The Painful Death of Volunteerism

Many communities, if not most communities, suffer from a lack of volunteers. People are busier than ever, and their time is precious. After a full day’s work, it seems like a real waste of that precious time to spend it at a stuporous Board or Committee meeting. The result is that year after year, Boards discover they can’t find anyone to take their place on the Board, or on one of their committees. The result: Communities end up being managed by a small group of the same folks for a very long time.

The Causes

Setting aside the “busy” factor – why are we losing volunteers? Well, from where I sit as a Board member on my own association, and as a former manager and current consultant, the death of volunteerism in a community can almost always be traced back to the Board of Directors. Not that the Board intentionally drives away volunteers, but often Boards, or the President of the Board, make(s) the mistake of treating volunteers like employees. By that I mean handling the volunteers as if s/he is being remunerated in cash for their hours of work. Thus, the Board doesn’t put a lot of thought in to nurturing the volunteer, placing them in the right position, listening to their contribution, allowing them to take initiative or acknowledge their input. Bottom line: This just doesn’t work because volunteers receive their remuneration through satisfaction of participating in the process, not in a paycheck. In fact, it’s that lack of satisfaction, that frustration, that ends volunteerism, one by one, person by person. Let’s break that end down to the elements. Then let’s talk about how to fix it.

Ignoring Volunteer Input

If I had to name the number one killer of volunteerism, it would be Boards who ignore the input of their volunteers – be they individual Board members or committee members. Now, in our business we all know that some committees are appointed just to keep the “squeaky wheels” busy (the ‘ad-hoc folks), but even their input must not be ignored. The reason I believe this happens is that many Board are under the false belief that acknowledging the input of volunteers means 1) The Board agrees with the input and 2) the idea must be implemented.

This is wrong!

The input of any volunteer – Board member or committee member – is just that: Input. That input does not have to be agreed with or followed, but it must be acknowledged. If it’s not, don’t be surprised when the volunteer refuses to take on another task, or take it on and produce results reluctantly, or even resigns. By not acknowledging previous input, the Board sets the volunteer up for serious frustration, even anger. Worse yet, the Board sets itself up for future failure with that volunteer – and maybe others. Who loses? The community.

Micromanaging

Everyone knows about micromanagers, because we’ve all had one (or more!) with whom we’ve had to deal. Nothing is more miserable than working for a micromanager, except maybe being micromanaged as a volunteer. Boards or Board members, often at a loss on how to operate within the community association structure, will try to keep a hand in everything in an attempt to understand or keep track of what’s going on. Unfortunately, this usually leads to the micromanager not really knowing what’s going on at any one time because there is too much of which to keep track. Those charged with a particular discipline – the landscape committee, for example – don’t appreciate being undermined by a micromanaging Board President who calls the contractor to make sure the information the committee presented is “correct.” Now things start falling through the cracks – because the committee takes on a “Why bother?” attitude, and rightly so. Focused on detail in a misguided attempt at control – or a misguided attempt to feed an ego – micromanagers will either stop volunteerism in its tracks every time or foster sabotage as revenge. Either way, the community at large is the loser.

Note to Boards: If you don’t trust your volunteer committee members, get new ones.

Lack of (Timely) Follow Up

Like it or not, if you are on a Board of Directors, especially if you are the President, you are going to be the de facto leader of the community. This means fellow Board members, Committee members and homeowners are going to phone or email you individually or as a group, looking for direction, absolution, leadership, or use you just as a sounding board (no pun intended). This also means when you take on one of these roles, you must, must, must answer email, return phone calls and make personal visits in a timely manner. Not doing so makes volunteers feel as if their input is worth little to nothing, and send homeowners over the edge. Follow up and get used to it. Who wins? The community.

Appointing People to Positions Don't Suit Them

In business, we wouldn’t dream of hiring a plumber to replace the roof, or a podiatrist to perform a root canal. Yet many times Boards recruit and appoint people for volunteer positions (assuming here that there are volunteers to choose from) without taking in to account whether or not that person has the required skill or knowledge base, whether or not their personal attributes will be a hindrance or an asset, and whether or not that person can commit the time involved in the volunteer position. In other words, Boards will have a tendency to appoint any port in storm, without making sure that person is suited to that position.

