How to Start Building the Chapter Volunteer Learning Journey for Your Association and Chapters

The pandemic, social injustice, and economic struggles have taken a toll. People are tired and fragile, including your volunteer leaders, especially those at your chapters, many of whom can’t find anyone to step up and take over chapter leadership. Members say they don’t have the bandwidth to volunteer. The ones who do agree to serve don’t want to dedicate that much time to training sessions.

Volunteer training is a tough sell when it’s not aligned with a member’s goals. But training has to be aligned with the association’s goals too, otherwise, volunteers won’t have a sufficient understanding of association operations and governance; committee chairs won’t be prepared to lead a team or facilitate a meeting; and board members won’t have the necessary leadership skills or strategic mindset.

A more sustainable, mutually beneficial volunteer model would help, say Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, of Mariner Management, and Kristine Metter, MS, CAE, of Crystal Lake Partners. They’ve been working on a volunteer model that offers resilience to busy, stressed out members and staff. By aligning volunteer training with a member’s motivations and aspirations, members feel a sense of progress and accomplishment as they move along the volunteer pathway. This model—the volunteer learning journey—treats volunteers as lifelong learners, fits their busy lifestyle, and helps them fulfill their aspirations.

When Peggy and Kristine introduced the volunteer learning journey model to an advisory group of association executives and component relations professionals (CRPs), the feedback was positive. Because the model encompassed the entire volunteer journey, the group described it as a refreshing and holistic approach to volunteer management. Its design could involve staff teams from across the organization—membership, education, and governance, in addition to CRPs. The advisory group believes this approach takes the volunteer conversation up a couple of notches.

We’d like to thank our advisory group members:

  • Michelle Champion, CAE, California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Lindsay Currie, CAE, Council on Undergraduate Research
  • Ann Dorough, CAE, American Institute of Architects
  • Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD, CAE, California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Becky Folger, American Mensa
  • David Jennings, CAE, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Community Associations Institute
  • Wendy Mann, CAE, CREW Network
  • Susan Mosedale, IOM, CAE, ASIS International
  • Diana Tucker, CAE, NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association

Introducing the Volunteer Learning Journey—A Mutually Beneficial Chapter Volunteer Management Model

The volunteer learning journey is modeled on the customer journey we explored during the Association Component Exchange (CEX) a few years ago. During CEX, we took that concept and worked together on mapping chapter member journeys. Peggy and Kristine also drew on the learner journey concept for association education programs described on the TopClass LMS by WBT Systems blog.

The volunteer learning journey helps you visualize volunteer and association needs and desires for each level of volunteering—from first-time volunteer to board member. It helps you map out a volunteer training and development program that teaches volunteers the skills they need to succeed in different roles—skills they can use to both serve your association and advance their career or grow their business.

This series of blog posts shows you the entire spectrum of possibilities for designing a volunteer learning journey as a framework for volunteer management, but you can pick which elements you want to use. You may not have the bandwidth or resources to implement all the pieces we describe, and that’s okay. Focus only on a few volunteer roles to start.

Keep in mind the ultimate goals of this learning journey concept: providing volunteer experiences that fulfill a member’s motivations and aspirations and designing a framework for training volunteers and developing their skills so they’re prepared to take the next step in their volunteer and leadership journey.

The volunteer pathway is shown as a set of colorful footsteps with the following levels described with text: new/emerging volunteer, learning volunteer, new volunteer leader, experienced volunteer leader, strategic volunteer leader.

Envisioning the Volunteer Pathway

Every journey starts with a road or trail. In this case, we’re starting with a pathway through the volunteer experience. In their work over the past decade, Mariner Management has identified five learning and development levels for volunteers:

  1. Emerging or new volunteer
  2. Learning volunteer
  3. New volunteer leader
  4. Experienced volunteer leader
  5. Strategic volunteer leader

Each level consists of a variety of volunteer roles with their own specific skill requirements. At each level, members have different motivations and needs. Some members proceed through the pathway one level after another, but you can also expect members to start at different levels and to dip in and out of different levels. For example, a member may be new to volunteering with your association or chapter but has many years of volunteer leadership experience elsewhere. Or a member may drop down to a lower level of volunteering because of increased home or work responsibilities.


