Outcome-based volunteerism

When’s the last time you asked your volunteers if they felt they were accomplishing anything?

An association I admire recently did a volunteer survey to check in, following a major structural overhaul. They wanted to know, how is Year One of the New Normal going?

But amid the questions about whether committees or working groups were meeting often enough or had enough members to spread out the work, they completely forgot to ask whether the members felt that the committees were effective.

Were they getting anything done? Were they making a difference?

For this association, it was a small oversight, because they have a healthy underlying volunteer base – and they’ll probably ask next time. But that’s not the case for many, many others.

What an interesting question for a thoughtful association to overlook.

Associations and other voluntary sector organizations report that it’s increasingly difficult to attract volunteers. We also know that most of us are motivated a great deal by accomplishment – the ability to make a difference.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that Purpose is one of the three elements of motivation. (The others being autonomy and mastery.) People perform better when they have a sense that the outcome of their work matters.

Why, then, do we so often not connect the opportunity to actually achieve something to volunteerism? Why do we set volunteers up to be in a position (sit on committees, chair the board), rather than get things done?

In many organizations, it seems the volunteer outcomes are measured along the lines of “It was just about as good as last year, maybe even a bit better.” But how is this connected to the overall direction of the organization? Where does this create room for innovation?

Is something this weak and incremental really the best use for the time of these dedicated and talented volunteers? (Especially if they are doing activities that are really different from their day jobs.)

Is this kind of approach going to support your strategy?

Orienting Volunteers Towards Outcomes

Here are some ideas to help you figure out how to make sure your volunteers get a chance to achieve rather than fill space:

Rethink the volunteer organizational structure.

In some organizations, the only way to get involved is to sit on a committee. Why is that? How can you engage people in other ways – one-off pieces of work, advising, pitching in at an event? (Note that this will mean rethinking recognition as well.) Think on-ramps to increase access.

Purpose, not just terms of reference.

Why do your committees or task forces exist? What are they meant to accomplish? Don’t have them just to have them. If you don’t know what this collection of volunteers is uniquely contributing to the success of the organization, disband it. If I ask you what the point of this group is, and what you say isn’t the same as the terms of reference, rewrite them until it is.

Link volunteer activities with strategies.

All too often, the only volunteers who understand the strategies of the organization are board members. (And that’s if you put effort into it.) Your strategies must be shared with your volunteers and incorporated into the activities they undertake, in practical ways. The more you rely on volunteers for operations, the more critical this is to both your volunteer engagement and also your strategic success.

Take a competency-based approach to recruitment.

Target potential volunteers for their capabilities, not for optics. Determine what skills or knowledge will be needed, and then look for people who have those capabilities.

Set a tone of accountability and action within volunteer groups.

As Thom Singer notes, make it OK to ask each other, is this ego-driven, or outcome-driven?

Ensure staff resources are available to do all this volunteer management.

This is often overlooked – which contributes to staff burnout but also causes the avoidance of other priorities, because time is taken up with volunteer management on an invisible basis.

An outcome-driven volunteer approach also means finding ways to deal with volunteers who don’t act, or who don’t demonstrate accountability. A clear communication of strategies and expectations for outcomes only goes so far. The volunteer structure should include flexibility to work around or remove those volunteers who may not be able to do what’s needed, for all sorts of reasons.

(This also means making it easier for volunteers to step aside when their priorities or availability change.)

This may seem daunting. But if you’ve ever seen the difference between a volunteer group that didn’t know what it was doing, and one that had a clear purpose, you know it’s worth the investment of time and effort. Especially if you consider how much time you might free up if you don’t have to keep on managing that committee that nobody remembers the purpose of, right?

If you’d like to discuss how you can develop your strategic management approaches for your association, please get in touch.

Photo by William Hook from Unsplash, used with permission. 

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.