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Effective Management of Volunteers


Alan R. Raedels, Ph.D., C.P.M.
Alan R. Raedels, Ph.D., C.P.M., Professor, Portland State University, PO Box 751, Portland, OR 97207 503/725-3728.
Lee Buddress, C.P.M.
Lee Buddress, C.P.M., Assistant Professor, Portland State University, PO Box 751, Portland, OR 97207 503/725-3728.

79th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1994 - Atlanta, GA

Abstract. Finding, eliciting participation from and rewarding volunteers is difficult for groups such as NAPM and its local affiliates. This paper highlights some of the issues and problems associated with these tasks, and suggests solutions to aid Boards of Directors, Officers and Committee chairs of these groups. Also included are directions for conducting effective and interesting meetings and suggestions for long-term planning.

Introduction. The objectives of a volunteer organization of special interest to professionals such as NAPM and its local affiliates might be to provide professional leadership and service to the profession. Additionally, membership education, networking, enhanced professionalism and a better public understanding of the profession are desirable. The accomplishment of these goals depends upon the effective management of volunteers. What will entice individuals to contribute some of their increasingly scarce time to a professional association as opposed to friends, family or personal interests?

In one sense, the association will be a reflection of the profession it represents. If the profession is perceived as dynamic, and growing with ample career opportunities, then those engaged in it may have a vested self-interest in its professional association. It is, however, incumbent upon the leadership to insure that the association remains as attractive and dynamic as the profession it represents. In such an association, composed entirely of volunteers, the leadership is doubly tasked. First, it must attract members from the profession and then it must extract participation without any of the tangible or monetary rewards or penalties associated with employment. Managing volunteers is a special challenge.

Local NAPM affiliate associations typically are organized with a board of directors, a set of officers and a group of standing and other committees. The duties and responsibilities of each will be discussed in this paper. Problems related to effective meetings, developing and rewarding volunteers, and planning processes will be explained as they relate to volunteer organizations.

The Board of Directors: Duties and Responsibilities. Since many of those elected to boards of directors of volunteer organizations have not previously served on such groups, there is a tendency to view management responsibility on a detailed level. It is the duty of the board to provide leadership and master planning for the association, but at the strategic, long-term level. The board is also responsible for organizational structure and bylaws. It sets the tone and provides the environment conducive to participation and growth of the association.

One of the difficulties encountered at board meetings is the propensity of the board to devolve into issues rightly the domain of the individual committees. In other words, there is a tendency to micro-manage. It is the responsibility of the board to set the course and long term goals, to make decisions and give direction necessary to set those plans in motion. Also, it will review such plans and progress against goals on an regular basis. In addition, the board will give direction to the senior executive and provide overall leadership to the association.

Primary problem areas faced by volunteer boards include failure to properly oversee finances and lack of sufficient direction to association employees. Especially in situations where associations employ professional managers, there is a tendency to relinquish many of the onerous tasks such as preparation of financial statements and even daily account management. A review of financial statements typically takes place during monthly board meetings, but it is often cursory at best. It is the duty of the treasurer, and through the treasurer, of the board to know and understand all of the financial transactions of the association. Further, the board must provide sufficient direction to the professional manager to insure that complete information is provided.

An additional responsibility of a volunteer board is to recognize that volunteers must have encouragement in forms which may differ from those for businesses or governmental organizations. Volunteers need appreciation, recognition and encouragement to participate. The board must oversee and prompt the development and implementation of effective recognition practices sufficient to insure and promote participation.

Effective Meetings: Board or Bored Meetings? Many local Association board meetings consume three hours or more each month. After eight or ten hours at the office, few volunteers are enthusiastic about spending that much time at what might better be described as a bored meeting. Lack of clear delineation as to which activities are appropriate for board discussion and which are committee responsibilities is the primary cause. A clear definition of the differences between strategies, tactics and operations with a board focus on strategy and committee attention to tactics and operational issues will address this problem.

Perhaps the key tool for an effective and interesting board meeting is a clear agenda, set in advance. Not only are activities listed in order, but the individual responsible for each is noted and a specific time is allotted. Times are only extended upon group consensus. Agendas must be sent to all board meeting attendees several days in advance. Mailing them ten days ahead allows for vagaries of the postal system and adequate time for information collection and issue consideration so that the meeting begins with an informed membership.

One of the board agenda items which often accounts for substantial time is committee reports. These should be submitted to the board in writing, with discussion limited to five minutes per committee except for special or unusual items.

The use of a consent calendar is an effective mechanism for minimizing time spent on routine items such as minutes of previous meetings and membership approvals. All of the items on the consent calendar are considered under one vote and discussion is held only if there are exceptions to the items as presented.

In a similar vein, committee meetings should also be conducted by set agenda, but focused on operational issues rather than strategic ones. Regular meetings need formal agendas, too. Not only is the membership then aware of the meeting's schedule, but the agenda provides written recognition for the individuals involved in the meeting's activities.

The above issues also highlight the necessity for complete job descriptions for all board members, officers and committee chairs. Each must understand his or her specific responsibilities and the functional relationship to other positions in the association.

Use of Committees. There are three common forms of committee found within local associations; board committees, standing committees and ad hoc committees. Board committees are subcommittees of the board established for specific purposes such as budget, programs or staff benefits. Ad hoc committees are special purpose committees established for a particular short- term purpose. This type of committee is disbanded upon completion of its task. Examples are committees formed for conferences, trade shows or particular planning tasks.

Standing committees are specified in the association's bylaws as an ongoing necessity. NAPM prescribes four standing committees which are mirrored in almost all local affiliates. They are for Professional Development, Membership Activities, Public Relations and International.