Volunteer Motivations

Associations usually ask what a volunteer wants to do but not why they want to do it. Knowing the ‘why’ is essential so you can offer a volunteer learning journey that aligns with a member’s motivations and aspirations. Members are more likely to invest the time in training if it helps them achieve their goals. A volunteer who’s motivated to develop their skills is a volunteer who can help your organization achieve its goals now or in the future—that’s a mutually beneficial volunteer relationship.

Members come to volunteering with many different motivations, and these motivations change over time. For example, they may want to:

  • Deepen their understanding of the profession or industry.
  • Improve their technical skills or professional soft skills.
  • Become a leader.
  • Gather business intelligence.
  • Gain new business.
  • Give back to the association or profession/industry.
  • Expand their personal/professional network.
  • Build their reputation or personal brand.


The key to a mutually beneficial relationship is matching a volunteer’s motivations to the appropriate volunteer role and projecting next steps in their volunteer learning journey. For example, if a volunteer wants to acquire writing and editing experience while building their reputation, they can write an article or two for the chapter or association newsletter. If that works out, the next step could be editing the chapter newsletter for several months. But first, they’re encouraged to watch a series of videos put together by the association’s communications team about editing and publishing newsletters. You’re helping the member achieve their goals while learning valuable new skills that will help the chapter. The member could also use these skills to help other chapters as a newsletter advisor—releasing you from some of your duties.

Mapping the Chapter Volunteer Competencies Needed Along the Volunteer Pathway

Where are all the chapter volunteers? You’d think with the increasing vaccination rate and the relaxing of social distancing rules, members would come running back to volunteering. But many component relations professionals (CRPs) aren’t seeing this yet. In fact, CRPs are concerned about unfilled chapter leadership positions and exhausted volunteer leaders who need a break.

Even in the best of times, volunteer recruitment and retention are a challenge. What we need, according to Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, of Mariner Management, and Kristine Metter, MS, CAE, of Crystal Lake Partners, is a more sustainable, mutually beneficial volunteer model—and they just happened to have designed one. They recommend identifying a member’s motivations and aligning them with a volunteer learning journey.

As members move along the volunteer pathway, they develop the skills and experience needed for the task at hand and can see what competencies they need to move to the next level of volunteering—the topic of this post.

You may not have the bandwidth or resources to implement all the pieces we describe in this series of posts, and that’s okay. Pick which elements you want to use or focus on only a few volunteer roles to start. This learning journey framework helps you provide volunteer experiences that fulfill a member’s motivations and aspirations, and the training that helps them develop the skills they need to take the next step in their volunteer journey.


Volunteer Competencies Matrix

The volunteer pathway has five levels:

  1. Emerging or new volunteer
  2. Learning volunteer
  3. New volunteer leader
  4. Experienced volunteer leader
  5. Strategic volunteer leader

Within each level, different roles require different competencies. A volunteer competencies matrix shows members the type of skills and knowledge they need for volunteer roles they’re interested in now and for more advanced roles that might interest them in the future.

For each pathway level, the volunteer competencies matrix identifies:

  • Volunteer roles within that level
  • Member characteristics
  • Association-specific knowledge
  • Association governance knowledge
  • Skills needed for the role

For example, a committee vice-chair is a level 3, new volunteer leader, role.

  • Member characteristics: Interested in leading a group of peers, such as a committee in the near future; has a basic understanding of the leadership role.
  • Association knowledge: Understands the association’s strategic plan, relevant programs, and the committee’s charge.
  • Governance knowledge: Understands the basic principles of a not-for-profit organization and the association’s governance structure.
  • Skills: Meeting management, task delegation, listening and responding to feedback, and small group leadership.

A competencies matrix shows volunteers what kind of roles they can take on with the skills and knowledge they possess, and what competencies they need to develop to move to a different role or pathway level. The matrix brings transparency to the volunteer recruitment process by proving it’s not whom you know, but what you know that can take you along the volunteer pathway.

The matrix also demonstrates the value of volunteering as a way to learn and grow. It shows staff and members how to move a new volunteer through the journey. It can help them make potentially awkward conversations go more smoothly. If they know a young member with potential, they can show them what they need to learn to get to the next level. The young member may not want to climb the traditional leadership ladder, and that’s fine, but they must develop the skills and knowledge required for board service.


