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Volunteering – An Epiphany

I’m a restless soul. If you know me well, you know that I typically have 2 or more things going on a any time: my paid job, running an association or a local community, coaching youth sports, fundraising, amongst other things. I love what I get paid to do, but rarely is that enough. Being a native of Washington, DC, I suppose that it’s been in my blood to give back, to serve a higher purpose, to be mission-oriented.

I love this quote from Teddy Roosevelt: “Every Man owes some of his time to the upbuilding of the profession to which he belongs”. I truly believe that, and so do the hundreds of ATAP members who have joined us so far in our early days. For many of us the spirit of volunteering is an innate one. We get exposed to volunteering in school or early in our career and it makes sense. It’s something that we naturally seek out and raise our hand for when the opportunities present themselves. For me it was in the early 2000s when I joined the DC EMA Chapter’s planning committee, which led to a Board position with a local HR organization, which led to founding recruitDC, and then ultimately ATAP. Starting with recruitDC in 2009, it was the first opportunity for me to lead a volunteer organization, and boy have I learned a lot since then.

Volunteering for many of us can be a big challenge. Sometimes we raise our hand to do something, only to regret it later because we didn’t really understand what we were signing up for. Sometimes other things in our lives get in the way, preventing us from doing something that we’d really love to do. Over the past several years, I’ve had the absolute pleasure of leading volunteers who were deeply committed to the mission, who understood what they were accountable for and got stuff done, who took it upon themselves to ensure that we had a great event, or that we were able to take the next key step in our evolution as an organization. There is no way that recruitDC or ATAP would have been successful without many amazing volunteers, and I thank them all from the deepest place in my heart.

Leading volunteer teams can be frustrating at times as well. What I’ve come to realize recently however is that my frustration was misplaced. The issues weren’t so much with those who expressed interest in volunteering, only not to deliver, or even disappear when we needed them. The issues were much more about our missing opportunities to make sure that the right volunteers were on the right committees, that expectations were set, that volunteers were on-boarded and oriented effectively so that they understood what resources were available to them, that it was OK to be open and honest about their capacity to participate as a volunteer. In other words, it was more about what we were not doing effectively than it was about what our volunteers were not doing effectively.

The Epiphany

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate in ASAE’s Association Management Week, a week of training for Associations Leaders on a variety of topics critical to the success of trade and professional associations. The two days we spent on Membership and Volunteer Management were two of the most eye-opening days of learning that I’ve experienced in a long time. Lots of common-sense ‘a-has’, but most of all, it made me realize that I had not been approaching volunteer leadership the right way for too long.

First of all, the recruitment of new members and volunteers has many parallels to talent acquisition in our own organizations. Member recruiting has a number of similarities to recruiting new employees, especially when it comes to marketing, referral programs, etc. Volunteer recruiting has a number of similarities to internal recruiting, at least similar to those organizations that truly leverage their talent and their internal mobility in a highly effective way.

When the instructor said “Don’t do a call for volunteers”, BOOM, mind blown…epiphany-occurred…ROI of a week of training realized. I’ve done ‘calls for volunteers’ for years, and was planning on doing another one the following week. The result is typically been the same: lots of interest, resulting in volunteer teams where 1/3 of the team is deeply committed, 1/3 is partially committed, 1/3 you never hear from again. BTW, this is very, very common, as many of the other Associations represented in this training had the same experience. The problem with this approach is that it’s no different than ‘post-and-pray’ recruiting, with no guarantee that the right people will apply or be placed into the roles and committees that are most appropriate for them. A proactive, deliberate approach always gets you better recruiting results, that’s true with talent acquisition at our companies as well as volunteers for our Association committees.

The goal should be to select teams of highly engaged and aligned volunteers. Research and data show that when volunteer committees are formed this way, they are more productive, more engaged, and have higher retention rates. To get that, we need to do an ‘Ask’, not a ‘Call’. An ‘Ask’ is based upon information that we have about a prospective volunteer that leads us to believe that they could be a good fit on a committee, and then we ‘Ask’ them if they are interested and have the capacity to join. Very different from a ‘Call’ right? A ‘Call’ where we say we need volunteers, people raise their hand, and we say, OK, you’re ‘hired’. It’s no wonder that volunteer committees are often underproductive, struggle with engagement and retention, and end up with mixed results.

Going forward at ATAP, we may still do ‘Calls’ from time-to-time, but that will be a last resort. Starting now, we will be taking a much more deliberate, strategic approach to placing volunteers. Our committee leads have been defining specific roles on their teams and have been defining the KSAs (knowledge, skills, abilities) needed to perform in the role. In the coming days we’ll be rolling out a survey to our membership to allow them to self-identify their KSAs and their interests. Once we have that, we can then match our prospective volunteers to specific needs and ‘Ask’ them if they’d like to join that committee. We’ll ask prior committee members if they have interest in continuing in more well defined roles, and we may approach directly that we know who we feel would be a good fit on specific committees.

Once we have our teams built, we’ll provide an orientation, give them access to our new collaboration tool (Basecamp), and recognize them for their efforts. It’s not often that you get such an organization-changing epiphany like this but when you do, it can transform your organization in unexpected and highly effective ways. ATAP will always be reliant on volunteers, so I am deeply committed going forward to ensuring that our volunteers are placed in the right roles, set up for success, recognized for their participation and accomplishments, and deeply valued for the time and effort they give us. Happy engaged volunteers are happy, engaged members who are advocates and ambassadors for the organization, and a key to successful organizational growth and productivity.

A final thought on volunteering

Earlier in this post I shared why I volunteer. Why do you volunteer? I find in some situations that people see volunteering primarily as ‘giving’, when in reality, they often ‘get’ so much more out of the experience than they ever expected. There are tangible and intangible benefits to volunteering, but the primary benefits often come down to the personal (learn about issues, be a part of something bigger than themselves, recognition, gain new perspectives, explore/leverage my strengths, bring satisfaction/recognition that I don’t get at work, makes me feel needed, desire for a new challenge, pursue a personal interest/cause( and the professional (good for my resume, develop new skills, certifications, networking). I hope that you will join us and volunteer your time and effort to support our great profession.


Ben Gotkin

Executive Director

Association of Talent Acquisition Professionals

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