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What Is Your volunteer Culture?

Jn headshot This month’s guest blog post is by Jamie Notter, founding partner, WorkXO

I think a lot of associations have a love/hate relationship with their volunteers. At one level, these folks do a LOT of work — for free — so their contributions are highly valued. We couldn’t accomplish what we do, given our resources, without these members moving the ball forward for us. And on top of that, we are membership organizations, so it’s the members who should really be driving things. These members ARE the association, right?

But there is also the shadow side of volunteers. You know, the ones who push too hard for their own personal agenda or are willing to reverse an entire strategic direction that was set by the leadership simply because they have a different view. These are the volunteers who drive us crazy, but we tend to throw up our hands about it, going back to that conclusion above: It’s THEIR association, so what can we do?

Well, it turns out there’s a lot you can do. Just because volunteers don’t get paid (therefore you can’t really fire them), does NOT mean  they are not subject to one of the most powerful forces you have at your disposal as an organizational leader: organizational culture.

Yes, there is a culture for volunteers. There are expectations about how things get done, and every volunteer has an experience of what it’s like to get things done at your association. They know how agile you are, how much collaboration is valued, how much you rely on technology and what level of transparency is expected from them. Even though they can’t get fired (unless they do something really horrible), the existing culture actually drives their behavior, so if you want different behavior, you need to shift the culture first. So here’s the big problem: We don’t set the culture for volunteers; we let them do that. After all, it’s “their” association.

I don’t think we realize how much value we are destroying by taking that approach. By maintaining a workforce that is that large, operating without a clear culture and having nothing in place to actually hold them accountable to a culture that drives the success of the organization, we are all but guaranteeing mediocrity. And I’m not saying all volunteer cultures are bad. That’s not the point. The point is you don’t know exactly what your volunteer culture is, and even if you do, you have set yourself up to be powerless to change it or shape it in a way that helps you accomplish your mission.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Earlier this year, at WorkXO, we released our Workplace Genome Platform to help organizations align their cultures with what they know is driving success. The platform revolves around an employee survey that helps you understand your culture with the precision and the nuance needed to make real and meaningful change inside your organization.

Now we are applying that same research and methodology to volunteers. We have converted the survey and the rest of the platform into a version that focuses specifically on volunteers. It gathers data from the volunteers themselves and will show you in great detail what your volunteer culture is truly like — across levels, geographic locations and volunteer tenure. Then we’ll help you determine whether that volunteer culture is aligned with what drives your success. Like the regular platform, it includes the survey and a year’s worth of resources and support to ensure the data you collect are converted into actions that generate meaningful change inside the organization.

This has the potential to unlock incredible value. Imagine volunteers who really knew what they were getting into when they signed up, where their routine behaviors were carefully aligned with what drives the results of the whole organization and where their experience as volunteers actually matched what they were promised as they were recruited. Suddenly, the traditional staff vs. volunteer battles would go away, because you’d all clearly be part of the same culture.

For example, here are four of the cultural building blocks on which we collect data in the survey:

  • If a process, procedure or approach is not working, we can correct it with ease.
  • People can make decisions and solve problems around here, even if they are not “in charge.”
  • We embrace change in this organization.
  • We eliminate activity that doesn’t move us toward our goal.

Again, these are just four of 64 different measures. When you start to see how different volunteer groups experience the culture and can pinpoint the contradictions and other patterns, it will open your eyes to the areas that need to shift in order for you to be more successful as an organization.

If you’d like more information on the program, please fill out our contact form and mention the Volunteer Edition, and we’ll get materials out to you.

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