Every time a bell rings, a volunteer gets his wings – Guest Post by Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, CMP

Once again, I’m honored to present another guest blogger to Association Advocacy Chick.  He’s Aaron Wolowiec, MSA, CAE, CMP, director of education and associate partnerships for the Health Care Association of Michigan, DELP scholar, and chair of ASAE’s Young Association Executives Committee. In today’s post, he examines the sometimes complicated relationship between volunteers and staff.  You can reach Aaron by email: aaron.wolowiec@gmail.com or Twitter: @aaronwolowiec

During a recent conversation with my mentor, we discussed some of the challenges I face as a manager of volunteer relations. As is often the case, the volunteers with whom I work on an ongoing basis are brilliant sources of ideas, opinions and feedback; however, where the rubber meets the road, engagement, commitment and actual work product are quick to wane. In fact, it’s often difficult to access these individuals between face-to-face meetings.

Ultimately, the function of volunteer relations is not my primary responsibility or area of expertise; however, I know this is not a problem new to me or the association community. Rather, what’s concerned me lately is how some of these leaders approach their volunteer work. Individuals are becoming unhappy about matters my colleagues and I cannot control – decisions made during a meeting they chose not to attend and perfectly straightforward e-mails interpreted harshly.

In my experience, this has led to more than one volunteer leader approaching a board member about a particular set of circumstances who then raises the concern with an executive-level staff member who ultimately has a conversation about the matter with his or her subordinate. To me, this seems like a very round-about, indirect and punitive way to resolve a seemingly minor misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Nevertheless, my mentor shared with me some advice that has helped reshape my perspective on this issue:

  1. This communication loop is perfectly normal and should be welcomed. It is not the role of a board member to supervise staff; therefore, the best communication channel for such a concern is with the staff member’s supervisor.
  2. A volunteer structure could make or break the satisfaction and output of the volunteer leaders in your organization. Be sure to meet them where they’re at and deliberately support these individuals to successful outcomes.
  3. Volunteers are quick to criticize. It’s the easiest way for these individuals to contribute to their organization. Welcome this feedback – although it may be hard to swallow at times – and incorporate it, as appropriate, into your operations.
  4. Volunteers are slow to congratulate. Your volunteers may take success for granted. Likewise, they may not be sufficiently engaged to know when a new project has been completed or a new milestone reached. Find ways internally to celebrate your accomplishments.
  5. As a volunteer leader, it’s important to always treat your staff liaison the way you would like the volunteers in your organization to treat you. With the holiday season right around the corner, consider the ways you approach your volunteer commitments and follow The Golden Rule.

So, my question to you is this: Do you agree with this advice? Could your volunteer structure use some tweaking – either major or minor? How so? As a volunteer leader, are you too quick to criticize your staff liaison and/or the organization as a whole? How will you thank and congratulate your volunteers this holiday season?


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