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

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.
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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

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.
Volunteer Pathway Levels. Credit: Mariner Management

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: the key to a mutually beneficial chapter volunteer management model

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.

In our next post, we’ll focus on volunteer competencies and their role in the volunteer learning 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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