The biggest difficulty with committees (especially in smaller associations) is committees of one. A key responsibility of the board is to insist that there be vice-chairs and at least three members for each committee. Not only will this produce better committee output from having several individuals address committee issues, but it will address another major volunteer association problem - leadership.

A key responsibility of committees is to train and develop future leaders not only of the committee, but of the association as a whole. It is essential that committee members not only want to serve but have requisite skills, expertise and experience. Committees also need specific service terms to insure that new members with new ideas have opportunities to become involved. One of the faults of many associations is that there develops a clique of leadership which tends to recycle itself and stagnate the organization.

Attracting Volunteers. Having said that there needs to be at least three members of each committee, associations then respond that it is difficult at best to find even one person willing to commit time and energy to a committee, much less three. Perhaps, learning from the ones who do volunteer, associations can determine the attractions which foster involvement. Key issues typically cited are opportunity for personal growth, networking opportunities, opportunities to demonstrate leadership capabilities, peer recognition and service to the profession. It is essential that the board, officers and committee chairs make sure these enticements exist and are as attractive as possible.

Developing Volunteers. An essential practice for volunteer organizations is the need to make best use of all volunteers. A second issue is recognition of the reality that volunteer tenure is often short. The association benefits most when volunteers are placed to exploit their strengths. There are usually neither the resources nor the time to develop individual weaknesses. There are, however, many opportunities to learn through the experiences of association activities. Involvement typically starts with a committee of interest where new volunteers are assigned specific tasks.

This is important for two reasons. First, the volunteers who are not used are not given meaningful assignments, and will soon "unvolunteer", both from the committee and the association. Second, recalling that one of the fundamental missions of Committees is to develop leadership, new volunteer performance is observed with an eye toward advancement to committee vice- chair, officer or board member. Many affiliate associations have come to the understanding that several years' experience with the association and its activities is a major determinant of success as President. Committee work, leadership and board membership provide this.

Rewarding Volunteers. A crucial element of recruiting, retaining and developing volunteers is the mechanism by which they are recognized and rewarded. Since monetary rewards are unavailable, other mechanisms must be developed to encourage participation and provide significant recognition for accomplishment. NAPM provides one means of recognition; C.P.M. point awards for officer, board member and major committee chair service. Many affiliates also award key contributors certificates or plaques suitable for office wall display. This is especially effective as it provides professional recognition seen by co-workers and external visitors such as sales people.

Ongoing public recognition is a major determinant of continued volunteer participation. This can be accomplished several ways. Introduction and recognition at monthly meetings is important. Other rewards such as cups, T- shirts and pens are surprisingly effective. An appropriate letter of recognition or congratulation to the volunteer's supervisor is also a fitting reward. Other tools include mention in newsletters and in board meetings and minutes. Seeing one's name in print is attractive.

Planning for the Future. As previously noted, primary responsibility for strategic planning rests with the board of directors. In association management, there are several common long range planning problems. Lack of experience and training in strategic planning is a major difficulty. Lack of time and/or staff often leads to lack of appropriate information from which to make strategic decisions. Board size and board turnover often contribute to long range planning difficulties. All of these point to the necessity for the board to provide or acquire adequate training in this process. These problems highlight the importance of attendance by key association leaders at district workshops where such instruction is available.

The board has several responsibilities relative to planning. First, it must establish the association's mission, vision and a plan to achieve the prescribed goals. It also must provide direction, parameters and approval processes for committees for their planning processes. It must allocate resources, both human and financial, necessary to implement plans. Finally, it must insure that policies, strategies and resource allocations conform to long range goals and plans.

The planning process consists of a series of steps similar to the following:

  1. Identify the organization's mission and vision.
  2. Identify goals for the organization which are consistent with the mission and vision.
  3. Establish strategies for achieving the goals.
  4. Establish both one year and two five-year plans.
  5. Determine measures for tracking progress toward goals.
  6. Identify the critical factors in the community and society that impact the organization's objectives.
  7. Examine potential changes in the critical factors.
  8. Review policies to insure they are consistent with plan.
  9. Review the plan regularly.

Conclusions. A strong and effective board of directors is crucial to the success of volunteer organizations. Board effectiveness begins with a clear definition and understanding of the differences between strategies, tactics and operations, with board focus on strategy and committee attention to tactics and operational issues. Formal, timed agendas are essential.

Committees are the backbone of the association, serving both to address their specific tasks such as membership recruitment or professional development, and also as training grounds for future leaders. These groups are the usual entry levels of volunteer participation. The extent to which they pursue and involve the membership is often a determinant of overall association membership retention and growth.

A key responsibility of association leadership is recognition of contributors in such a way as to promote and encourage further participation. This reward structure can take many forms from verbal to written recognition.

Long-term planning and strategy formulation is another key task of association leadership. With careful strategic planning, policy formulation and goal setting followed by performance measurement, recognition and periodic review of progress, the volunteer organization will grow and prosper with its profession.


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Waldo, Charles N. A "Working Guide for Directors of Not-for-Profit Organizations", New York: Quorum Books, 1986.

Bolyard, Paulette. "Honors to the Volunteer", NAPM Insights, April, 1990, p. 26.

Bolyard, Paulette. "Meeting Agenda Planning", NAPM Insights, February, 1990, p. 26.

Bolyard, Paulette, "Motivation, Not Alienation", NAPM Insights Jan Insights, January, 1991, p. 26.

Sunkel, Jill. "Association Planning", NAPM Insights, February, 1991, p. 27.

Sunkel, - Jill. "Strategic Planning for Affiliates", NAPM Insights, June, 1991, p. 27.

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