If a person lacks leadership skills, or dislikes dealing with the membership, being President of the Board probably isn’t the best place for him/her, but that doesn’t mean s/he shouldn’t be on the Board where they can make a valuable contribution. Congruently, if you have a skilled financial analyst, you would appoint them Treasurer, taking advantage of the expertise they bring to the organization. Anytime it’s possible, Boards and their management staff should try to match the volunteer’s strengths with position best suited for them. It’s win-win: The volunteer feels needed and able to contribute to the greater good, isn’t frustrated and the community reaps the benefits of a member’s unpaid expertise.

Unproductive Meetings 

It is my experience that meetings can take on a life (death?) of their own for one of three reasons, or a combination of all:

  1. We don’t have enough information at hand on which to make a decision, or
  2. We are afraid to make a decision, or
  3. We just like to pontificate

How many meetings have managers, Board members and committee members sat through with their eyes rolling back in their heads, waking up only to check their watch every ten minutes? ALL OF US. The problem is, some of us don’t know that we are the cause of those never-ending meetings because we don’t want to admit that we don’t know what we don’t know. Endless debate over meaningless minutia or non-agenda items doesn’t change that fact, so, get the facts you need prior to the meeting. This will help your Board or committee make timely decisions. In addition, all meetings, even committee meetings, should have an agenda. Speak only to those items on the agenda, those not on the agenda go under New Business at the next meeting. Period. Unproductive, long – and, well, stupid – meetings kill volunteerism. Unproductive, long and stupid NIGHT meetings kill it even faster.

The Fix!

The good news is, volunteerism can be saved, resurrected and thrive with a few simple operational tools the Board can adopt.

Adopt a Mission and Vision Statement

Adopting a Mission Statement and a Vision Statement give the Board (and community) focus on where they want to go and how they will get there.

Adopt Governing Policies

All Boards should adopt a governing policy, or a method of standardized operation. For example, adopting Roberts Rules of Order prevents disorganized, long and unproductive meetings and gives Boards a tried and true platform on which they can hold effective meetings. Adopting further policies or methods of operation delineating responsibilities and accountability will keep the Board even more focused and organized.

Adopt Policies Governing Committee Operations

All Boards should give their committees a standardized guideline on how the committee is expected to conduct itself in relation to committee meetings, and on to interact with management the Board and owners.

Conduct Annual Strategic Planning

Board, along with their committees should conduct annual strategic planning sessions and set Goals and Objectives for the coming year. Sounds cumbersome, but it is surprising how many more goals are achieved once there is established yearly accountability and review. Annual Strategic Planning conducted by an impartial third party can save Boards and Committees hours of volunteer time over the course of a year by giving the entire volunteering entity (and staff) clear direction on which goals are important to achieve on behalf of the community.

Acknowledgement: Long and loud and public 

At every turn, the Board must, must, must acknowledge its volunteers and their hours of hard work and service. In newsletters, in person, at meetings, on the website, it is the responsibility of the Board, and in particular incumbent upon the President, to “spin the halos” of each and every one of those valued team members who work for the common goal of the betterment of the community. This continual acknowledgment shows a firm commitment on the part of the Association to its volunteer staff, without whom any one left would be doing a lot more work. Acknowledge those volunteers long, loud and publicly.

Want to foster new volunteers? Provide Outstanding, positive communication with all owners.

Most Board members are happy to serve their terms, but want to be able to turn the reins over to other qualified members when the time is right. Another way to foster volunteerism is to continually publish positive communication with the membership as a whole. This means a monthly newsletter that is more than “Don’t park here!” and “Pick up after your dog!” because Good News Means Good Morale! There are several newsletter services out there that specialize in associations that can, for a very reasonable price, produce professional newsletters for your communities. Remember, where there is a communication vacuum, it will be filled with rumor and innuendo which grows exponentially at cocktail time. Continual positive communication from the association fosters volunteerism. People want to contribute to a positive, forward moving entity. Be and project that image – and they will come.

Why do we want volunteers for our communities? Not only because associations could not function without their volunteers, but because promoting and nurturing volunteerism encourages process participation, develops unity and community pride. Not to mention it provides cost-effective services to the community. Maybe most importantly, it is a doorway to new Board members. Boards of Directors must remember that volunteers are not employees, and cannot be treated as if they receive a paycheck for their hard work. Boards must realize that volunteers, while giving to the community should be receiving something in return: A feeling that they are a welcomed and appreciated part of the process. Indeed, that is the very essence and intent of a community association: To be governed by volunteers for the greater good of all.


Julie Adamen is the President of Adamen Inc., a consulting and placement firm specializing in the community management industry. She can be reached through her website, www.adamen-inc.com.

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