. Strategy and Tactics. Though volunteers are responsible for strategy (usually at the board level, but sometimes in standing committees), they seldom have deep experience with strategy nor how to run complex associations or nonprofits. Outside the direction provided via board governance, volunteers largely play tactical roles: reviewing conference proposals, contributing content, evaluating awards, supporting membership drives, helping raise money, etc.
  3. Time and Availability. In today’s fast paced world, it takes a typical employee (not a volunteer) a year to understand the inner workings of an organization. This makes it nearly impossible for a volunteer who serve part-time over a 1-2 year term to understand (with clarity) how an association functions (culturally, organizationally, and financially). The part-time nature and yearly turnover results in spotty outcomes and an inability to sustain momentum.
  4. Status and Roles. Though roles may be framed, communicated, and reinforced, there is an ongoing disconnect between (a) volunteers who serve as advisors, guides, and servant leaders and (b) volunteers who overreach and feel compelled to dig into operations, staffing issues, or association politics. People volunteer for lots of reasons: they care deeply about the association’s purpose, they want to help, they desire to influence, etc. It takes strong, distributed leadership to ensure we clarify roles and deliver value as an aligned and coordinated system. 

Volunteers fulfill various responsibilities. They serve on the association’s board or committees, where they provide input and help make important decisions. 

These roles often involve actively participating in meetings, brainstorming ideas, and working collaboratively with other volunteers and association staff.

Volunteers can come from all corners of the association. They tend to come from those members who demonstrate a strong sense of service and commitment. 

This tends to correspond to long-time commitment and wide-ranging involvement. Volunteers can also be tapped when they have a particular skill. 

This graphic lays out a potential (yet generalized) breakdown that frames the volunteer function as an integrative outflow of membership and engagement. 

What’s important here is to grow each of the below circles so there is an expectation of engagement or service at all layers of the membership community. This foundation of a volunteer pipeline ends with the smallest, but most perhaps most important component of a thriving volunteer program: the evangelist. 

These super-engaged influencers are models of volunteer practice. They are positive multipliers that can be used as catalysts to anchor the concept of a pipeline.

Once members get to the blue circle and become actual volunteers, they may take part in planning, organizing, and running events, conferences, or workshops hosted by the association. They might also assist with event planning and moderate or facilitate educational sessions. 

Volunteers may also help with outreach efforts, spreading the word about the association’s initiatives and engaging with potential members.

In some cases, volunteers contribute their expertise by writing articles or blog posts, conducting research, or developing content for the association’s learning programs, publications, or website. 

They may also mentor or coach other members and share their knowledge and experience to support professional growth within the community.

Volunteers bring fresh perspectives, diverse skills, and a passion for the industry or field represented by the association. Their involvement enhances the association’s ability to advance its mission and serve its community effectively. 

Moreover, volunteering can provide individuals with opportunities to expand their networks, gain new experience, and develop their leadership and communication skills.

Role Clarity and Mutual Respect

“There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

Mark Twain

Collaboration between volunteers and professional staff is essential for the success of a professional association. Here is a graphic that builds on a previous diagram by laying out the roles that engaged members, volunteers, and evangelists might play in an association. 

Gaining role clarity is paramount in building a pipeline, framing expectations, measuring the success of your volunteer program, and ensuring volunteers excel in their role as advisors and servant leaders. 

Here are some best practices to ensure effective role clarity between volunteers and professional staff: 

  1. Clear Communication. Establish open and transparent communication channels between volunteers and professional staff. Encourage regular updates, feedback, and the exchange of ideas. Use videoconferencing or collaboration platforms to stay connected.
  2. Clearly Defined Roles and Responsibilities. Clearly outline the roles and responsibilities of both volunteers and professional staff. Ensure that everyone understands their specific tasks, authority, and decision-making powers. This clarity helps avoid confusion and ensures effective and efficient collaboration.
  3. Mutual Respect and Appreciation. Foster a culture of mutual respect and appreciation among all team members. Recognize and value the expertise and contributions of both volunteers and professional staff. Encourage a positive and supportive atmosphere where everyone’s input is valued.
  4. Training and Development. Provide adequate training and professional development opportunities for both volunteers and professional staff. This helps enhance skills, knowledge, and effectiveness in their respective roles. Regularly assess training needs and provide resources to support continuous growth.
  5. Collaboration Planning. Engage volunteers and professional staff in collaborative planning. Involve them in appropriate decision-making, goal-setting, and strategy development. This inclusive approach ensures that everyone’s perspectives are considered and increases ownership and commitment to the association’s mission.
  6. Clear Policies and Procedures. Establish clear policies and procedures that govern the collaboration between volunteers and professional staff. Ensure these guidelines are easily accessible and well-communicated to all team members. This clarity helps prevent misunderstandings and promotes consistent practices.
  7. Regular Meetings and Check-Ins. Schedule regular meetings, both formal and informal, to discuss progress, address challenges, and provide updates. These meetings allow for information sharing, problem-solving, and relationship-building. Encourage a collaborative environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing their ideas and concerns.
  8. Recognition and Reward. Recognize and reward the efforts and achievements of both volunteers and professional staff. Celebrate milestones, acknowledge exceptional performance, and express gratitude for dedicated work. This recognition fosters motivation, loyalty, and a sense of belonging.
  9. Evaluation and Feedback. Establish mechanisms for evaluating the effectiveness of collaboration between volunteers and professional staff. Seek feedback from both parties and use it to identify areas for improvement. Regularly assess the collaboration process and make necessary adjustments to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.
  10. Continuous Improvement. Foster a culture of continuous improvement by encouraging innovation and learning. Encourage volunteers and professional staff to share ideas, propose new initiatives, and identify areas where processes can be enhanced. Embrace a growth mindset and adapt to changes in the association’s needs and the broader professional landscape.

