Treat Your Volunteers Like the Gold That They Are

Ask yourself this: In the past month, how many times have you heard one of your colleagues, friends, or neighbors say something like “I’m sorry, I can’t make your party this weekend, because I’m volunteering at the 7-11.” or “I won’t be at the Scout meeting tonight because I’m volunteering at Best Buy.” How many times have you heard that? Probably zero, because nobody volunteers to work at for-profit organizations.

But if you work for an association or not-for-profit, you do have people volunteering their time. Probably lots of people. (Even the smallest not-for-profits work with dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers every year.) And your volunteers are one of your organization’s most important assets. In fact, they are the greatest competitive advantage you have over your for-profit competitors. So it’s absolutely essential that you manage your volunteers effectively.

Most associations I work with manage their volunteers very well, while the volunteer is volunteering. That is, if I’m currently doing volunteer work with your organization, you know who I am and what I’m doing for you. But once my volunteer work is complete, do you keep a record of that volunteerism for future reference? Most associations do not.

In my experience, most associations are very good at managing volunteers at the time, but not good at managing volunteers over time. Let me illustrate what I mean: For many years I’ve done volunteer work for a particular association (let’s call them the XYZ association, to protect the guilty.) My first volunteer work for XYZ was in 1996, when I wrote a short item for one of their newsletters. Since then, I have written dozens of articles for XYZ, including newsletter articles, articles for special magazine inserts, and even cover articles for their monthly magazine. Yet for a very long time, XYZ staff was unaware of my history of writing articles. Often I would be contacted by staff to write an article, and the conversation would begin with “Have you ever written for us before?” That is NOT a question you should be asking of a long-time volunteer.

Another area where associations need to better manage volunteers is sharing volunteer data across the organization. In most associations, volunteers are managed within the department for which they are volunteering. For example, speakers are managed by the events department, writers are managed by the publications department, and committee volunteers are managed by the executive office. And while each department knows who their volunteers are, often the other departments don’t know who is volunteering within the organization but outside of their department. So again, volunteers who may have a long tenure with your association in one area may be completely unknown in other parts of the organization.

Continuing with my example above, along with writing articles for XYZ, I’ve also volunteered my time as a speaker at dozens of XYZ events, as well as served on several committees and task forces over the past 16 years. So I’ve worked with many different staff members in many different capacities. The question is: Does XYZ staff know that I’ve done all these things? Or is each department managing their own volunteer data without sharing it with other departments and staff?

With today’s database technology, managing volunteers across the organization and over time is quite easy. But it requires good internal processes to ensure that the data gets entered into the database and that it is maintained over time. Given the tremendous value that volunteers bring to your organization, making sure you know who they are and what they are doing is essential to advancing your organization’s mission.


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