Free Leadership Training for Volunteers: A Fair Exchange for Their Time

Despite what your association might be experiencing, volunteerism is strong. A new ASAE Foundation report, A Holistic Approach to Association Volunteer Management, says the total number of volunteers over the past five years has increased (41%) or remained stable (37%).

But the problem is, volunteers aren’t willing to dedicate as many hours as before. As a result, associations are having trouble finding members to serve in leadership positions.

Leadership training for volunteers: a fair exchange for their time

So how do you sweeten the pot? How do you entice members to give up more of their limited and precious time?

Whatever you offer in exchange for their time has to be truly valuable to them. You’re asking for a lot, so you have to give a lot back, not just a plaque of appreciation they stow away in the back of a closet.

People who join associations and then raise their hands for volunteering are career-savvy. They want to get ahead. They see your association as one pathway to success.

What can you give these members that will help them progress along that pathway? I’ll tell you what: leadership training.

You can help members develop the soft skills they can use in any position at work or in their business. Here’s why you should do it: they can use these same skills in their role as a volunteer and, hopefully, as a volunteer leader at your association.  

You’re giving them something of value for their career, but you’re doing it with a worthy ulterior motive.

free leadership training for volunteers

How to position leadership training as a benefit of volunteering

But can’t they get leadership training at work? Maybe. But at work, it’s generic leadership training from an outside company.

Maybe at work, they’re stuck in a meeting room with the same people they see every day in the office or on Zoom. Maybe they’re not comfortable talking about career issues around their higher-ups and office gossips.

This great idea—leadership training for volunteers—only works if you can differentiate it from the training they have access to at work. Your training will be different because it will cover association-related topics—a fair exchange for valuable skills.

Two options for volunteer leadership training

Associations typically offer leadership training programs to members who are stepping into board or committee chair positions. This is far too late! This orientation approach only gives these members a short amount of time to prepare for leadership positions.

Consider this instead: open your leadership training programs to any member who commits to volunteering in any capacity, even microvolunteering. You can afford to do this if you have self-paced online leadership training content. That might take a while for you to develop, but that’s okay. Start slow and tweak as you go.

Free self-paced leadership training programs

Free on-demand leadership training content is a lead generator for volunteering. Identify members who are interested in improving their leadership skills. Nurture them along the microvolunteer-to-volunteer-leader pathway. Not all of them will want to come along for the ride, but that’s okay, you’re still strengthening your relationship with them.

Offer short microlearning modules—videos and articles that are easy to fit into a busy schedule. Invite participants to live events with association and industry leaders who discuss their leadership journey and the leadership skills in demand at their organizations.

Since they’re learning on their own, help these members connect with others. Create a special community for those who are on the leadership learning path. Host group discussions, mentoring programs, and masterminds.

Not everything has to be free—unless you can get sponsors to underwrite these programs. You could charge for live instructor-led online courses and cohort programs. Cohort programs are extremely popular right now. Cohort participants learn from and support each other, often forming lifelong relationships.

The National Association of REALTORS offers a series of free self-paced online courses. The first one covers the basics of volunteer leadership, REALTORS® Excelling in Association Leadership (R.E.A.L.). The topics include:

•    Industry issues and trends
•    Leadership skills
•    Meeting management
•    Governing documents and policies
•    Legal and regulatory activities
•    Visioning, planning, and budgeting

Three additional REALTORS leadership courses ($60 each) build on these skills. They “equip [the volunteer] with the tools, techniques, and practices to become an impactful REALTOR® or association leader.”

free leadership training for volunteers

Application-based leadership training cohorts

Another option is the “academy” route. Emerging or existing leaders apply for a year-long leadership development program. Employers pay the fee, scholarships are awarded, or the program is sponsored, like ASAE’s Diversity Executive Leadership Program. Every leadership academy I came across in my research requires a letter of support from the applicant’s employer.

The Construction Management Association of America’s Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) is a year-long leadership and networking experience. The program, limited to ten members, costs $1,750, with partial and full scholarships available.

CMAA makes the dual purpose of this program clear from the start. The program prepares participants “to assume increasingly responsible roles within your organization, your local CMAA chapter, and within the national committee and governance structure.”

The program includes:

•    Free registration to two CMAA conferences with an invitation to observe leadership meetings. Participants pay their own travel expenses.
•    Meetings with a conference mentor before and during the conference. Here’s an idea: mentors meet with participants throughout the program.
•    Monthly online webinars with a CMAA or industry leader who shares their professional and association experience. ELP participants receive reading related to the topic beforehand.
•    CliftonStrengths assessment. An idea: provide CliftonStrengths certified coaches too.
•    Group project presented at the second conference.

ELP curriculum covers emotional intelligence and professional mindset, leading teams and building relationships, managing transitions and crucial conversations, and strategic planning and goal setting.

After ELP ends, CMAA asks national and chapter leaders to involve participants in chapter event planning and delivery. Via an annual survey, CMAA assesses their professional growth and involvement in chapter or national leadership.

The American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT) offers a program for student members, the Student to Leadership Development Program. This free three-year program “offers students a chance to get to know the ASRT, attend educational sessions, and network with [industry] professionals.”

The coursework is heavy on association topics, including Leadership Academy modules, Online Advocacy Academy modules, mentoring program, and participation in ASRT Communities.

Leadership academies prepare members for chapter and association leadership positions. They attract members who have committed to that path. To entice members into volunteering, offer free modules and short courses that teach the soft skills required for leadership at work and at your association.

leadership training
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