How to Recruit & Engage Volunteers in a Time of Virtual Fatigue

Members are strapped for time and burnt out by virtual fatigue. The last thing they want is another online commitment, like regular committee or working group meetings. As a result, many associations are finding it more difficult to recruit new volunteers and get existing volunteers to physically (virtually) and mentally show up for meetings. It’s challenging, but not impossible.

How to recruit and engage volunteers when virtual fatigue is rampant

Much of the work you do as association professionals involves putting your behavioral scientist hat on, and this challenge is no different.

Promote the benefits of volunteering

When promoting volunteer opportunities, describe the impact it can make on members’ lives. Many of them probably never thought about this aspect of volunteering—they just see it as the right thing to do.

Explain how volunteering provides the chance to:

•    Socialize and reduce their isolation.
•    Practice, improve or learn new skills.
•    Boost their resume.
•    Expand their network.
•    Become a contributing member of their professional community.
•    Have a voice.
•    Make a difference.

Connect to your members’ values and aspirations

“This past year has provided some clarity about what matters most in people’s lives, and that clarity will determine where and how they spend their time… you need to make sure that when your volunteers give you their time… the time they give is meaningful and goal driven,” said Annie Storey, CAE, executive director of the Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association.

Review volunteering opportunities to make sure they offer meaningful experiences that connect to your members’ values and align with your association’s goals. No busywork right now—you can outsource that to a temp. When promoting open volunteer positions, spell out how the work moves the association or industry forward. Make it clear what the member will get out of the experience. Don’t assume they know.

virtual fatigue

Clarify and simplify volunteer roles

What truly matters to your association’s mission may have changed during the pandemic. Don’t let volunteers continue on auto-pilot. If you’re struggling to fill volunteer roles, see what you can put on hold so you’re aligning the work of volunteers with what’s most important right now.

In an ASAE Collaborate discussion, Cecilia Sepp, CAE, founder of Rogue Tulips Consulting, said, ”Stop doing so much. Focus on what is essential. Don't create task forces, committees, work groups for everything. Don't do every project. Create a curated, streamlined, focused volunteer program. Always ask: is this contributing to the mission? Is this supporting our organizational goals? Is it enriching our members' experience?”

Design volunteering opportunities that fit your members’ current lifestyle. If they are strapped for time and leery of taking on new commitments, microvolunteering is an excellent solution. Figure out how to divide traditional volunteer roles into smaller (micro) tasks that require less of a time commitment from members. Microvolunteering opens up the benefit of volunteering to more members.

Provide the support your volunteers need

Take on the project manager role for your committees and volunteer groups. Limit the number of projects on a group’s plate. Force them to prioritize and set some initiatives aside for later. Help them manage their responsibilities by breaking projects down into small pieces so they’re less overwhelming.

Volunteers don’t have time for confusion and frustration. Provide clear instructions along with realistic expectations. Set reasonable deadlines and assign reasonable workloads. Don’t be the one to add stress to their lives.

People don’t have time to become martyrs for your association, and if they do, you probably don’t want them taking on leadership roles. Don’t let any member hoard the benefits of volunteering. Show volunteers how to share their work and delegate tasks to others (microvolunteers). This is what leaders do—they provide opportunities for others to contribute too.

Don’t assume committee chairs and other volunteer leaders understand how to lead and manage virtually. Provide training or coaching. Look for resources (videos and articles) that you can include in leadership orientation or send to them during their term. If you use your LMS for leadership training, you can see who’s read the resources and who hasn’t.

Show volunteers how they make a difference

Throughout their experience, remind volunteers how their work contributes to the organization’s strategic plan. Share data demonstrating that progress. Celebrate small wins along the way.

virtual fatigue

Respect their time

Don’t meet for the sake of meeting. If there’s nothing essential to discuss, wait until next month. Become the expert on meeting management and share that knowledge with chairs. To combat Zoom fatigue, experiment with tactics to make meetings less exhausting, for example, more conversations and less droning on. Share the agenda, reports and supporting materials well in advance so volunteers have time to review them.

Allow video-off meetings every now and then. Invite someone to Zoombomb the end of the meeting, perhaps the CEO, board chair or another leader who thanks the volunteers for giving their time and talent.

Offer social connections

Tell volunteers you’ll open up Zoom 15 minutes before meetings and leave it open 15 minutes after so they have a chance to get to know each other, if they wish. Gauge their interest in extracurricular virtual meetups, for example, a coffee chat every once in a while, maybe with other volunteer groups if the numbers aren’t there.

Adopt a buddy system. Ask a veteran to pair up with a newbie. Try to match peers with peers so they have more common ground.

Show volunteers a pathway to leadership

Find out who’s interested in deeper involvement. Suggest additional ways they can build their reputation and contribute their talents.

Treat each volunteer as a person

This rewarding strategy takes time, but you will gain new insight and make volunteers feel appreciated and important. Schedule personal check-ins with volunteers. Find out what they hope to get out of the experience. Ask about their professional aspirations and challenges—great intel for the rest of your association. Elicit their feedback on their volunteer experience.

Look out for your volunteers’ wellbeing

The benefits of volunteering are pretty consistent across associations, but here’s one we haven’t seen… a volunteer wellbeing program. Help your volunteers stay resilient enough to fulfill their responsibilities. This volunteering perk could become the most meaningful demonstration of your association’s appreciation of volunteers.

You could align these efforts with your existing employee program or work with a sponsor to get a wellbeing program off the ground. Develop the wellbeing program in collaboration with a volunteer working group. The program could include:

•    Wellbeing/wellness resources
•    Book club
•    Online challenges, such as 30 days of fitness, meditation, etc.
•    Meditation and yoga virtual meetups

Volunteering itself improves wellbeing, but only if it’s a source of purpose, learning and/or social interaction. Take a hard look at your existing volunteer opportunities to make sure they’re meaningful and rewarding during this stressful time. You could make it your personal mission to create a volunteering experience that members look forward to.

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