Staff Committee Liaison Competencies Matrix

Peggy introduced us to an optional but brilliant idea: one of her client associations created a staff committee liaison competencies matrix. The role of committee liaison comes with many association jobs, often as “other duties as assigned.” But rarely does an association recognize and help staff develop the unique competencies required for this role. This matrix spells out the skills and knowledge needed by staff liaisons and professionalizes the committee and volunteer management aspect of many association positions.


Volunteer Training & Development

Before we dive into training for the different volunteer roles in the matrix, let’s first make a distinction between two types of volunteer training:

  • Transactional training
  • Developmental training

Transactional training teaches volunteers the skills and knowledge to do the task or “job” at hand, including volunteer rules and responsibilities. Volunteers usually receive this training during orientation and onboarding, but don’t always learn everything they need.

For example, a membership ambassador is taught how to log in to the member portal, find resources and events on the website, decide what questions to ask the new member, and report back to staff what they learn about the new member. But to excel in this role, the ambassador must also know how to connect membership benefits and experiences to a new member’s goals, align the new member’s interests and concerns with the association’s goals and strategies, and know enough to explain how the association works and who does what on staff.

The purpose of developmental training is to cultivate leaders. Prospective volunteer leaders must develop a certain level of hard (technical, measurable) skills and soft (human, interpersonal) skills before they accept a leadership position. Leadership development doesn’t end once they reach the board level; lifelong learning is a leadership imperative. For example, aspiring leaders must develop competency in strategic thinking, foresight, presentations, difficult conversations, and diversity and inclusion.

As members go through the volunteer learning journey, they move from positions of tactical and operational support to positions of strategic leadership. The benefits of volunteering become obvious since the skills and knowledge they develop can be applied not only to their association “job” but to their real job too.

How to Design a Chapter Volunteer Learning Journey That Empowers Your Members and Association

Here’s a scenario we could live without: chapter volunteer leaders not finding anyone to step up and take over. Members say they don’t have the time or energy to volunteer. The members who do get involved don’t want to spare time for volunteer and leadership training. Without training, how will they be prepared to lead?

In this post, we describe a better scenario—a sustainable, mutually beneficial volunteer management model developed by Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, of Mariner Management, and Kristine Metter, MS, CAE, of Crystal Lake Partners. This model aligns volunteer training with a member’s motivations and aspirations. As members move along the volunteer pathway, they develop the skills and knowledge that prepares them for the next level of volunteering or volunteer leadership.

Earlier in this series, we described the volunteer pathway and the motivations that propel members along that pathway from new volunteer to strategic volunteer leader. We also introduced the volunteer competencies matrix and the two types of training and development to offer during the volunteer learning journey.

You don’t need to tackle the entire volunteer learning journey in one go. Build a competencies matrix for a few volunteer roles, identify the training and development needed for those roles, and build out your program from there.

Now, here’s a scenario we can live with…one that helps you design the learning journey for your volunteers.


Chapter Volunteer Scenarios

Volunteer scenarios help you visualize what happens when a prospective volunteer comes with a particular set of experiences and motivations. Working with the volunteer competencies matrix, you think about different roles for the volunteer and the training and development they need for those roles. The scenarios also help you discover areas where you need to develop additional training content.

For example, in this scenario, the volunteer:

  • Is a mid-career professional with no management experience.
  • Has participated in a few ad hoc volunteering opportunities and is now leading a chapter project.
  • Is in line to become a chapter vice-chair and then chair.
  • Would like to eventually serve on the national board.

Thinking through the scenario, you decide a volunteer like this would need training modules in:

  • Chapter rules and operations
  • Chapter vice chair and chair responsibilities
  • The relationship between the chapter and national/HQ
  • Budgeting and reading financial statements

A volunteer like this would also need leadership development modules in:

  • National/global strategic planning
  • Meeting facilitation
  • Consensus building
  • Leadership

Like the rest of this project, build out the competencies matrix and volunteer scenarios for a few roles to start—that will give you plenty to work with.