What does a thriving, shared direction amongst staff leadership and volunteer leadership look like at your association?  By following these best practices, volunteers and professional staff can collaborate effectively, leverage each other’s strengths, and contribute to the overall success of the association.

Building Your Pipeline

“The best ideas aren’t hidden in shadowy recesses. They’re right in front of us, hidden in plain sight.”

Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes

Building a volunteer funnel for an association involves a series of steps to attract and engage volunteers, gradually moving them from less engaged to super engaged. 

Aligned to the above graphic labeled Potential Volunteers, here is an example strategic volunteer funnel that has five stages: (1) potential market: the number of people who could become members, (2) total membership: the number of people who pay to be part of your community, (3) engaged members: the subset of members who are actively engaged, (4) volunteers: the portion of engaged members who volunteer for a board, committee, or working group, and (5) evangelists: those members who are super engaged and visibly influential.

Here are some best practices guide you in (a) developing a funnel for your association and (b) strategically growing each segment so the pipeline is consistently populated:

  1. Define your goals. Clearly identify your association’s objectives and what you hope to achieve through volunteer engagement. This will help you develop a targeted strategy at all layers of the funnel.
  2. Create awareness. Spread the word about your association and its volunteer opportunities. Utilize social media, presentations, website, and events to reach and generate interest with potential volunteers.
  3. Offer diverse opportunities. Develop a range of volunteer roles that cater to different skills, interests, and time commitments. This will attract a wider pool of volunteers who can contribute in various capacities.
  4. Simplify the application process. Make it easy for individuals to express their interest in volunteering. Use a straightforward online form or a dedicated email address where people can provide their basic information and indicate their preferred roles.
  5. Provide clear expectations. Clearly communicate the responsibilities, time commitments, and benefits associated with each volunteer position. This will help volunteers understand what is expected of them and what they can expect in return.
  6. Training and support. Offer training or resources to equip volunteers with the necessary skills and knowledge for their roles. Provide ongoing support, guidance, and feedback to help them feel valued and confident in their contributions.
  7. Recognize and appreciate volunteers. Regularly acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of your volunteers. Recognize their achievements, highlight their impact, and express gratitude through personal messages, awards, or small tokens of appreciation.
  8. Foster engagement and growth. Create opportunities for volunteers to connect with one another, share experiences, and collaborate. Encourage their active involvement in decision-making, allowing them to contribute their ideas and suggestions.
  9. Provide pathways for advancement. Offer opportunities for volunteers to take on more significant roles or leadership positions within the association. This allows them to develop their skills, gain valuable experience, and become super-engaged advocates for your organization.
  10. Measure and evaluate. Regularly assess the effectiveness of your volunteer program. Collect feedback from volunteers and evaluate the impact of their contributions. Use this information to make improvements and refine your program.

The reality is the vast majority of our membership communities do not engage meaningfully as volunteers. This is why it’s important to build in an engagement expectation at all layers of the model. This way, we can draw people who could contribute meaningfully.

This will also help deepen the connection to one’s association while preparing ‘silent majority’ members to shift into volunteering with open eyes and ears, a clear sense of purpose and roles while solidifying what it means to serve, excel, and achieve shared success. 

Remember, building a volunteer funnel is an ongoing process. Continuously adapt and improve your approach based on the needs and interests of your volunteers, while striving to create a rewarding and meaningful experience for everyone involved.

Cultivating a Thriving Professional Community

“The only gift is a portion of thyself.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the modern association. 

They are dedicated professionals who offer their time, expertise, and energy to support the association’s activities, ranging from governance and event planning to content creation and mentoring.

Their contributions are invaluable in fostering a thriving professional community and achieving the association’s objectives.

They are most valuable (and invaluable) in a balanced organization in which volunteers and professional staff work together seamlessly, with clear roles, and as a cooperative and collaborative engine of excellence. Here is additional guidance for professional staff:

  1. Behave like a SME. Our volunteers are subject matter experts and – guess what? – most of our staff are as well! What unique capabilities do your staff have that elevate staff roles and frame staff value as indispensable? 
  2. Evolve our language. We work with volunteers; that is a given. If you find yourself painted into a corner, you can – over time – evolve your language and elevate the dialogue. This way, you can move toward shared goals away from damaging stereotypes (volunteers aren’t helpful; staff are handmaidens) toward mutually satisfying, longitudinal partnerships. Some examples: Do you plan events or create value? Do you deliver content or engage members? Do you orient volunteers or do you create community? 
  3. Bridge urgency with direction. Volunteers typically serve short tenures. Their contributions are diverse: from the tactical support to helping craft the program for the annual conference. What is the right balance? I argue that our associations balance the vertical – urgent, immediate, short-term – with the horizontal – longitudinal, strategic, future-oriented. Vertical is typically much easier than horizontal (in part as volunteers sometimes want to achieve something in their tenure). Creating exciting horizontal vehicles, like a learning strategy, product community, or advocacy benchmark can help your association achieve the balance you’re looking for (though they often span multiple volunteer’s tenures). 
  4. Recruit the right mix. Great volunteers are true believers and willing partners who respect staff and have healthy boundaries. Finding a critical mass of these volunteers helps you create a healthy culture. Plus, it’s great fun to meet cool people who share these traits!

Stay tuned for additional articles related to association innovation, product development, positioning your organization for growth, and identifying new markets.

About the Author

James Young is founder and chief learning officer of the Product Community®. Jim is an engaging trainer and leading thinker in the worlds of associations, learning communities, and product development. Prior to starting the Product Community®, Jim served as Chief Learning Officer at both the American College of Chest Physicians and the Society of College and University Planning.