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6 Ways to Work Better with Volunteers - 4/5/2011 -

Managing volunteers requires political savvy and a grasp of group dynamics, human motivation, and leadership. Here are six strategies to improve your interactions with volunteers.

By Liz Griffin

Working with association volunteers can be a high-stakes exercise in diplomacy, according to Cynthia Connor, vice president of professional resources at the American Health Lawyers Association (AHLA). Connor was a recent presenter at a Washington, DC Association Media & Publishing Lunch & Learn titled, "Manage Up, Manage Down.”

Managing volunteers requires political savvy and a grasp of group dynamics, human motivation, and leadership. Here are six key points from her session:

1. Consider what motivates people to volunteer. Initially, association staff should consider what motivates members to volunteer their time. The primary reason most people volunteer is to raise their visibility among peers. But visibility is not the only reason; some volunteer because it connects them to a community while others look for access to the leadership and power base of the association.

2. Manage expectations and clarify roles. Member volunteers are neither vendors nor staff; theirs is an advisory role. However, because volunteers may do tasks that staff members (if they had time) would do, volunteers sometimes believe they are the only point person on a topic or the ultimate decision maker. Connor cited scenarios where volunteers were angry that she chose another subject matter expert to write for the magazine because they felt they "owned” the topic, or they believed that decisions on forthcoming topics should be run by them. Giving up editorial control to volunteers would be untenable for editors. Sometimes volunteers who are very involved in the association "find it hard to share the limelight,” Connor observed. "Managing expectations is key.” Helping members understand their advisory role is important.

3. Identify leaders early on. "Let volunteers voice their opinions but hold onto your core vision” for a project, Connor said. Take advantage of their subject matter expertise, but make sure opinionated volunteers don’t take over discussions. Putting a volunteer in charge of the volunteers is an arrangement that Connor has found advantageous. "It shelters staff from criticism on politically sensitive issues, such as rejecting a member’s manuscript.”

4. Divide and conquer. Effective managers work strategically to manage the size and composition of the group. Some groups are too large to manage effectively, so it helps to find a way to "divide and conquer.” For example, larger tasks can be divvied up among chapter editors or peer reviewers. If there aren’t enough jobs, you can always add another peer reviewer to the group, says Connor.

5. Remind volunteers they are part of a community. Sometimes volunteers promise to do a task and fail to follow through. Keeping people informed of the project’s progress can help motivate a straggler into completing the task. "Guilting them into doing something” is a successful tactic, said Connor with a smile.

6. Remove volunteers and reassign them if they do not fit in. Conflicts can arise that sour relationships when people work in groups. Be sensitive to group dynamics and monitor them carefully. Connor urged attendees not to be afraid to divert a person to a spinoff project if the individual is creating tension in the group. She realized the delicate nature of removing a volunteer/member, calling it "an exercise in high-stakes diplomacy” because you want members to stay involved. But the task is essential to avoid bigger problems down the road.

Her closing words were upbeat: "Project completion and success erases most difficulties.” In addition, giving people a role to play makes members feel important and connected to the organization, which is the very reason that associations exist, said Connor.

Liz Griffin is managing editor for the American Association of School Administrators. 


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