The Big Drought: COVID’s Toll on Volunteer Engagement and Recruitment

I recently facilitated a discussion for the Virginia Society of Association Executives (VSAE) members called Finding Governance Balance and a New Way Forward. The group shared our thoughts on the increased use of technology required to keep moving forward during the pandemic and the different technologies we adopted for elections, annual meetings, Board meetings, strategic planning, etc. We reflected on which of those changes will carry forward for years to come and which were problematic and will need to revert to their pre-pandemic form. We discovered there were also processes and protocols that will need to be balanced between the way things were done before and after COVID.

As we walked through the various governing topics, one theme that emerged prominently throughout the hour-and-a-half discussion was the significant decrease in volunteer engagement and recruitment. I was surprised to learn that although the group of professionals participating in this meeting were from a broad range of association industries, they had ALL been feeling a shortage of volunteers in general, as well as, less volunteer engagement. So, before our time ended, I thought it prudent to spend some time talking about why recruitment and engagement is low and what we can do to bring the momentum back to the associations; after all, volunteers are the lifeblood of non-profits, and we need them!

While none of us have a crystal ball or are all-knowing, here are my key take-aways from that exchange, plus some additional thoughts that I had upon reflecting on the discussion.

What challenges are we facing today?

Time: These days, people are more judicious about how they spend their time. The pandemic has increased focus on striking a balance between professional and personal life.

Zoom fatigue: The vast majority of association members are proficient at using Zoom. It has become the default way to meet. Gone are the days of “Let’s grab a cup of coffee on Thursday.” The resulting faster online meetings have less depth and greatly reduce social/emotional connection.

Accountability: When Board members don’t know each other, it is difficult to hold each other accountable for engagement. Let’s not underestimate the power of a board dinner, golf outing, pint night, board retreats, or however else your association chooses to engage in teambuilding.

Networking and Volunteer Pipeline Drought: Clearly our current re-envisioned networking mechanisms, whatever they may be, are not working. Maybe this is one of those areas where we need to revert to pre-pandemic techniques.

What can we do to reignite volunteer engagement and recruitment?

  • Ensure your mission is valuable to your members. Communicate the mission and why volunteers are critical to achieving it.
  • Evaluate the purpose of your volunteer opportunities and how you are communicating the job description. Are the opportunities professionally enriching? A learning opportunity? Bring meaning? Cater to one’s already acquired gifts and talents? Realistically, how much time are you asking of the volunteer? And heaven forbid, is it fun or at least interesting?! You may know the answer to all of these questions, or they may seem obvious, but I recommend that you assess whether it is well articulated in your job description.
  • Create micro-volunteer opportunities by evaluating your current positions and determining if they can be subdivided. For example, could a job that requires five hours a week be subdivided into two jobs so that one is a three-hour job and the other a two-hour job? Could that job be filled by two people with clear job responsibilities? If you are able to achieve this, you may entice into service the many who are seeking to strike a better balance of commitments in their lives.
  • Rarely does anyone raise their hand to volunteer, so do not underestimate the power of asking. This not only affirms to the prospective volunteer that they have your vote of confidence, but that they have a mentor or advisor to help them learn the ropes.
  • I was recently asked about providing a stipend to Board members. While that’s not unheard of, I recommend that your Board dedicates ample time to doing its due diligence before going down this road. ASAE has published a fantastic article on it and it’s definitely worth the read if this is something your Board is considering in order to recruit, engage, and retain its leadership.
  • My greatest take-away from the Finding Governance Balance and a New Way Forward meeting is that until associations begin meeting in-person again, they will continue to experience a deficit in engagement. I’m not suggesting you need to jump right into having meetings. We are still in a pandemic after all, so use your best judgement on this. But here’s why Zoom cannot be the ONLY way associations meet in the future:

Networking: How do you meet new members? How do you find out about their interests, gifts, and talents? Without knowing these things, you cannot know who to ask to fill a volunteer opportunity. In-person activities are superior to Zoom when it comes to networking and meeting new people.

Discussion: Discussions just aren’t as in-depth over Zoom. It could be that the absence of body language makes it hard to read the room, causing some to prefer not to speak up. Maybe because it’s easier to be distracted by other things happening around the computer (kids, pets, video game on cell phone, and a host of other tempting diversions). Perhaps there’s uncertainty on how to communicate thoughts in a politically divisive era. It could be a whole range of things, but you get the idea.

Presence: Let’s be honest. We’ve all shown up at our fair share of virtual meetings wearing a professional shirt and comfy pants. The fact of the matter is that when you are in person, when you get dressed, when you show up, your energy is completely different. It’s focused; you are present in the moment. You expect yourself to contribute to the conversation and you expect others will do the same. You might even have side bar discussions, discovering things that you never would have known if you hadn’t struck up that conversation.

Teambuilding: As mentioned before, social outings are critical to accountability, but they also help create a sense of personal connection with each other. Teambuilding is essential to teaching volunteers how to communicate and problem solve with each other and Zoom isn’t the most effective way to facilitate teambuilding.

There you have it. Let’s keep this dialog going. It’s way too important to let drop because we are dependent on our volunteers. What are your thoughts? How is your non-profit experiencing volunteer engagement? What else is contributing to the drought? What other solutions need to be explored?

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