volunteerVolunteers are integral to an association’s success. After all, many associations don’t even have a full-time staff person, let alone the paid people power to execute major events.

But it seems to be, we’re in the middle of a volunteer recession, according to a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, the volunteering rate for 2013 was the lowest since 2002, when the BLS started collecting its data.


So what can associations do to buck this trend?

For starters, they can offer their volunteers personal and professional pay-off. Too often, an organization’s message to potential volunteers is overly heavy on “here’s what you can do for us,” and very light on “here’s how it’ll benefit you.” Of course, the benefit balance should be weighted toward the organization – the entire notion of volunteering is one of service and support, but the volunteer’s satisfaction matters, too.

Indeed, people volunteer for a host of reasons, many of them are not altruistic. If you want to recruit and, especially, retain volunteers for your association, you’ll need to be able to answer their key question: What’s in it for me?

If you’re looking to get more volunteers pitching in at your association, here are a few steps to take.


1. Find out what motivates your members. Some of your members will volunteer for the opportunity to make professional contacts and advance their career. Others will be new to the area or to the profession and simply want to get to know like-minded people. Take the mystery out of your recruitment process and simply ask your members what sorts of opportunities interest them. You may be surprised by the results. Also, be sure to do this on a regular basis, with new members joining annually, the pulse of priorities is likely to change.


2. Ask them to volunteer. The BLS report notes that 41 percent of people who volunteered did so because they were asked. If you’re saying to yourself, “we ask our members to volunteer all the time and no one does”, take a look at what you mean by “ask.” If your request comes in the form of a mass e-mail, or an item in an e-newsletter, don’t be surprised that you’re not getting much response. Take the personalized information you’ve gathered in step 1, and when an opportunity arises, call or email your members individually and ask for their help. They’ll likely be flattered, but more importantly, incentivized to volunteer when the opportunity aligns with his or her passion points.


3. Make it meaningful. A lot of volunteer work is grunt work – envelopes need to be stuffed and data compiled. If you stick Volunteer Sally in a small office by herself to work on her task, she’s likely going to be productive – and unfulfilled. Instead, put her in a central office where she can observe the organization’s operations, and make sure everyone who encounters her says hello and learns her name. Not only will she feel integrated into the organization, but will look forward to helping out again.


4. Thank them. Even the most altruistic among us like to feel appreciated. Make a point of verbally thanking volunteers at the time of their service, and consider a follow-up note. The art of a handwritten thank you is lost today and it’s a sure way to make those feel appreciated.


5. Follow up. Dissatisfied volunteers generally just fade away rather than speak up, so focused follow-up regarding their experience will give you the chance to address any issues. If volunteers have helped with a major project, ask for their feedback on how it went. They may have valuable insights to share, and they’ll appreciate having their opinion valued. Encourage them to suggest additional projects where they can really use their talents.


Follow these steps and positive word-of-mouth will ensure the recruitment process starts to take care of itself.


What are your surefire ways to recruit and retain volunteers?