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Associations Now

Your Next Generation of Volunteers

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, July 2009, Feature

By: Susan Wagner

Associations are always looking for fresh faces and perspectives to sit on their committees and boards. The problem is that it's getting harder and harder for many to find them. Take some lessons from teh St. Louis Association of REALTORS. (Titled "Where Are Your Volunteers" in the print edition.)
Summary: It's never easy to get fresh faces on your committees and boards. Add to it veteran members who aren't retiring and who are stuck on the old way of doing things, and you're dealing with an even bigger problem.

Being an association executive for the last 11 years and working with volunteers in four separate associations within the commercial real estate community, I have not observed a significant change in the faces seen in committee meetings, on boards, and at events. Currently, I have members volunteering to sit as directors on more than one of these commercial real estate boards, which can limit the infusion of new participants, ideas, or perspectives. When someone new does volunteer, they often are intimidated or their comments are overshadowed by the veterans and their close-knit group.

New Recruits

Many associations struggle to find volunteers. Here's how three organizations have managed to get members involved:

Make it social. Pam Nintrup says she was always careful to screen potential volunteers when she headed up the Southwest Ohio chapter of the Project Management Institute. "I found that you had to be sure that not only their skills but their personality and work styles are a good match for the existing team," she says. "If you screen potential volunteers to ensure fit, then recruit them personally to make sure it's clear how you feel they can contribute and why they would be a great addition to the volunteer team. It will pay back in the long run."

But she also found great value in making her recruiting efforts fun, both for staff and for potential volunteers. The organization hosted periodic networking events. Potential volunteers received personalized invitations from board members and were then welcomed by those who'd invited them.

These events, she says, were successful in getting new people comfortable with board members and more willing to agree to take on roles themselves than phone calls or other strategies had been.

Nintrup says the organization also paid attention to retaining people who did volunteer. One way it did this was by organizing an annual yacht cruise to recognize and thank active members. "Not only is it easy to retain them, but [you can] also solicit them for other opportunities," she says.

Just ask. Cathy P. Miller, president of TLA, Inc., says she was recently in need of volunteers to help screen young children for their literacy skills. The volunteers had to be trained, and her first call for help resulted in about 40 people—not a bad number, but she needed to screen more than 150 children.

"It's not as easy as just asking a few people and expecting to get a huge return on your meager investment," she says. "It's more about building relationships and building on existing relationships and connections, thinking outside the box to look for volunteers among those who might not otherwise be asked, and developing a range of commitment and time availability to suit your community."

For this project, she asked the initial volunteer group to go back and recommend someone else who might be interested, and then she followed up with those people individually. As a result, she increased the initial volunteer pool by 22 percent and wound up with enough volunteers for her screening.

She says the basic principles she used apply to nearly any situation where new volunteers are needed: ask, be flexible, and continually use the words "thank you."

Be specific. Jim Slusser, president of the American Marketing Association's Tampa Bay Chapter, says his organization uses several simple methods to bring new volunteers in, but all of them require everyone involved to be specific about their needs and the potential volunteers' ability to fulfill them.

"Like many associations, we have a board member who is responsible for coordinating all of our volunteers," he says. "Anytime anybody says they're interested, we forward this information to that board member."

The board member reaches out to the potential volunteers and asks about their experience, interests, and the time they can realistically contribute to the organization. Then, those answers are usually matched up with volunteer roles.

"Some of these people are a little gun shy, and that's totally normal," says Slusser. "A lot of time, we ask them to do a one-time, 45-minute job, like greeting event attendees, that gets them a little face time and lets them put names with faces."

His association keeps detailed, written job descriptions for every volunteer position, so potential volunteers know exactly what they're getting into, and board members can gauge if the new person might be a good fit for a particular job.

"Everybody's clear going in, and it's all very straightforward," he says. "It's a very safe place to experiment and learn if you're new. We want it to be a good fit for everyone. And we have conversations with everyone involved on a regular basis: Is this working for you, are you happy, do we need to change some things?"

Additionally, volunteers on committees or in specific areas meet monthly to discuss projects, policies, and anything else of interest or concern.

"Anytime anybody raises their hand to volunteer, we want them to feel very welcome," says Slusser.

Here at the St. Louis Association of REALTORS, we are guided by bylaws and policies that were established more than 125 years ago. Change is very slow to come to the commercial real estate industry. According to the membership statistics from the National Association of REALTORS, commercial members are 74 percent male and 26 percent female. The median age is 53, meaning older professionals far outnumber recent college graduates. Since its inception more than 15 years ago, the commercial division has only had four women elected to serve on the board of directors and only one female president.

The bylaws and policies of the commercial division were originally written to establish a hierarchy of leadership, electing four new members annually and rotating four members either off the board or up the leadership ladder. The intent was to recruit the leadership of each company as directors and officers, so the association could grow along with its member companies. The current challenge is that the veteran members are not retiring, which means that younger members are not being promoted up the ladder within their own companies. And if they cannot advance within their companies, they cannot fill leadership roles in the association, which makes bringing in fresh faces and perspectives a bit difficult for us.

The Challenges of a Changing Volunteer Pool

The veteran commercial members are used to doing business their own way. We have seen the bylaws used as a weapon to squash new ideas and maintain control. We've definitely had a handful of discussions in which the following phrases have been spoken: "This is how we've always done it," or "When we tried that back in 1989, it didn't work."

