The pandemic presented many challenges for associations when it comes to engaging their volunteers. That’s why we put our Volunteer Engagement specialist, Erin Spink, on task to help us dive deep and provide our clients with tips and ideas to help you navigate this complex time. Building on ground-breaking international research, Erin identified the 5 best practices for Volunteer Engagement in the pandemic and beyond. These latest findings were showcased during the first in our series of Volunteer Engagement webinars – tapping into our in-house expertise on the subject.
The Webinar and Research Findings
Our in-house subject matter expert and an internationally recognized writer and trainer in Volunteer Engagement mentioned above, Erin, was joined by Jamie Beaulieu – a Senior Vice President at American Bankers Association (ABA). Jamie is an award winning association executive with over 20 years’ experience across multiple sectors, and her experiences at ABA provided some useful cases studies and helped us to enrich our findings with real-life examples.
The research conducted in partnership with Volunteer Canada and Volunteer Management Professionals of Canada (VMPC), found that the Covid-19 pandemic created fundamental shifts in volunteering – most significantly in how organizations involve volunteers and how volunteers want to be involved with organizations.
There were some silver-linings; virtual volunteering provided some flexibility and opportunities to improve technological skills of staff and volunteers. It also attracts new volunteers who took advantage of remote settings. However, many respondents experienced that they now either had too many or too few volunteers. Not all volunteering can be done remotely, affecting access for those with health and safety concerns and many volunteers experienced Zoom burnout. Further, face-to-face contact has been reduced which has had a significant impact on engagement.
During the webinar, Erin and Jamie shared real-life examples of how best practices were brought to life with associations to engage their volunteers.
5 Best Practices for Engaging Volunteers
1. Lead with Heart
For many people there has been significant loss and grieving over the last two years. Not only the loss of loved ones, but also loss of employment, social connectivity and free-time. Many parents were also forced to juggle work with home-schooling, causing them to feel even more burn-out. That’s why it’s always important to remember that volunteering is one of many hats that people wear, and their ability to gift you their time is significantly impacted by different things happening in their lives.
At Managing Matters we’ve seen a number of common scenarios with volunteers who need to step back from duties. As a result we learned that people need different kinds of support. Some need more social interaction, while others might need to stick to an agenda and finish meetings on time. It’s more important than ever to lead with empathy and make space for provisions to meet these differing needs.
2. Embed the Social Aspect and Connections
There are many reasons why people volunteer. The main one is to make an impact on something they’re passionate about, but many also volunteer to expand their networks and make social connections.
Through the pandemic we lost many face-to-face connections and opportunities for informal conversation. It forced us to make connections in different ways and we’ve learned that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Your association could experiment with different tactics like having a coffee hour to bring back those water cooler chats. ABA implemented quarterly Peer Exchange sessions, , which offered the opportunity to have small group discussions around topics of importance. This not only provided social engagement, but also allowed staff a direct line to their members’ needs.
Keep in mind: virtual engagement mechanisms don’t need to be a pandemic Band-Aid.
3. Make it Count
Time is precious and volunteers want to use their time to have an impact. Associations and companies need to walk the fine line between fun and productivity – a balance which can be difficult to find.
At Managing Matters we suggest inviting people who want spend some time on informal chat to start earlier and end later, while respecting the agenda and timelines of meetings. We also suggest making extra-curricular social activities non-mandatory – allowing those craving social interactions to participate but being empathetic to those who struggle with finding time for their volunteer role.
4. Be Flexible
We must meet our members where they are. Especially in international business, some associations are back fully in the office, some are still working remotely, while others are taking the hybrid approach. As meetings and events go back to being held in-person, make sure there are virtual options. COVID-19 still poses a risk to health and many are not comfortable with face-to-face social interaction.
The more flexible we can be, the more valuable we become to our members.
5. Communication Matters
In the pandemic we heard from our members and volunteers – they all had either too much or too little communication. We’ve seen an increase in the demand for communication to both members and volunteers with some thinking more is more. As some of those communications grew in frequency, the engagement dropped.
We found that to make your communications effective we need to incorporate all the four approaches described above: lead with heart; embed the social aspect; make it count and be flexible. Embrace multiple channels of communication. Not everyone is reading your emails and you need to repeat critical messaging and change the format to keep the volunteers engaged. Consider making communications two-ways and pick up the phone!
We had some amazing questions from our participants and created some top-tips based on these inquiries:
Leverage technology to increase engagement: Zoom is great for breakout rooms and somewhat informal discussions – bringing the social aspect of volunteering back to life. Doodle can be used to streamline scheduling of meetings, reducing the number of email exchanges. Platforms like Miro are great for interactive brainstorming sessions, often difficult to lead in a virtual setting.
How to break up with volunteers: Term limits are important – if your association doesn’t have them, do strategic planning exercises every three years or more frequently if necessary. These will allow your association to populate the committee with the people and skills that correspond with your strategic objectives.
Grey-zone between supporters and volunteers: as some volunteers step back and certain roles can’t operate remotely, many volunteers have ceased to be active and are acting more as supporters of organizations. This posed many challenges, such as having to keep on top of several different communications audiences. To solve this, don’t be afraid to be upfront! Let your inactive volunteers know that you’ve reached out a few times, not heard back from them and that you don’t want to lose their support. However, since you’ve not heard back, you’re going to presume that they want to be a general supporter rather than an active volunteer at this time. Also be sure to keep the door open – let them know how to get in-touch when they’re ready to become active volunteers again.
If you’re looking for more advice from our leading Association Volunteer Engagement experts visit our blog, or connect with us directly! Make sure you follow us on our social media channels – we’ll be announcing our next webinar soon!