Volunteer SMEs: Your Association Can’t Live Without Them, So How Do You Live More Easily with Them?

One day, you love them. The next day, you want to wring some of their necks. Am I talking about chapter leaders? No, although they too fall into the appreciation/frustration camp. I’m talking about your association’s volunteer SMEs or subject matter experts—the members who contribute their time and expertise to help you develop educational content, provide instruction, and serve on professional development and credentialing committees.

Over the past year, we’ve seen an increase in the number of virtual learning programs and events offered by associations and other organizations. Prospective learners and attendees have been exposed to all kinds of virtual experiences. Their expectations for your online learning programs and conferences are higher now.

This new market reality presents a challenge and an opportunity for improvement. Can your SMEs handle these new conditions? Even before the pandemic, education professionals had concerns about SMEs.

•    Many of the SMEs you rely upon are heading to retirement.
•    SMEs are experts in their topic, but not experts in adult learning.
•    SMEs can sometimes be pains when you’re converting instructor-led programs into online learning programs.
•    SMEs don’t always handle change well.
•    Some SMEs take on too much.

These issues are worrying but not impossible to fix.

Reliance on the usual suspects

It’s tempting to keep relying on the same willing volunteer SMEs year after year. They have the required expertise and don’t need handholding, so they make your life easier. However, many of them will retire in the years ahead.

Besides that, your association would benefit from SMEs with different perspectives and experiences. Virtual engagement allows you to cast a wider net. Programs and committees can be more inclusive when volunteers aren’t required to meet in person. Personal budgets, schedules, and responsibilities make it difficult for many members to participate in on-site programs and meetings.

Bring in the perspectives of younger professionals as advisory SMEs. Their careers are developing in a different world than the one your SMEs experienced. Young professionals have valuable insight on what it’s like to come of age professionally now. They can tell you where they need help, where they see gaps in your programs, and how they like to learn. Hook them now and perhaps they’ll be content SMEs in the future.

volunteer SMEs

Volunteer SMEs are experts in their topic, but not in adult learning

Many SMEs are still only comfortable with the traditional lecture or monologue model of instruction—the sage on the stage with an extensive PowerPoint.

You can’t expect SMEs to know what they don’t know. Their proficiency lies in the expertise they’re bringing to your program, not in adult education. It’s your responsibility to help them improve their teaching skills so learners receive an effective education.

Provide training in adult learning principles, online instructional strategies, and facilitation skills. Some SMEs may be great at leading group discussions in a hotel meeting room, but flounder when doing the same on Zoom. Check in with each of them to learn about their concerns.

Budget training dollars for everyone—veterans and newbies. Use your LMS to provide volunteer training so you can track their progress. See if veterans who teach effectively will coach less experienced instructors. SMEs must commit to training as part of their service because their understanding and application of teaching skills has an enormous impact of the learning experience’s effectiveness.

Obstructing the course conversion process

Every education professional has worked with volunteer SMEs who are territorial and protective of their content, after all, “it’s being working fine all these years.” But your team and instructional designers have to be protective of the learner and be an advocate for their needs. The learner comes first.

During a course conversion project, SMEs must clearly understand the process, and their role and responsibilities. The course content residing in the SME’s head, handouts and PowerPoints is the raw material you must translate into a new medium, the online learning experience. The SMEs are the content experts, but the education team and instructional designers are the learning experts.

You share a common goal: meeting the learner’s needs. If you can keep the focus on the learner, it may help prevent egos (both individual and institutional) from raising hackles during the project. Manage the SME’s expectations from the start. The online course won’t necessarily look the same as their in-person workshop. They must understand why online learners need something different. If you’ve provided training, they will come to this realization on their own. But if they still don’t see it, help them get there.

volunteer SMEs

The need for a motivation or attitude adjustment

If SMEs are not taking to change well, think of ways you can apply the three intrinsic drivers of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. How can you provide opportunities for them to feel these emotions, yet stay aligned with your goals?

A less than enthusiastic attitude may result from them being simply too busy. See if they can share teaching responsibilities with another instructor. Besides providing welcome variety to learners, co-teaching also is a great training opportunity for new instructors.

When longtime volunteers burn out, they don’t always admit it. Instead, they suffer quietly as martyr volunteers. With their identity tied up in their role as a SME, they can’t bring themselves to quit, but they’re no longer finding as much joy in teaching. Individual check-in conversations are essential for spotting these volunteers. Suggest they take time off or assign them a less burdensome special project, so they can still do meaningful work and feel important.

Also consider, is their attitude flagging because of you? Is your association too difficult to work with? Besides teaching, what kind of side work must they do? Examine longstanding routines, processes, and paperwork. Are they absolutely necessary? How do learners benefit? Or is it done to just make you feel more in control?

SME compensation

Maybe SMEs aren’t as enthusiastic because they don’t think you value their contribution fairly. It’s hard to develop a solid partnership when one side feels underappreciated. Imagine what they could charge if they provided this same service to a business. How does your compensation compare?

Compensation is a touchy subject in the association world. Some associations compensate SMEs for their time, others don’t. Sending volunteers some association swag won’t cut it. If you don’t have the budget, what can you provide in exchange for their time and talent?

•    Event and course registrations
•    Comped conference hotel rooms
•    Publications
•    CE credits for credentials
•    Waived membership dues
•    Comped dues for a colleague or client

You won’t get a sufficient budget unless you educate leadership about the changed education landscape. They may think anyone with expertise can teach. Wrong. They also may not realize how customer expectations have changed, and how much of your market is at risk of going to competitors who train and pay their instructors.

SMEs have traditionally been some of the biggest advocates for association programs and membership. For thousands of learners, your SMEs are the face of the association. Give SMEs the training and support they need to provide the best possible educational experience, and you’ll all enjoy a more fruitful partnership in the coming years.

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