The largest membership that I am privileged to work with has almost 1,000 members. Most of these individuals have joined because their superiors are members, not because they are passionate about the association. For the veteran members, joining is what you are "supposed to do" as a real estate professional. Don't get me wrong, these veterans of commercial real estate have a strong commitment to the association and continue to insist that their offices maintain their membership year after year. However, the younger, newer members are looking for a value proposition and return on invested time.

As the two distinct member groups have such different expectations and approaches to their membership, I have had to change the way I interact with each group in order to meld them together. Before attempting to combine the veterans and new members into a functioning group, I evaluate each of the following:

  • Who arrives for which type of event, when do they arrive, and how long do they stay?
  • Who sits with whom during meetings and events? How quickly after their arrival do they sit, and how quickly do they leave at the end?
  • What form of media brings in the volunteers: snail mail, email, e-newsletters, personal invitation, or other means of communication?

A good example of how the above points are relevant to our association's business was our 2009 industry forecast breakfast meeting, which was offered as a traditional four-speaker panel presentation with a keynote. The newer members arrived at the last minute, were not preregistered, intensely networked the room, and left in the middle of the program to go back to their desks. In contrast, the veteran members arrived early, were preregistered and prepaid, networked the room intensely, and then stayed after the program to network further with each other and with the speakers.

Veteran members and newer members also are in different stages of their careers. The veteran members already have an established network of business associates, so it may seem not as important that the association evolve and change. I don't mean to imply that any veteran members would create a barrier to change, just that it may not be as important to their daily business. Newer members, on the other hand, are looking to build those connections to help them in the profession.

Bring in the New Without Losing the Old

No matter the reason that members join, it's up to me, as the association executive, to improve the services offered to them and provide them with an opportunity to network. And at the same time, I must also cultivate and develop new committee members to carry on the mission of the organization.

But before any of this can happen, my staff must first review the list of existing committees and activities. This helps determine which committees are active and valuable to the members and which committees are still around because they've always been around. Here are some of the criteria used to evaluate the various committees:

  • What is the purpose of each event the association offers (i.e., social, educational, income producing, self-sustaining)?
  • Does the event or meeting serve the overall mission of the association? Is it volunteer-driven, or does it rely fully on staff time and resources?
  • Why are events unsuccessful? For example, our commercial membership orientation was discontinued about five years ago. Why was it dropped (i.e., lack of interest, instructor availability, duplication of services, someone's pet project, and so forth)?
  • In an established committee, how long has it been in existence, and how often, if ever, do the members rotate off the committee?
  • What are similar local associations offering their membership that we are not?

Also important to note in all of this is the advent of technology, which makes it easy for members to never have to step foot inside the local association building, make eye contact with staff, or hear about services. When they join the local association, it is either by phone or fax through the membership department. There is no staff person personally welcoming them or explaining the specific benefits of membership. This is definitely a problem. Members can complete their membership details, education requirements, and communication without ever leaving their desk. Why do they need their association membership? Just because an individual or company was a member last year does not mean they will be a member next year.

As I look to the future of the associations I work with, we need to be able to engage the younger, newer members now, so that they will feel a commitment to the association when they do advance within their companies. In order to develop future leadership and foster commitment to the association, we know that a plan of action is required.

We need to engage newer members now, so they will feel a commitment to the association when they advance within their companies.

As a result, staff are developing a number of initiatives that will be executed over the next few years. First, they are taking the lead in developing a program in which we will conduct personal office visits to talk about the commercial division. As part of the presentation, staff will discuss member benefits, activities, committees, and the role of the commercial Realtor within the larger community. Participants will be asked to complete a postcard-sized survey of their interests, complaints they have about the division, suggested meeting topics and legislative activities, and so forth. At the conclusion of the presentation, staff will personally ask the brokers and officers to become active in some way with the association and follow up with them after the fact.

Each sales agent will also be encouraged to participate in the creation of new services or ideas that will help improve the commercial division. Where these new ideas and activities can be implemented, they will be organized by both staff and volunteers and will be directed toward a specific membership group. Doing this may require providing the same services in differing formats, such as offering a traditional breakfast meeting, but then offering that same information as a podcast. While this may require more resources upfront, we hope to meet the expectations of both the veteran and new members by doing so.

With regard to our committees, we are planning to re-evaluate our assignment procedures, including looking at not having our incoming president fully appoint committees, but rather having both appointed and volunteer committee members.

Our hope in doing all of this is to have the commercial division ultimately meet the needs that are most important to our members and prospective members. Ideally, the veteran members will evolve to a point of sharing the history of the association and their experience with the new members. The new members will then garner a greater appreciation of the association's services, and they will eventually become the veterans, passing along the baton to the next generation.

There are signs of change already in our organization. One example is our new thirty-something director. As is typical of many members of his generation, John arrives for meetings at the last minute and leaves as soon as they are completed. But last month, as the conversation around the board table turned to social media and marketing, he began to participate, share his opinion, and talk about the online groups he currently belongs to. At the end of the meeting, he stayed to show two 60-year-old directors his Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages and talk a little about why and how he uses the pages for personal and professional benefits. As a result of this interaction, we have scheduled an official broker networking event. The program topic will be "LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter & More—How to Benefit from Social Networking."

It is very likely to be the staff, not the members, who will be the catalyst to merge the two worlds of veterans and new members. The most successful associations, and the ones that will survive, will be those that find success in merging member services with member expectations—something we're hoping to do in our own organization.

Susan Wagner is commercial division vice president for the St. Louis Association of REALTORS. Email:

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  david roy akena , October 11, 2012
i was wondering how we can be able to join the volunteer association because we are a tour and travel company intending to start up volunteer projects where we volunteer to help the needy
we have a good and motivated volunteer force


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