Training Gaps Analysis

In the volunteer competencies matrix, you identified the skills and knowledge required for each volunteer role, and existing training for those competencies. The content gaps in your volunteer learning programs are now obvious. Your next step is to prioritize the content you need to find or develop. The competencies matrix is a handy visualization for making a business case for additional resources to develop these volunteer training and development programs.


Education Delivery Methods

Volunteer and leadership training can’t only be offered once or twice a year. The volunteer learning journey depends upon access to year-round training and development in formats that fit busy lives.

You want to eventually offer both in-person and virtual training programs. Some members will jump at the chance to meet their peers from across the country in person. Others will appreciate the opportunity to learn from the comfort of their home or office since they can’t or won’t travel to in-person events because of budget, schedule, or other challenges. Having online educational programs doesn’t leave anyone out.

Provide microlearning programs whenever possible. Microlearning fits into a busy lifestyle because it delivers small chunks of educational content that take 5 to 12 minutes each to consume. Each chunk is focused on a narrow topic and a single learning outcome.

Delivery methods for training and development programs vary:

  • Live instructor-led training: workshops and sessions at an annual conference and leadership training conference—like this leadership summit from CREW Network; online volunteer training and leadership development programs and courses—like NIGP’s Chapter Academy.
  • Live webinars focused on specific topics with interactive exercises and breakout rooms—like ATD’s chapter webinars.
  • Self-study options: on-demand webinars, videos (animated or taped), asynchronous (on-demand) online courses—like this leadership course from the Ontario Real Estate Association.
  • Collaborative or peer-to-peer learning: virtual lunch-and-learns or in-person roundtables; chapter leader and aspiring leader learning circles or peer advisory groups.
  • Resource hub: articles, white papers, tip sheets, check lists, playbook, and other resources on the website, LMS, or member portal—like HLAA’s Chapter Leader Resources and CAMFT’s Chapter Playbook.

You can deliver online education via Zoom or another videoconferencing platform. A learning management system (LMS) is an ideal learning hub because it can host all types of media—and many LMS integrate with Zoom too. With an LMS, you can:

  • Host all resources in one place so volunteers can easily access what they need.
  • Track volunteer progress through courses and programs.
  • Offer self-assessments so volunteers can identify which topics need their attention.
  • Insert quizzes throughout or at the end of programs.
  • Automate notifications to keep volunteers accountable.
  • Provide discussion forums for courses and programs.
  • Award digital badges when volunteers complete programs.

Digital badges are visual proof of the mastery of specific competencies. They can be displayed on a volunteer’s LinkedIn profile or website. Badge metadata provides information about the awarding program and competencies learned. Digital badges are a tangible benefit of volunteering: they provide recognition of the volunteer’s value to their employer, clients, and association.

How to Start Building the Chapter Volunteer Learning Journey for Your Association and Chapters

Members need a break—that’s what we’re hearing from component relations professionals (CRPs) and association staff who work with volunteers. Volunteers are feeling tired and fragile. The past year has worn them out. Chapter leaders are nervously looking around for members to take their place. Are these short-term issues that will work themselves out somehow? Or do chapters and associations need a more sustainable, mutually beneficial volunteering model?

Peggy Hoffman, FASAE, CAE, of Mariner Management, and Kristine Metter, MS, CAE, of Crystal Lake Partners, say it’s the latter, which is why we’ve been talking in this blog post series about a volunteer management model they’re working on together. They recommend identifying a member’s motivations and aspirations, and matching them with an appropriate role in the volunteer pathway. Give volunteers the opportunity to develop the competencies they need for the task at hand but also provide the training and development that will prepare them for roles in the next level of the volunteer pathway.

Earlier we described the volunteer pathway and the importance of understanding volunteer motivations. We introduced the volunteer competencies matrix and the two types of education to offer during the volunteer learning journey. We explained how volunteer scenarios and training gap analysis can help you identify the type of content you need to develop and offer to prepare members for volunteering and leadership.

You may not have the bandwidth or resources to implement all the pieces we’ve discussed—that’s okay. Pick a few volunteer roles to start and build out a competencies matrix and learning journey for them. This learning journey framework will help you provide volunteer experiences that fulfill a member’s motivations and training that helps them develop the skills they need to take the next step in their volunteer or leadership journey.


