Do You Have the Right Volunteer Culture?

All associations and membership organizations have two distinct workforces: staff and volunteers. And if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we have a love/hate relationship with the volunteer side. We love them because they end up producing a significant volume of work—without pay. This means we get to accomplish our missions while expending a limited amount of resources, so what’s not to love!? On the hate side, of course, volunteers can be quite annoying. They frequently don’t know much about the business of running an association, so they’re known for sending us down rabbit holes and creating problems that staff later need to fix. And managing them sometimes feels like herding cats. Association executives often “manage” a group of hundreds of volunteers on an annual basis (many times larger than their staff), even though they’re spread across the country (or world) and there’s very little formal control or authority on the staff side of the equation. It’s a challenge, to say the least.

But as much as we like to analyze our volunteers, and learn the best practices for managing boards and committees and chapters, and learn how to increase engagement among the volunteers, we are overlooking a hugely important fact that I casually mentioned in the first sentence of this post:

Our volunteers are a part of our workforce.

They are not employees in the legal sense, and obviously we don’t pay them. But the organization has made a conscious decision to bring these people in to do the work of the enterprise. The value exchange isn’t financial, but it’s still basically the same thing we do with our paid staff: we say, hey, I’ll give you something if you come in and be a part of our organization and help us advance our mission.

So here’s a big disconnect. With the paid part of our workforce, we feel completely entitled to make demands on them. We tell them when to show up, what to wear, and (if we’re smart), we explain very clearly what kind of culture we have in this organization, and if they are not willing to behave in ways that are consistent with that culture, then we will ask them to go work somewhere else.

The way we treat volunteers, on the other hand, Is very different. We give them the power to set their own culture, and we as staff have to work around that. After all, it’s “their” association. I don’t think we realize how much value that is destroying. By maintaining a workforce that is that large, operating without a clear culture, and having nothing in place to actually hold them accountable to a culture that drives the success of the organization—we are all but guaranteeing mediocrity. And I’m not saying that all volunteer cultures are bad. That’s not the point. The point is that you don’t know exactly what your volunteer culture is, and even if you do, you have set yourself up to be powerless to change it or shape it in a way that helps you accomplish your mission.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This year, at WorkXO, we released our Workplace Genome Platform to help organizations align their cultures with what they know is driving success. The platform revolves around an employee survey that helps you understand your culture with the precision and the nuance needed to make real and meaningful change inside your organization.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could do that with your volunteers? Now you can. We have converted the survey and rest of the Platform into a version that focuses specifically on volunteers. It gathers data from the volunteers themselves and will show you in great detail what your volunteer culture is truly like—across levels, geographic locations, and volunteer tenure. Then we’ll help you determine whether or not that volunteer culture is aligned with what drives your success. Like the regular platform, it includes the survey and a year’s worth of resources and support to ensure that the data you collect is converted into actions that generate meaningful change inside the organization. Here’s a PDF that gives you an overview of the Volunteer edition.

This has the potential to unlock incredible value. Imagine a volunteer workforce that really knew what it was getting into when it signed up, where their routine behaviors were carefully aligned with what drives the results of the whole organization, and where their experience as volunteers actually matched what they were promised as they were recruited. Suddenly the traditional staff versus volunteer battles would go away, because you’d all clearly be part of the same culture.

Right now, this version of the Platform is offered by application only. If you’d like to be considered, please fill out our contact form, and mention the Volunteer Edition, and we’ll get you the application