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Three Questions That Mobilize Members to Volunteer

Lori Halley 09 October 2010 4 comments

This is a guest post by Trish Hudson, MPsSc.  Trish is the president of the Melos Institute, an international think tank dedicated to finding new ways for associations to deliver more meaningful experiences for their members. Visit them at www.melosinstitute.org.

Our beliefs about volunteerism are formed early in our professional careers. Someone teaches us “how it is.” They shape the lens through which we view our world….and our work.

Such was my nonprofit experience. Early in my career, I was “at a fork in the road.” My first supervisor was cynical about volunteers. Fortunately, another nonprofit professional, who visited routinely, spoke passionately about the remarkable things that could happen when working with volunteers. Her name was Emily Westgard, and her opinion was, Everyone you meet is a potential volunteer.” She had a portfolio of successful projects to prove it.

Her approach was even more intriguing when you put it context with the times. The economy then was much like it is now. “Re-entry,” women returning to the workforce, was the trend. Most nonprofit professionals were quick to accept the fact that “people were too busy to volunteer.” But Emily was unbowed; she encouraged us to challenge such beliefs before accepting them.

Her belief in volunteerism was rooted in her understanding of the human spirit... the desire for people to contribute to something larger than themselves. But she recognized something more. That motivating volunteers to be selfless or to sacrifice (giving one’s time) for others was not always enough. She found that volunteers, when matched to the appropriate task, would experience their own remarkable transformations. For Emily, recruiting volunteers was less about getting people to complete an array of tasks; it was more about guiding them to find ways that their contribution would also enrich and advance their self-image and ultimately their lives.

Fast forward thirty years’ to today. Despite all that has been amassed on the topic, many of the negative beliefs about volunteerism persist, and have become prevalent among staff professionals in associations. And yet, volunteerism is on the rise according to the US Corporation for National and Community Service.

So, if your members are not volunteering with your association, you can be certain that they are somewhere else. “When you reflect on all that we’ve learned over the past several decades, it’s like the movie ‘Ground-Hog Day,’ says Shelly Alcorn, CAE of Alcorn Associates (www.alcornassociates.com), “We keep recycling the same ideas about recruiting members to volunteer …and we’re getting the same marginal results. We need to do something different…..we’re lowering our expectations….and that’s just not acceptable.”

Emily’s mutual gain philosophy is a perfect approach for associations seeking volunteers. Members, by their nature, are citizens of a distinctive community. They expect the association to provide information and connections to help them achieve their goals; they do not always understand how their involvement in the organization (including the contribution of their talent and expertise) can enrich their lives even more….and help advance their field of endeavor along with the association.

Want different results? Be willing to do two things: (1) adjust your lens (attitude) and (2) adjust your scope.

Adjust Your Lens
“Words shape your world,” says David Cooperrider, professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University (http://weatherhead.case.edu/executive-education/programs/instructors/david-cooperrider.cfm). “We live in worlds our inquiries create.”  Start thinking differently. Nothing will happen if your thinking focuses on old tired beliefs. Reshape your attitude - start by believing that “every member is a potential volunteer.” Get others inspired to act differently by adopting the following principles:

  • The association’s greatest asset is its membership and staff.
  • Participation enables members to advance their personal and professional goals (Staff are not included in this statement because, by their very nature, they are already involved.)
  • Members possess the skills, abilities and expertise that when tapped can advance the association’s mission.
  • Matching members’ potential and desire to the right opportunity in the organization generates meaningful and ongoing engagement. (principles established 2009 by the Melos Institute)
Accepting a new set of beliefs requires aligning your operations to match. Your organization, as a whole, needs to become “volunteer ready;” define a wide range of opportunities that require specific skills and talents and an awareness of how these activities can advance your members’ goals (e.g. authoring a blog can increases a member’s exposure and legitimacy among his/her peers on a topic).

Adjust Your Scope
Stop recruiting volunteers. That’s right. Instead start interviewing members – learn more about who they are and what “rocks their world.” Three simple questions can make all the difference.

1.    Hi, I’m ______, who are you?
Okay, not the most diplomatic question. Start the conversation in a way that gets your members to tell you about them….beyond their job title.  Seek to discover more about their personal and professional background, hobbies, accomplishments, and more. Their story reveals who they are and the talents they possess. And that often helps identify the best match.

2.    Why did you join/what do you find most helpful?
This question helps define what elicited the greatest interest in the member; enough to join/renew. For new members, this tells you the program, product or service that you must match them to quickly to ensure their satisfaction. For current members, this question gives you an opportunity to ensure that the organization is responsive to their goals. The actual type and degree of involvement is contingent on the pace at which they want to achieve their goals. The faster the desire, the deeper the level of involvement you can suggest.

3.    What concerns do you have about the discipline (profession, trade or personal avocation)?
Their responses to this question unleash the “mother lode.” By learning their passions about their work, along with their goals (as learned earlier), you have an opportunity to offer a wide range of volunteer opportunities. Be certain that the match made offers an opportunity for them to contribute their skill, ability and expertise – and at the same time – provides them an opportunity to gain access to information, a connection, or build a relationship that furthers their goals.

Simple questions….yet remarkable in how the information learned can make all the difference in providing a meaningful experience for members…..and enable you to tap the vast pool of talent in your membership at the same time. To enable you to share this technique with other volunteer and staff leaders, download a specially-designed tip card.

This technique can be done by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. Its success is dependent on knowing the volunteer opportunities and the ways in which participation will advance members’ goals. Those who have embraced this approach have enjoyed very positive results...including a renewed enthusiasm among existing volunteer leaders, an increase in volunteerism, and a deeper awareness and appreciation for the association by those members who are approached.

Guarantee that your members are out there…unaware…..but with the right conversation will become an invaluable part of your association’s membership community.

So….adjust your lens, adjust your scope……change your world and that of your members.

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Saturday, 09 October 2010 at 9:35 AM


  • Jeffrey Cufaude said:

    Saturday, 09 October 2010 at 11:44 AM

    Love it all, but don't see any need to limit questioning to "what are your concerns?"  I know asking "what keeps you up at night?" is all the range, but we can discover people's passions and what they care about without limiting such interests to being a "concern."

  • Great Shape! Inc (@greatshapeinc) said:

    Tuesday, 12 October 2010 at 12:19 PM

    Love this post! Potential volunteers definitely are all around us. Just last week, one of our project volunteers in Jamaica was spending some free time on the beach and began talking with a woman she met there... who just happens to be a registered nurse and now interested in volunteering on one of our projects next year!

  • Promotional Products said:

    Sunday, 17 October 2010 at 6:39 PM

    These are some great questions to present to potential volunteers, but I think you should add more action questions. Questions that give a call to action and create a motivation within the person.

  • Trish Hudson said:

    Wednesday, 17 November 2010 at 7:36 AM

    Thanks to all who have offered their comments....and yes, more questions are indeed in order.  Apologies for making it sound like it should stop at three. Have found these help begin the discussion, allow people to tell their "story" of who they are and what resonates within them. Knowing their story is the key. Important then to expand the interview in order to find the right match...and then make the offer/ask. And, wonderful story about finding a volunteer on a beach...."volunteers...they're everywhere!"

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