Starting a Member Out on the Chapter Volunteer Learning Journey

Peggy and Kristine recommend taking a learner-centric approach to the volunteer journey. Don’t just say, “This is what you need to learn.” Instead, make it all transparent so they can see and choose what they need to learn.

Post the volunteer pathway and competencies matrix on your website or member portal. These visual tools educate members about the skills needed for success in different volunteer roles. They can start imagining the possibilities as they see the training and development opportunities available to them if they wish to progress along the volunteer pathway.

[Volunteers] can start imagining the possibilities as they see the training and development opportunities available to them.

Appeal to a member’s intrinsic motivation. This learning journey is self-directed. They’re in control of their destiny as they gain mastery of the competencies required to advance.

The member may know exactly what they want or may have some sense of it. With the help of visual tools like the volunteer pathway and competencies matrix, staff and chapter leaders can help the member see their way forward and see what they need to do and learn along the way.

Another useful tool is a volunteer self-assessment tool, such as the one developed by AHIMA, American Health Information Management Association. Offer a self-assessment at the beginning of a volunteer journey or whenever a member returns to volunteering. A self-assessment is an exercise in self-awareness—an opportunity to reflect on motivations and aspirations, the real reason they’re volunteering. It includes guiding questions the member tackles on their own or during an interview with staff or a member who’s been trained as a volunteer advisor. You can strongly suggest or encourage this self-assessment as part of volunteer recruitment, orientation, or onboarding.


Your Association’s Next Steps in Building a Volunteer Learning Journey

The mind is willing, but is your association? In their Creating Association ROI Through Volunteer Training toolkit, Peggy and Kristine explain how to determine your association’s readiness level for developing a volunteer learning journey.

First, take a hard look at your association’s volunteer strategy—the organizational mindset on volunteers.

  • To what extent does staff understand the importance of volunteers to your association?
  • Is there a willingness to invest in volunteers?
  • To what extent do you work with volunteers as continuous learners?
  • Are you open to acknowledging there are many volunteer pathways through your organization?

Consider whether the status quo is sustainable. Recognize issues for what they are—often symptoms of undiagnosed problems. Here’s a common one in associations and chapters: board members don’t have a strategic mindset. If board members don’t already have a strategic mindset when they show up for board orientation, then you have a problem. The remedy by now is obvious: a volunteer learning journey that prepares them with the skills and knowledge they need for board service.

You may want to design a volunteer learning journey, but what about your colleagues? This effort will gain more traction if CRPs have the cooperation of other departments, such as education/professional development, membership, and governance. The impact of the volunteer learning journey will be felt throughout the organization: more members developing the learning habit, more member engagement and retention, and more volunteers in the leadership pipeline.

  • To what extent can each department contribute essential skills and perspectives in developing your volunteer learning modules?
  • Are other departments working on their own training and development modules? Can you collaborate?

For example, if your association offers a leadership development program to members or to the market, see if you can pull elements of that program into the volunteer learning journey.

Finally, perhaps the biggest hurdle: capacity and bandwidth. Don’t try to do it all at once. Pick and choose the pieces you can handle now given your resources and priorities—perhaps a few volunteer roles to start. For now, you can purchase licenses to leadership development training from external sources, like LinkedIn Learning or Mindtools, or outsource to experienced association and/or chapter leadership trainers like Mariner Management and Crystal Lake Partners.

The volunteer learning journey lifts and inspires members, and alleviates the stress of chapter leaders and staff who are constantly worrying about the leadership pipeline. It provides a framework for training members and developing their skills so they’re prepared to take the next step in their volunteer and leadership journey.


Learn more about the components of the volunteer learning model in the toolkit put together by Peggy and Kristine. You can also watch the recording from our webinar, Let’s Reboot Volunteer Training.


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About the author

Sarah has a soft-spot for component relations professionals (CRPs), creating amazing experiences, and having a good laugh. She focuses her time at Billhighway on building and delivering chapter-focused resources, creating unique experiences for CRPs through webinars, events and the one-of-a-kind Component Exchange (CEX). Sarah is passionate about exploring new ideas and trying new things. What we really want to say is Sarah is a component bad@$$ who is sure to put a smile on your face.